St. John Valley

The ancestral ways of weaving

There’s that word creeping in again.

We just took delivery of a secondhand Harrisville floor loom and now have to figure out the intricacies of setting it up. While I’ve already constructed an Acadian floor loom some years back, this will probably prove a horse of a different hue.

A few years ago, I built my first (and only) weaving loom to get into the mind of the initial builder. I was intrigued by a story told to me about an elderly gentleman more than a century back who built a floor loom for his granddaughter as a wedding gift. The gesture moved me, not simply because the grandfather built a loom from scratch, but because he would be endowing his granddaughter with the means for making an income.  

Nowadays, cloth and clothing of any sort is from ‘away,’ often pieced together in sweatshops in Bangladesh or wherever sweatshops and cheap labor is sourced. It’s a fact of life we live with and wear with little regard for the effort going into making a shirt or a pair of pants.

I use the adjective  ‘ancestral’ because weaving or at least the history of weaving cloth is probably in the DNA of most inhabitants of the St. John Valley; certainly those with some Acadian ancestry. Looms were common in many homes, and often communal property. One of the docents at the Acadian village in Caraquet, N.B., herself a weaver, said that the Acadians about to be forcibly deported from Grand Pre and other villages in Acadia by  ‘les anglais’, were told to gather their belongings for the journey, wherever that might take them.

Some of the Acadian women had the foresight to pull the reeds from their looms, secreting them into their meager belongings. Reeds are a part difficult to make. A loom could be made anywhere by a competent carpenter. Reeds are not so easily made. With a reed, a woman could start the process of making cloth again wherever she landed. That was how the story was told to me. Weaving is not considered gender specific in many other places.

I view weaving as another example of the self-sufficiency of the Acadians, as well as the French Canadians who settled this region. We are no longer similarly self-sustaining, having dispensed with such skills on the dubious road to economic dependency.

I use the term ancestral to define part of my own family’s history. My great, great grandfather’s people were linen weavers in County Armagh, Ireland. While not a weaver as near as I can discern, my mother’s first ancestor, or rather my first ancestor to arrive in New France took up tailoring workman’s clothing as his primary occupation. The familiarity with cloth is the common thread, so to speak.

I’m looking forward to setting the loom up. I take a keen interest in the terminology of the craft. There’s something vaguely familiar to such things as sleying hooks, back and breast beams, heddles and harnesses. It’s much harder these days to mentally itemize the parts that go into making an automobile, let alone repair one by one’s self, than it is to go back into the technology of weaving. There’s little that’s ancestral to fixing a car, except perhaps a native mechanical ability I don’t claim for myself.

I suppose the point of this article is to remind one that certain traditional skills can be learned or re-learned, even though their immediate practicality might be lost on the practitioner. A friend often reminds me about lost pathways, and I think there’s both neural and communitarian pathways that need to be recovered. I refer to the communities of weavers I’ve read about from Ireland and Scotland, and have seen in Scotland. I wonder if weaving on a commercial basis can be revived here in the St. John Valley.

An idle thought perhaps, but one that prompts a whole line of logic. For the time being however, I’ll content myself with piecing a secondhand loom together.

Dave Wylie’s life and work experience runs the gamut from newspaper editor to carpenter to grant writer to boat builder with lots of other work wedged in-between. Wylie currently is president of a management company that oversees an elderly housing complex and president of the local historical society. He resides in Madawaska.

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