Cautionary Tale: Beware of Little Old Ladies Weaving Dishtowels
Mary (left) and Alice
In the summer of 1998 I would sit next to Alice Griswold in a class for 'advanced weavers' taught by Randy Darwall. I wasn't in the advanced ball park -- not even in the parking lot - but because we were evaluating each other's work, I figured I wouldn't hurt anybody. In fact, I'd get to see what advanced weaving looked like. And…they needed people to fill the workshop. Win/win. Make that win/win/win. At the end of the day Alice (then 86 years old) told me she was starting a new weaving class that fall. Would I like to come? Of course I would!! I imagined I'd be learning to weave dishtowels from a little old lady -- and that was just fine. I noticed that Darwall kept deferring to Alice, but I didn't put anything together at the time. I also would come to realize that weaving dishtowels can be really hard.
That fall my father came to the end of his life and I was consumed with trips home to Ohio. I couldn't think about weaving. And didn't, until the League of Michigan Handweavers conference in the summer of 1999. I signed up for a course called "Weaving Solutions": a weaver with 50 years experience explains problems and how to fix them. Mistake is my middle name. Perfect course. I didn't recognize the instructor's name until I ended up in the cafeteria line the night before -- right behind Alice. And realized I was in her class. The amount of information she offered was stunning. At the first break I rushed up to her and said, "I need you."
Monday morning I got a call. "Mary, how can I help you?" It was Alice. By September I'd found 5 weavers to start a weaving class, coming to Alice's house all day Saturday, every Saturday for one year. The first day of class Alice gave us a tour of her basement, and set the 90" Crompton and Knowles power loom into action. We were blown away. And Randy Darwall? Alice was a primary source of silk for him. She wove couture fabric, reproduction blankets (for the Smithsonian), short runs (600 yards) for interior designers and would have draperies in the Twin Towers. She and her husband, Howard, in their later years, created a weaving business. Alice would go on to share her self-taught weaving knowledge by teaching. Two of us would continue as students, and we recruited two other weavers. Alice was our mother hen. We were the chicks. The Chicks (Ellen Willson, Nancy Hedberg, and Pat Peters) would continue studying with Alice until she passed at the age of 97, in 2008.
It was during one of those classes that Alice, whose library is now in the Michigan State museum archives, pulled out an Oscar Beriau book: "Home Weaving", published in 1947. She found one of the projects there very helpful in designing leggings for a voyageur event at Fort Michilimackinac, in Michigan. There was something about the book. Can't even say now what it was, but I loved it. Alice's Canadian neighbor gave it to her in 1950, when Alice was beginning to learn weaving. It was her first weaving book. I wanted one badly, and when Alice and I traveled together we always stopped at used bookstores, looking for more books for her library. I was searching for Beriau, with no luck.
In 2001 I took a "weave of absence" from my speech pathology job to study with Alice. During that fall I discovered eBay and found a Beriau book. Sent for it. Excited to find some of the patterns I loved in Alice's book, I found none of the ones I liked. It was an earlier edition. I got on line again and found another. Got it, and there were the drafts I loved. I kept searching. It must have been the time when many old weavers were downsizing -- because I was able to find entire collections along with many mangles to rescue. The French editions had a few colored or tinted photographs of fabrics and there were some differences in the drafts offered and/or the threadings. I got sucked into research. (Never got much past plain weave with Alice….)
From the start, with advice from Alice, I wanted to gather people together to reproduce the Beriau drafts and to then make their own 'new' drafts. And my research started in earnest. I began finding and interviewing individuals in Québec. Without the help of Annette Duchesne Robitaille and François Brassard, in Québec, I would have gone nowhere. My research has been aided by many, many individuals, with a healthy dose of dumb luck. I put everything on hold to go after anyone I thought might still be living. The story of that alone would be a book. In fact, it will be. I'll include the journey and the history in the book I'm now ready to start writing.
I would take Alice along to Quebec for my first interview with M. Leclerc. She was 91 then.
It was with great joy that I got the news from Beryl Moody that my proposal to start a Beriau sampling group through Complex Weavers was accepted. That will launch with the spring journal. And Laura Fry, who early on jumped in to offer a sample, will be the very first! Thank you Laura!!!