Tuesday, March 2, 2010

My New Walking Loom

“Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful.” – William Morris

Our newest loom is gorgeous. Made of aromatic Western Red Cedar and legendarily tough Osage Orange, this two-harness walking-loom will weave up to 60 inches across. So it is eminently functional as well as strikingly handsome.

The maker, Carel Blubaugh will be making these looms for sale once ours, the prototype, is finished. His choice of woods is a sustainable use of trees that are usually just cut down and burnt. Most of the loom is made with Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata), also known as Giant Arborvitae is a non-native invasive plant that has spread – and ruined – grazing land all throughout Northern Texas, Oklahoma and into Kansas. It was introduced into its current range as a windbreak tree in 1934 as a way to prevent another Dustbowl.

Considered “junk” wood by most ranchers and farmers, its rich red color, interesting grain patterns, and lovely aroma make it an excellent material for cedar chests and, in this case, looms. In their native habitat in the Pacific northwest these trees often grow to heights of 150-200 feet. They live up to several hundred years. This unfortunate experiment shows that one has to be very careful of the term “native.” A plant may be a “native” of the United States – but it may become a local pest if it is placed in an area where it can flourish wildly, safe from its usual pests and diseases.

Osage Orange (Maclura pomifera), called Bois d’Arc by the early French explorers, traders, and trappers and Hedge (or Horse) Apple by settlers, is a close-grained, tough small tree. Osage Orange occurs naturally in the Red River drainage of Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas and in the Blackland Prairies, Post Oak Savannas, and Chisos Mountains of Texas. Making a tough and nearly impenetrable hedge, this tree has been widely planted throughout the contiguous United States and southeastern Canada. The large, fleshy fruit is not eaten by any native animals today. This is odd, since most types of fruits are used by the plant for seed dispersal. It is considered likely that it might have been a choice fodder for several extinct species of megafauna (such as the Giant Ground Sloth) which died off, or were killed off, by the arrival of humans in the New World.

Besides its use as bow wood, the sawdust is often used as a dye for a golden yellow color that is permanent and light-fast. There are fence posts in northern Oklahoma that are made of Osage Orange and are over a century old. In our new loom it has been used for buffers on the front and back beam to protect the softer cedar from scarring by the warp at tension. It is also being used for the ratchets and axle holders for the cloth and warp beams. Starting off a surprisingly bright yellow, the lumber soon mellows to a rich, honey gold.

Mr. Blubaugh uses wood from trees he cuts himself and renders in his own sawmill. The wood comes from trees that people want cut down anyway. An example of this is the heddle harnesses are made of quarter-sawn White Oak, stained to match the Red Cedar. The loom is wide enough to weave 60 inches across, so it will be used primarily as a rug loom. The reed was made by Jim Wilson of the Gowdey Reed Company.

According to their own web-site, the history of the company goes back a very long way:

In 1834, James Allen Gowdey established Gowdey Reed Company in Providence, Rhode Island to supply the textile industry with loom reeds for use in woolen, silk and cotton mills. Gowdey Reed soon established a reputation for timely, reliable service and unparalleled quality of product. James’ son, David, served a rigorous apprenticeship beginning in 1842. His enthusiasm, inventiveness and ingenuity were rewarded in 1847, when his father ceded control, renaming the company J. A. Gowdey & Son, as was customary.

David’s talent for design and attention to quality details propelled the company to be the largest industrial reed manufacturer in the United States, as well as the oldest in North America. Continuing the “hands on” approach that brought its early success, the company continued to evolve and thrive.

In 1900, James Wilson, a master reed maker with an exemplary reputation throughout the industry, acquired Gowdey Reed Company. Today, his great grandson Jim Wilson, also a master reed maker in addition to being President and General Manager of the company, carries on the tradition of quality and personal attention to production that began almost two centuries ago.
This loom is certainly a true “labor of love.” Working so closely with the builder and the reed supplier has been a joy. The loom now approaches completion, but I will always look back over the long process with pride. I can imagine using this loom for the rest of my life, made as it is by caring craftsmen who have put countless hours of work to bring it to fruition.

Functional and beautiful were hallmarks of the Arts and Crafts movement. It is good to see that the spirit lives on.