Tying Traditions Together: The Marshfield School of Weaving

Dyed wool at the Marshfield School of Weaving

Written By

Katie Sullivan

Written on

February 22 , 2017

Down a dirt road on the Marshfield/Plainfield line sits an ordinary barn that houses the only school in the U.S. that teaches historical textile arts using antique technology: barn looms. The Marshfield School of Weaving’s humble facade belies the national and international fame of the school and the instructors who teach there. It is a nonprofit organization with a mission of maintaining and teaching the worldwide traditions of functional textile weaving.  

Recently, I sat in on a class that the school’s co-founder, Norman Kennedy, had stepped out of semi-retirement to teach. It was an intermediate class on French Canadian Amour de Maman weaving techniques. Norman was demonstrating how French Canadian settlers used a rudimentary two-harness setup (more harnesses allow more complex weaving patterns) to create interesting patterns in fine textiles that belied the simplicity of the mechanism behind their creation.

As I walked into the building, the familiar smell of wood and lanolin wafted over me, and inside the converted barn that houses the school, I picked up on an atmosphere of warm and reverent learning. Upstairs, students labored on large, rustic barn looms making traditional French Canadian textiles. Downstairs, a former antiques restorer from Christie’s in London, Alan Dunning, was laboring at replacement flyers for antique wheels. The barn was filled with wool, yarn, and finished textiles to touch and experience.

The school began in 1974 when a wealthy patron enabled Norman Kennedy to establish the Marshfield School of Weaving on a property with a long history of textiles. Born in Scotland in 1933, Norman grew up during years of war-related food and materials rationing. He recalls going out to the fields to pick wool off the fenceposts and tree trunks where sheep had rubbed, in order to gather enough surplus to make another small garment. When he expressed interest in learning to weave, his parents were concerned that he would miss out on more “modern” opportunities. But Norman traveled to the Western Isles in the far northwest of Scotland, leaving home to live among people who manufactured cloth on a subsistence level. For them, expert craftsmanship wasn’t a personal quest (as it can be in a time of ready availability of cheap textiles); developing craft expertise meant simple survival.

Fast forward to 1966, when Norman was invited to represent Scotland as a singer at the Newport Folk Festival. Opportunities to sing and to weave in the U.S.  kept presenting themselves. He traveled the country, meeting rural folks who lived as he once did, weaving for subsistence in rural areas and selling quilts and blankets on the side of the road. When I interviewed him, he spoke of these people with the deep respect of someone who neither dismissed nor lionized them, but who understood their position from his own experiences. From them, he gathered historical skills and craft knowledge just as the embers of many textile traditions were gradually dying. And in 1974, he was invited up to Marshfield to develop a school of weaving on a historic farm where fiber animals and plants such as flax had been raised for two centuries.

It felt like home to Norman. Interest in historical skills was strong in the wake of the back-to-the-land movement, and during those years Norman taught many students, some of whom went on to become teachers at Marshfield and at other schools and museums. The original school closed in 1992, after which time Norman worked as the lead weaver at Colonial Williamsburg, teaching visitors about historical textiles. It reopened in 2007, under the leadership of Kate Smith. A former student of Norman’s, she had developed her own business weaving reproduction textiles based on her well-developed expertise.

Today, the school offers weekend-long retreats focusing on weaving and weaving-adjacent fiber skills such as fiber preparation and dyeing. Beginner classes are offered routinely, and classes cost $700 for beginners and $600 for returning students, with scholarships available. In addition to the Amour de Maman class, the school offers instruction in linen weaving, tartan making, various methods of traditional dyeing, wool processing, understanding written traditional weaving directions, and more.

During the Armour de Maman class, I saw that the technique uses basic looms with simple set-ups that could have been built by settlers using the most basic materials. Nevertheless, by creating raised areas in the textiles, settlers could create texture and visual interest for their daily clothing. Each student in the class focused intensely on their own loom, treadling petals up and down while passing the flier back and forth. Instructors visited each student, checking progress and assisting with the next steps in the process.

We paused for lunch, and a conversation ensued among teachers and students about the relationship between the Marshfield School of Weaving and sheep raising in Vermont. Over rustic soup, I spoke with Kate, Norman, and instructor Melissa Dunning about the wool supplied at the school. Kate feels very strongly that the purpose of the school is the preservation of the craft of practical weaving, and that purchasing and using local wool is a large part of that mission. She buys much of the wool needed at the school from Broadview Farm just down the road and has it spun to her specifications.

As I am a shepherd myself, I’m always curious to discuss the properties of wools with anyone. For the purposes of reproduction textile weaving, Kate looks for Border Leicester, Romney, or a cross of the two for the best textile yarn. (Border Leicester and Romney are strong wools, but not rough or harsh.) Norman Kennedy chimed in to say that Vermont shepherds need to do a better job of keeping their wool clean. He has been gifted or sold a great deal of Vermont wool that he found unusable due to dirt and hay contamination issues.  

We also talked about how breeds popular in Vermont right now are not the correct breeds for the fabrics. When wool subsidies to small U.S. producers ended during the Clinton administration, sheepraisers with breeds producing mid-range and coarse-grade wool soon found that the cost of shearing was greater than the price they could attain for the wool they had. Hair sheep breeds like Katahdin and Dorper gained rapid popularity among shepherds who focus on meat, not wool. Vermont shepherds gradually moved away from traditional breeds to either embrace hair sheep or to raise a breed whose wool would be desirable when directly marketed.  Consumer demand for softer wool, colored wool, and unusual breeds factored into the rise of Shetland, Icelandic, Finn, and Jacob sheep, breeds that are colorful, versatile, and variable in color and texture. Meanwhile, breeds that had been perfect for traditional textile weaving, such as Cheviots, Border Leicesters, and Romneys, lost some prominence.

Although Kate appreciates the now-more-prevalent Icelandic and Shetland wool for its traditional textile purposes, she notes that Icelandic wool is not appropriate for reproduction textiles or for substitution in traditional techniques. She also notes that absent a diet heavy in seaweed and wild heather, North American Shetlands don’t always produce wool that’s as soft as that of their British Isles counterparts.

Nevertheless, new sources of wool are always emerging in Vermont, and the school’s needs are met primarily by Vermont flocks. Although the textile styles employed at the school hail from around the world, the use of local wool roots the school in a sense of place. The weavers view their craft as an expression of their closeness to the land and focus on functional fabrics with attractive design rather than strictly decorative items.

From the sustainability of the wool, we moved to a discussion about the sustainability of the craft. The group of students I was with readily admitted to being of the grayer generation, but they noted that a solid one-third of the school’s students are in their 20s and 30s. Cost of attendance was noted as a barrier, and finding the time to weave is a challenge for people with small children or nascent careers. Nevertheless, the baby boomers in the group spoke admiringly about millennials’ appreciation for the work of weaving and their willingness to embrace crafts. One student said she thinks more young people want to understand and connect with the processes used to make their possessions. With admiration, all of the students and teachers agreed that millennials forged in the turmoil of the Great Recession had both respect for the craft and a practical orientation that they believed would sustain weaving into the future. The school is not a place for sighing after dying arts!

After our lunch chat, the class regrouped to listen to Norman Kennedy recount his travels in Louisiana, where he gathered folk knowledge from Cajun families. As he talked about the struggles of Louisiana’s poor, he was actively combing and carding cotton. Most people carding cotton need to use their full concentration, and even then they experience frustration. Each skillful brush of his cards oriented the short, delicate cotton fibers into perfect rolags ready for spinning.

I thought about a remark from earlier in the day: that the craft, skill, and traditions of weaving have transcended human lifetimes. It was a privilege to bear witness to this transcendence, firsthand.

About the Author

Katie Sullivan

Katie Sullivan

Katie Sullivan currently raises sheep for fun and profit in Williston. Learn more about her enterprise at sheepandpicklefarm.com.

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