At the Carlisle Historical Society

The Carlisle Historical Society in Massachusetts has a recently rehabilitated antique loom. The loom joined their collection of a walking spinning wheel, plus various other pieces of equipment used to make cloth. Visitors can try a little weaving and start to appreciate the amount of work it takes as well as the beauty of simple cloth made to wear and use in the home. In 2018, fiber fever has really hit the society! There is a flax seed to linen cloth program in progress and also a garden planned to raise dye plants.

This program is a collaboration among town fiber artists Peg Schafer, Susan Emmons, Nancy Kronenberg, woodworker Stephen Till, and historical society president Philip Drew. We have been fortunate to have information, training, and donations from the Weavers Guild of Boston's Barbara Provest, and Marshfield School of Weaving in VT.

Antique Loom Project

Breathing Life Into A Dusty Old Loom

One golden afternoon along about September, 2015, Nancy Kronenberg and Philip Drew, president of the Carlisle Historical Society, assembled the frame of an antique loom.  It had been donated by a local resident  and, as is usual with these venerable looms, it was missing a few parts.  I was astonished though that four shafts and treadles were intact.   In fact, the shafts were threaded with 700 hand tied heddles.   Below left is the whole loom, minus a breast beam, and to the left a raddle leaning against the frame, and on the floor one shaft pair with the string heddles. The loom is a counterbalance with two pulleys (not shown because the bar to support them was missing.)

Loom Frame
Wood, heddles, before washing
Reinvented Warp Beam Brake
New prototype warp brake and second holder (light wood)
Old wood washed & revealing lovely grain, not yet oiled

The warp beam brake was entirely missing; only the curved holder for it remained. A large stained hole suggested a second holder was bolted to the side to keep the brake stick in its track.  A system of cords to set and release the brake was suggested by a number of possible guide holes. Such systems allow the weaver to advance the warp from the bench, a time saver.  The cord to set the brake

would wrap around the warp beam axle. The holes drilled into the lower castle, proved less useful as guides than not using them.  The whole system failed under warp tension, in part because of a weak cloth beam joint, so we don't know if there's anything to the cord system theory or not. Interestingly, the loom also has a borehole stick through the left of the warp beam. It may have been used as an alternate warp brake at some point, or as a handle to wind warp onto the beam - apparently it was common for two or even three people to beam on the warp.

Loom's Origin

The donor, who purchased the loom 30-40 years ago, was told by the seller (The Antique Wheelwright shop in Carlisle) that this was a rug loom. Rugs may have been woven on the loom, but rag weaves were used first for bed coverings. (1) The shop's owner typically acquired antiques through local estate sales and stocked quite a few 18th century pieces. Weaving historian, Norman Kennedy, has identified the loom as French Canadian Acadian design, and thinks it may have been built around 1820 or 1840. The single pair of tall posts midway front to back, with little or no other superstructure is characteristic of an Acadian loom. This is not a very stable design, especially as the tenon joints age. The other novel feature that is Acadian is the carved beater handle with the shallow indent in the center front for the weaver's thumb. Scratch marks are visible on the beater's narrow chase produced by endless rubbing of a linen warp. This is not necessarily an indicator of the loom's age. Cotton became readily available and affordable in the early 1800's, but at least some Acadian weavers, unlike other southeast Canadian weavers, maintained flax production well beyond this date. (2) (3)

A 1750 map (4) of Acadia shows the area of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Cape Breton, and Prince Edward Island, some held by France and some by England. Scottish immigrants also had arrived very early in Nova Scotia. Acadia did not exist as a single geographic entity, but rather consisted of very small settlements up to a few regions of 500-1000 people. The French Canadian Acadians were bound together by their French Catholic heritage and steadfast neutrality during French/English conflict. They became known as "French Neutrals."

How could an Acadian loom have made it to Carlisle, Massachusetts? There are several scenarios. The first and simplest is that the loom was purchased in southeast Canada by a New England antique dealer and thence to the Carlisle area. Such things happened after commercially available cloth became ubiquitous and looms had been stored gathering dust. Debra Durkin at the University of ME Fort Kent (3) says that, in the 1970's, quite a few New England dealers purchased these looms - to the joy of the sellers!

A second scenario is that the loom was built locally by Acadian immigrants or their descendents. In 1755 a large fraction of the Acadian population was forcibly evicted from the Canadian maritime provinces and dispersed in the thirteen colonies. About 2000 were settled in Massachusetts initially.(7) In researching the area, note that in 1755, the area that soon became Carlisle consisted of the southern part of Chelmsford and northern part of Concord. Two families, the Landries and the Trawhorns (or Frawhorn), fourteen members altogether, were settled in Chelmsford (location unknown) and northern Concord with the Blazedel family. There is note of "destitute" Acadians living around the Revolutionary Tavern which was on Stearn Street. (8) There is currently a Blaisdell Drive about a mile northwest of where the tavern was. Tantalizingly, the Antique Wheelwright shop was between the current Blaisdell Drive and the tavern location.

The original deportation was followed by 50 years of migrations back and forth and abroad and many were able to return to their homeland in Canada. In 1800 only about 1000 remained in the US not counting Louisiana.(5) There were other migrations of French Canadians to the US in the mid 1800's, but it is unclear if any were Acadian. C. 1820 there would have been few Acadians in MA to have built a loom, so the numbers work against this theory. We lack evidence that the loom as built in the 1700s, or that any Acadians remained in the area as late as 1820, though the Chelmsford phone book today has Landrys in it.

Rehabilitation and Weaving Again

The wood being used for new parts is reclaimed heartwood pine to match the old wood as closely as possible.  Old dark wood has been oiled (below) with linseed oil to seal.  The guiding principles during rehab are to not repair things that can function, to avoid any change that can't be undone, and to retain anything removed for display.

New Breast Beam New breast beam being fitted

New Castle Tops
New castle tops to replace damaged ones
Repaired Back Brace Tenon
Repaired back brace tenon

As of May, 2017, we had assembled the pulleys, shafts, heddles, horses, and were dressing the loom with a coarse woolen, such as might have been used for a blanket, was in progress. We have since learned that a horizontal banding would have been the color design, rather than color blocks. We did use the raddle though it's inconvenient as the top, which should be removable, is not. We threaded it in advance, to spread the warp as it is wound onto the warp beam.  The loom has no sign of ever having had lamms which supports the idea that the original use was for two shaft weaving, exactly what Acadians wove a lot. Lamms are used to redirect off-center treadle force to the center of the shaft. Without them, 4 shafts do not balance well, but we have done it.

Threading Raddle
Threading 1" bundles of warp through the
raddle (which does not come apart) in advance.
Ready to Beam On
Raddle is hung from castle top behind shafts. Two people
then wind the warp under tension onto the warp beam.

Ready to insert lease sticks and thread heddles

Blanket in one of the society's several cradles

French Canadian Acadian Weaving

Marshfield School of Weaving Class

This class introduced the Carlisle Historical Society weavers to some of the fancy weaving done by the Acadians.

Blankets were typically cotton warp, and wool weft. Two-panel wide blankets were sewn together along the center length. Melissa Weaver Dunning, who taught the class, showed examples. Getting the new blanket on the bed - not matching the stripes at the center - was the priority!

The Acadians were imaginative in employing techniques to add interest via weft effects including pickup sticks (a la planche) and finger manipulation. With fine undyed cotton, e.g. 12/2, fine wool, along with artfully two-color plied wool, thick cotton accent yarn and 3/8" - 3/4" wide white cotton strips numerous textures and colored patterns can be achieved on two shafts.

The samples at right are (top) Winter Skirt fabric and (lower) Spring skirt fabric. They are shown as they would be sewn into skirts - weft stripes placed vertical, with the warp running horizontal. The skirts would be pleated in such a way that the colored stripes would show, the background not showing. The Spring skirt sample has two special effects. The puffy dashed lines down the sides, made with pickup sticks and several weft threads in one shed, are a la planche (6). The feathery, vaguely chevron in the center is made with weft that has been plied in two contrasting colors. S-twist plying slants in one direction and Z-twist in the other direction.

Below is a closeup of a cotton sample. The rag wefts are 3/8" wide strips of old cotton sheet separated by one or several fine cotton picks in a fabric called catalogne. Catalogne has been used for stunning fine weft wedding bed covers. Heavy cotton yarn (rags were also used) has loops pulled up periodically to form nobs. This technique is boutonne. Note that catalogne was used for bed coverings first, then later for the floor.

Winter Skirt Fabric
Winter Skirt fabric, a heavy, weft-faced cloth called drugget.

Spring Skirt fabric a la planche

Twill Blankets!

This appealing blanket was documented by Debra Durkin (3). It was woven by Mrs. Modeste (Rossignol) Fortin. She was born in 1880 in St. Agatha, ME, a town in the small Acadian region on the north ME-Canada boundary.

It is 2 ply cotton warp, handspun wool singles, 20 epi, and 29 spi (shots per inch). Each panel is 28.5" to give a total width of 57". The length is 71". Measurements are post-fulling through years of wear and washing.

The weave is clearly a straight twill which means it was done on a four shaft loom. Although dedicated to their traditions, the Acadians seem to have been influenced sometimes by weaving styles around them, in this case twill on 4 shafts.

Banded Acadian Blanket, early 1900's


Several decades ago, an Acadian Study Group in Complex Weavers produced a book of samples of Acadian weaving. If you are member, you can borrow this precious book from them for 30 days. Photo at right is of one example from the study group, courtesy Mellisa Dunning who was in the group.


Sample from Study Group

Additional Resources About Acadians

(1) Dorothy Kay Burnam authored a book, shorter than Keep Me Warm, about textile arts in Canada. It is called The Comfortable Arts and mentions some facts about Acadian weaving. Photos of weaving that are known to be Acadian are carefully labeled as such, but none are more than 2 shaft.

(2) Dr. Judith Rygiel’s PdD dissertation (Carlton College 2004) is unpublished, but this link is a writeup largely drawn from it.

(3) Debra Durkin is a weaver who has studied domestic textile production among French speaking communities in the Upper St. John River Valley. In a college independent study she researched and wrote a paper on this subject. While she does not consider it a scholarly work, she has shared the paper with us. It has many useful observations and a number of beautifully documented photos of weaving. Among the photos are some twill blankets and linen pieces.

(4) Two maps show the areas where Acadians lived in 1750, and then in 2006. ( CTRL/CMD + to magnify and see detail.)

(5) The Acadian Migrations by Robert A LeBlanc details the wanderings of the Acadians over the centuries.

(6) The thoroughly researched book, Keep Me Warm One Night, by Burnham and Burnham offers more insights. They state that a la planche was actually woven with the pattern wefts on a tabby ground (like Monks Belt) which yields better cloth integrity. The book includes detailed instructions for managing the two sheds. Only one skirt was found by the authors that uses a la planche. It has been observed more often in bed covers. It seems that the same may be true of the weft-faced winter skirt fabric. As to catalogne, the book clarifies that the cloth strips could be fine wool, and colored. Though out of print, copies of this book are still available online and are a rich source of Eastern Canadian and Acadian weaving history. There is one drawback about this book and that is it is often difficult to tell if the weaving is Acadian or that of French, English, Scottish. One thing did mark Acadian weaving - it was two shaft. Usually!

(7) The History of Chelmsford documents the Landry and Trowhorn (elsewhere shown as Frowhorn) families being settled in Chelmsford.  The board of selecmen signed the resolution and included two Spauldings and a  Proctor.  The CHS has documentation of many houses built and/or occupied by Spaldings, and the town also has a Proctor Road. 

(8) The Wilkins Journals, Vol XVIII, p.23 documents the tradition that Acadians were settled around the Carlisle Revolutionary Tavern. Volume II has much information on the Blazedel (with its numerous spelling variations.) The first family member in our area was a 3rd generation Henry Blaisdell in Chelmsford, 1719.

Masthead pictures: (l)winding a quill on the spinning wheel, (r) Spring skirt fabric to be a long table runner for the CHS.