Weaving an ancient art with a high-tech future

By John Larrabee
Contributing Writer
Weaving is an ancient craft, and one might assume it has largely disappeared in this age of technological innovation. More

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Weaving an ancient art with a high-tech future

WEAVE JUST BEGUN: Sylvia Kilgour of North Easton, Mass., works a loom at the Saunderstown Weaving School. Enrollment at the school has grown to the point where it has a waiting list.
By John Larrabee
Contributing Writer
Posted 11/11/13

Weaving is an ancient craft, and one might assume it has largely disappeared in this age of technological innovation.

But that’s just not the case, at least in Rhode Island. The state is full of people who work with looms. What’s more, weavers have grabbed hold of high technology, working with design software, computer-guided looms and electronic fibers that can light up or even take your pulse.

“We’ll always have textiles,” said Norma Smayda, who has run the Saunderstown Weaving School for the past 39 years. “I’ve seen a resurgence of interest. The number of students at the school has grown year by year. I now have a waiting list. And stores that sell yarn are now selling more and more to weavers.”

To help ensure that trend continues, the Weavers’ Guild of Rhode Island now offers annual scholarships of $1,000 to students who study weaving at Rhode Island School of Design or the University of Rhode Island. To date, they’ve distributed $9,000.

They’ve raised the money by selling a book, “Weaving Designs by Bertha Gray Hayes: Miniature Overshot Patterns.” Hayes was a renowned Providence weaver in the mid-20th century. “She was a delightful little woman who was very well-recognized in the first half of the 20th century,” Smayda said. “She produced at least 92 designs. We wanted to preserve her story.”

The Guild was able to publish the volume thanks to grants from The Rhode Island Foundation and the Edward J. & Virginia M. Routhier Foundation. Smayda authored the text, along with Gretchen White, Jody Brown, and Katharine Schelleng. The book, published by Schiffer Publishing, can be purchased on Amazon for $39.95.

Today, the Weavers Guild has more than 50 members. They meet every month at Slater’s Mill, the Pawtucket mill-turned-museum. The gatherings have featured programs on historic weaving, cloth design and electronic weaving.

Next July the R.I. Convention Center will host an international conference sponsored by the Handweavers Guild of America, an event they are calling Convergence. More than 2,000 people are expected to attend.

In the 21st century, weaving is a mix of old and new. Many weavers still use old-fashioned looms. But at the same time, many practitioners have gone high-tech.

“Now a lot of my students have weaving programs in their computers,” Smayda said. “You can create a design on a computer and translate that to a hand loom. “Today weavers use yarns made from cotton, linen, silk, wool, rayon and even bamboo, a yarn with an eco-friendly reputation. Metlon Corporation, a Cranston company, manufactures metallic yarns and reflective yarns. Both are used to create novelty effects in textiles, and the reflective yarn is used in safety gear as well.

“A few years ago a company in [North Kingstown] had me weaving with a stainless-steel yarn,” Smayda said. “I was making yards of ribbon about an inch wide that could attach to material and carry an electric current.”

For those who take up weaving, there’s no telling how far they’ll go. “Most who study at the school are hobbyists, but for some it becomes something more,” Smayda said. “Some of them exhibit at shows throughout New England and the country. •

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