April 26, 2003
Isabel told us first a little about her own life and about the Shakers. Isabel lives about fifteen minutes from the Shaker village of Hancock, Massachusetts. She lives in what was originally a log cabin and is the eleventh generation to live on the property. It is a farm which now has five llamas who provide the wool she needs for weaving. The Shaker religion was founded in England by a woman; it was a mixture of some elements from both the Quakers and the Pentacostal sects. The shakers lived together in the Dwelling as sisters and brothers; they were called to live as if in heaven where there are no marriages. The Dwelling or family home was built in 1830 with the most modern conveniences - running water and no open fire boxes for cooking. They wanted to conserve energy and make life easy. The Round Stone Barn was the milking barn where from 1795 until 1940 butter and cheese was made. The village is still a working farm; there are free range chickens, turkeys, sheep; medicinal herbs are grown; the blacksmith fires up the forge every day. Baskets are still made and weaving continues.
In 1960 when there were only three elderly sisters left and it seemed that that life could not continue, the village was bought by the museum. That was the beginning of a new life for the Shaker village. If you visit the farm today, you are invited to participate in many different activities. You can, for example, go to the discovery room and try any of the available fiber arts including spinning and weaving. You can visit all of the Shaker buildings which have been preserved.
You can visit the Basket Shop and sit down and weave using the black ash which is used only by the Shakers. The Shakers learned to weave baskets from the Taconic Indians. Isabel brought with her many examples of beautiful baskets. Among them was round cheese basket (essentially a sieve) and a two-foot high basket with high handles made to gather feathers for pillows. Some of these Taconic baskets are characterized by an indented bottom which served to help balance when used to gather eggs or fruit. Rugs are made on an 18th century two-harness loom. All rugs are recreated Shaker designs.
The Shaker village at Hancock is about three hours from New York. It is wise to call or email ahead. Isabel is there three times a week ordinarily. In the fall there is usually the opportunity to work on the baskets; weaving is more common in the winter.
In the construction of a basket, the aim is to have a sturdy rim and a sturdy bottom. You start out with cut flat reeds and make a grid bottom that is horizontal and vertical; Isabel had brought a grid along and at this point she showed us the next few steps using these raw materials. She showed us how you start with this rectangular grid and then it can be used to make either a round or a square or a rectangular basket. When you have the bottom the desired size, then you lift up the warp - meaning that you bend the reeds up and start to weave up the sides.
You can start with an even or odd number of spokes but since you want the weaving to alternate there are various techniques that can be used to make the spokes into odd numbers. For example there is the start and stop technique or cutting a wide reed in two and it will be unnoticeable as you continue weaving. If the reeds are not wide enough to be cut then you can take the first weaver and weave it in for a while and then leave it hanging so it becomes the odd one. For very fine reeds there is the chase method. Bend the first one about a third of its length and then chase it with the second one. Isabel then explained how to put on the rim and the handles.
In another type of weaving you can start with a round bottom by putting spokes on the diagonals. The Shakers used black ash. Now rattan is imported from China and stained to look like black ash.
The handle distinguished the basket maker. The Shakers made baskets of all shapes and sizes. In those days baskets were not only in use on the farms or in the households to store or gather but they were used in shipping in the 1800's. The Shakers used molds to make exact sizes. When cardboard came along and replaced the baskets, they began to make fancy baskets with cat ears and flowers.
The Shakers made braided rag rugs or wove on looms. Those woven on looms are usually wool on a cotton warp; they are usually chevron stripes, all regular. Leftover yarns can be twisted either clockwise or counterclockwise; 8 to 15 strands of yarn of different weights and different colors. The Shakers used a wheel but Isabel invented the use of a hand drill with a cup hook that works just as well. The yarns need to be measured in advance so that they will either end at the end of a pick or overlap in the middle. You can get an idea of the heft of the weft by making a short sample. The patterns were regular and very symmetrical. So after a while you can make a mirror image. A header can be woven at either end and then can be used to finish the rug with a machine stitch and then folded over and hidden.
Isabel was so explicit in her explanations and had brought so many samples to show us that at the end I wondered how many of us felt as I did- I could go home and weave a basket or a rug if I wanted to and it would be pretty easy if I followed all of these careful directions. What a good feeling! Thank you Isabel.