The Old Weaver Woman and the Silver Thread

We approach the open door of the old stone grist mill. A light breeze dances through the grass and across my skin, and the wooden waterwheel slowly turns with the lazy current of the cool black water, ker-chunk, ker-chunk, ker-chunk. Three generations of women walk over the threshold; grandmother, mother, and daughter, past, present, and future, out to explore and listening for stories.

Once my eyes adjust to the darkness of the spacious room, I see a little old woman weaving on a huge wooden loom. She’s not quite a fairy tale old woman – who I imagine would have gray, waist length hair, colorful skirts, and bright knowing eyes – but rather a typical sweet grandmotherly lady with short white curly hair, a pink shirt with white shorts, and tennis shoes. I quietly examine the woman and her loom, half hoping she will invite me to sit on the bench with her the way I do when my grandmother plays piano. She smiles, “Would you like to help me?” I nod my head and climb up on the bench. She explains how a weaving loom operates, but being only eight I don’t understand, and instead become fascinated by the dark patina of the wood. Old and beautiful, mysterious and comforting, like this dark room filled with women and history.

GristMillLoom

The old woman instructs me to grab onto the beater and swing it forward to push down the yarn she just wove into place. The beater is heavy, and it requires a good deal of strength from my little arms to bring it forward with enough force against the cloth. She helps me, even though I want to do the whole thing all by myself. I want to press the treadles but they are too far away from my dangling feet. I want to put the yarn into place between the threads. I want her to teach me how to make the loom move in such a perfect rhythm, but I don’t want to be rude. So I sit politely and listen to the soft movements of the loom, up and down, back and forth. And with each new line the old woman weaves, I swing the beater forward. After a few minutes my mom says it’s time to go and let the old weaver woman get back to her work. We say good-bye and walk back into the bright summer day, leaving behind the old loom and the old lady who keeps weaving.

And time keeps moving with every ker-chunk of the waterwheel and thud of the beater.

Twenty years later ( just a couple days ago) my mother told me the story of this loom, since while I had been enamored with its character, the old weaver woman explained how the loom came to be in the mill, in Massachusetts, in America. Sometime before the Revolution, settlers from England stole the loom aboard their ship headed for the Colonies. It was an act of defiance against the British, whose high taxes and regulations on exported goods to the New World kept the settlers dependent. The loom allowed them to create their own textiles, and was a part of the catalyst for the development of a free nation. Where the loom had been kept for all of those hundreds of years is a mystery, but my mom said the woman was a volunteer at the mill, and every now and then she would weave on the old loom and share its story with visitors.

When I was considering studying fiber arts in college, I thought back to this summer day at the grist mill, and the mysteriously magical old loom that I was able to experience. I thought to myself, I think I might really like weaving, maybe I could get a degree in it.  One tiny voice said that’s crazy, and another said to try.  I listened more to the latter, and thoroughly searched for colleges online for a couple months until I found my school. I really had to look to find it, too. I had been to Portland before, and I knew there just had to be a college with a weaving studio in this funky town. I had absolute faith I would find something, like my subconscious already knew that there was a school here.

So it comes as no surprise that the first person I meet who worked at my new college ended up being a great friend, mentor, and support person, and also gave me my current tapestry loom. I dragged that loom with me from one living situation to another, storing it in the corners of living rooms, bed rooms, and basements, never using it, but never able to part with it either. A couple times I would attempt to give it away. I’d remind myself I had owned it for three, four, five years and never used it. But at the last minute I would change my mind, feeling that if I let it go I would deeply regret it. One day a couple of years ago, I came up with a design I wanted to create. I warped the loom, and created my first tapestry weaving since graduating. Not to sound too cliché, but the rest is history.

Now when I look at the picture my mom took of me sitting at the loom with the old weaver woman, I see a little girl fully absorbed in the work of generations of weavers, spanning centuries and continents. There’s no child smiling at the camera, Look! This is where I met a lady who weaves! Isn’t that neat? Instead I’m too engrossed to even notice my mom has taken my picture, Sorry Mom, kind of busy practicing an ancient art form.

If there really is a guiding force in the universe, is it what drew me to the old woman at the loom? Did it inspire me enough so I wouldn’t give up my search until I found a college that had a significantly sized studio packed with so many old looms, you could barely squeeze through? Did it lead me to my friend, the very first person I met the day I moved to Portland, who would give me my loom and therefore start my career as a tapestry artist? Is it what drives me day in and day out to make beautiful weavings and share them with the world? To pursue my medium as if it were food for my body, for my soul? With the encouragement and acknowledgement that I have received from friends and strangers, I do believe that there is a power greater than me at work in my life. It doesn’t hold my hand, instead it guides me along by a thin, unbreakable silver thread. I wish I could know where this silver thread will lead me in the end, but all I need to do is have faith and keep weaving.

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