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A common thread

There's a hidden treasure in the basement of the Duluth Art Institute's Lincoln Building -- more floor looms than you can shake a stick at. At least a dozen of the beautiful, big looms fill the Fiber Studio at 2229 W. Second St. in Lincoln Park. ...

There's a hidden treasure in the basement of the Duluth Art Institute's Lincoln Building -- more floor looms than you can shake a stick at.
At least a dozen of the beautiful, big looms fill the Fiber Studio at 2229 W. Second St. in Lincoln Park. The studio also includes a good selection of smaller looms as well as spinning wheels, available to anyone who wants to rent them.
The looms are also used by students who take the many classes offered by the Art Institute about the world's oldest craft -- weaving.
"Weaving goes back 25,000 years," said Beverly Martin, the manager of the fiber studio. Throughout history, weaving has been primarily women's work, although that has changed, somewhat, today.
Archaeologists like Elizabeth Wayland Barber, who has established that weavers were working at least 20,000 years ago, say the craft actually predates pottery, Martin said. The earliest pots have fabric or weaving patterns on the exterior, she said, suggesting that woven containers were lined with clay and then set close to the fire where the clay hardened with the heat.
In fact,in her book, "Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years," Barber argues that weaving probably predates the wheel, Martin said. "She contends that learning to weave and spin fibers was as important as the discovery of the wheel, if not more so," she said. "Before the wheel came the loom."
Although weaving cloth for everyday clothing has been done by machines ever since the mid-1800s, weaving by hand is still alive and well. Ask any of the people who signed up for the rag rug class with weavers Janet Meany and Deb Cooter recently.
The class drew people from as far away as Michigan who wanted to learn how to weave rugs out of discarded clothing and other used fabrics.
"Both my friend and I really like rugs," said Cathy Seebloom, who came from a small town south of Marquette, Mich., to attend the class. "We both have children, and they go through clothes fast. So making rugs out of the cloth sort of recycles it. I'm not a time waster, so making a rug out of an old piece of clothing appealed to me."
Meany, who has been called the mother of rag rug weaving in the Northland, has been weaving rag rugs for years. In fact, she co-authored a book on the craft which has become popular nationwide.
"I started weaving in 1973," Meany said. "In the old days, women would get together and wind the warp, have a sauna and coffee and visit. They also had rag cutting bees."
In this class, participants brought long strips of cloth from all kinds of sources. Some were cut from bed sheets or old work clothes, some were taken from house dresses from yesteryear, others were collections of cloth saved over the years.
They were all combined over the weekend into gorgeous items like place mats and runners, rug samples and mats, using weaving techniques that go back through the ages.
Every weaver develops her own style, Meany said, although it's difficult to tell unless you see a group of rugs made by that person.
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Meany, who helped found the Duluth Fiber Handcrafters Guild with weaver Irene Wood, said one of the extraordinary things about making a beautiful rug out of rags is that often they hold special memories. A woman in Washington state told her, for example, that she had made a rug from her husband's old work clothes. And achurch on the Eastern seaboard celebrated its 100th anniversary by asking its parishioners to send fabric for a rag rug. "They made a huge rug," Meany said. "They're like quilts. I love to collect memory stories."
Making rag rugs is also traditional in many families. That's what Raquel Mead and her husband, Eric, who were taking the class, said they plan to do. Eric said his grandmother was a first generation Swede and was known for her rag rugs. "My wife and I bought a loom at an auction with the thought of continuing the family tradition," he said.
Making rag rugs is only a part of what can be done with colorful threads and a device to weave them together.
Martin, who said she has been interested in weaving since she was a young girl making potholders for anyone and every one, did her first major project in 1981.
She hadn't woven in years, but she said she happened to mention to Pat Lertz, the director of the Art Institute at the time, that she was thinking about crocheting curtains.
"No, don't crochet them, come down to the Art Institute and weave them," Lertz told her. "I have a loom all warped up."
So Martin wove her curtains, and they were chosen to represent Minnesota in a national weaver's guild convention, called a convergence.
"I was in shock," Martin said. "My first project, and it was being shown in Seattle."
Since then, weaving has become a foundation of her creative life, she said. She weaves beautiful, complicated patterns on a number of different looms.
The Art Institute's weaving program features a variety of classes and workshops each year, she said. It also has a large number of looms for people to work on. The loom collection was started by the Marshall sisters years ago when they donated looms for the fiber studio when it was located in the Depot, she said.
For those who want to learn how to weave but are intimidated by starting with a large project, Martin recommended taking the Inkle Loom class on March 11.
The Inkle loom is small and easily portable and can be used to make belts, hat bands and other small pieces. One of the perks of the class is that the weavers will be able to take their looms home, joining generations of women who are weaving a common thread.

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