Thursday, February 5, 2015

Shaker Textile Adventure

My friend Liz and I set out a few days early for the John C. Campbell Folk School last March.  
We made a side trip to Harrodsburg, Kentucky, to visit the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill.

I have been several times to the Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire and to Hancock Shaker Village in western Massachusetts.  I have visited the Shaker Museum & Library in Old Chatham, NY, the site of the New Lebanon community and the Shaker Historical Society Museum in Shaker Heights, Ohio, but I have wanted to visit Pleasant Hill for some time.  It is the only Shaker village museum in the south and there are overnight accomodations in the village.  

We met another fiber friend, Lucy and stayed two nights in a lovely set of rooms in the East Family Sisters Shop.  This is Lucy's room with a double bed - Liz and I had twin beds in the adjoining room and each room had an en suite bathroom.  The rooms were beautifully furnished with simple reproductions and beautiful original built in cupboards.

There are some domestic beasts on the grounds, and it is pleasant to wake to the sounds of lowing cattle.

The Village runs a restaurant in the Trustee's Office which serves breakfast and lunch, and we had several meals there.  The service was excellent, the kitchen accommodated our various dietary requirements  and the setting was gorgeous.


But what we really came for was the old textiles.  I arranged in advance to visit the archives and study some of the textiles.  I teach a class on Shaker Linens and include a Shaker rug in my 18th c. Floor Coverings class.  A few years ago I went with Nanette Davidson of the John C. Campbell Folk School to spend a day in the textile archives at the Hancock Shaker Village - that experience was like opening Pandora's box - it was so exciting so be able to handle and examine these old textiles and there is so much to learn from close examination.

I am very interested in the handwoven linens and rugs, of course, but also in clothing and in knitted and novelty rugs.  I was delighted to find the knitted rug you see above and I hope to eventually reproduce it in some form.

This beautiful little apron was sewn by a 7 year old girl as a gift for another Shaker Sister.   The fabric is handwoven cotton with crammed threads creating the windowpane pattern.  It is elegant in it's simplicity.  
We looked at bonnets, chair tape, braided straw tape for making bonnets, cotton, silk and wool kerchiefs of all sizes and patterns, pen wipers, aprons, socks, sewing boxes, mittens, several dresses, a red wool cloak and a very unusual pair of pajamas in mint condition.

After several hours, we staggered out into the daylight, replenished ourselves with lunch and then returned for more examination, note taking and photography.

On our second day, we toured a textile exhibit and explored the village grounds and buildings.  I was surprised to see signs encouraging visitors to take photographs and share them on Facebook and other social media, as the rules for photography vary widely from one museum to the next.

I had the good fortune to take several weaving classes from Mary Elva Erf when she was still teaching; I took her Shaker Linens class twice and her Shaker Rugs class, too.  At that time she encouraged her students to weave a reproduction of a towel or a rug to donate to one of the Shaker museums, and I eventually wove a fine cotton towel which is at the Canterbury Shaker Village.  It is really exciting to see these reproduction textiles in situ around the museums - as a weaver, I feel it adds so much to the feeling that the living residents have just left the scene.

We spent some time exploring the displays in the Center Family Dwelling and found the permanent weaving exhibit at the back of the first floor, with several looms, a lovely towel display and a number of volunteer weavers busily working away but happy to chat.

The volunteers were weaving blue rag rugs on this old frame loom, using donated hospital scrubs for the rags.  The rugs will be sewn into room size carpets to be used in various buildings in the museum.

Many of the textiles found in Shaker communities were brought into the community by those who joined the movement, and other textiles were woven by Shakers.  The Shakers had 2 and 4 harness looms and wove relatively simple plain weave and twill cloth.  They wove for their own needs but also made items for sale to what they called The World's People.

A free standing warping frame with a skarn or spool rack mounted on the wall

Today, most people know the Shakers for their chairs and possibly other furniture and architecture, but weavers prize the woven tape that was used to weave chair seats, the lovely patterns of cotton and linen towels and clothing fabric and the wonderful ingenuity of their rugs.

The Shakers used cloth strips to weave simple rag rugs, but they also made many rugs with a weft made of several colors of wool yarn twisted together, sometimes in combination with fabric strips.  The yarn and/or fabric would be twisted on the great wheel or walking wheel, turning the wheel clockwise for some of the weft and counterclockwise for some of the weft.  The direction of the wheel creates either an S or a Z twist in the yarn, and when these are used together in a rug a chevron pattern results.

This rug has slightly different colors of wool yarn in the S twist section and the Z twist section, with two different colors of rag strip separating the yarn chevrons - do you see?  There is an inch or so of S twist, an inch of Z twist, a black rag strip, an inch of S, an inch of Z and then a yellow gold rag strip.  I have many photos of rugs from the Hancock Museum archives as well as samples from my classes.

I mentioned the chair tape - here is a Shaker chair with the seat woven with tape.  It looks like a blue and red check from a distance, but when you get up close -

 You can see that the blue tape is a solid color but the red tape is striped red and yellow. 

Some of the chair tapes are plain, but some are quite fancy.  I love the dichotomy of the spare beauty in the lines of the chair and the subtle complexity of the fancy chair tape.

There is something about that simple plain weave checkerboard that I find endlessly satisfying in so many aspects of weaving - it is the basic binary of woven structure,
over and under, over and under,
light and dark, yes and no.

Original handwoven Shaker chair tape, woven into a chair seat

I will leave you with just two more images - a classic Shaker flax wheel and distaff,

and one of the many pairs of staircases that are found in Shaker buildings.  Men and women lived entirely separately in Shaker communities, to the point of having separate entrances and staircases.  I love the lines in these staircases - more S and Z!


Mamacita said...

Thanks for sharing Melissa, beautiful images and welcome details/information! Long before I was a weaver I visited this Shaker Village and would love to go back and focus on textiles!

Carolyn said...

Gorgeous photos!

Joanne said...

There is another Southern Shaker museum! It is right near where I used to live in Kentucky (Bowling Green) and I like it even better than Pleasant's the link, in case you ever get that far west and want to see it:

I always took guests there and never tired of it!
Also, the Kentucky Museum in Bowling Green has an outstanding collection of textiles and tools, including Shaker made wool combs. They are truly something to see, you have to make an appointment to go behind the scenes but it is entirely worth it, their weavings, quilts, and handknit clothing collection is fascinating!

katherine ohara said...

Thank you for your information on shaker tape. It is hard to. Ffind