Byrdcliffe revives use of historic looms for Isabel Wilson’s textile workshops

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Photos by Dion Ogust

Before Ralph Whitehead left England for America, where he co-founded the Byrdcliffe Art Colony in Woodstock, he had wanted to apprentice himself to English textile designer William Morris, ardent proponent of the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th century that advocated fine hand craftsmanship as the antidote to sterile industrialized production of goods. According to Cheryl Robertson, a historian well-versed in the Arts and Crafts movement, Whitehead was not successful in getting an apprenticeship with Morris, but he “kept the vision” and once settled in at Byrdcliffe, created the colony’s skylit cathedral-ceilinged “loom room” in 1906, located within White Pines, his own residence at the colony.

In a video excerpt from a documentary film about Woodstock, Robertson explains that the loom room was a space that Whitehead was particularly interested in using to produce handwoven silk textiles made from naturally dyed fibers. He was assisted in his endeavors by his wife, Jane Byrd McCall, and also by colony artisan Marie Little, one of the early residents at Byrdcliffe who specialized in making handwoven rag rugs of naturally dyed fibers. Many others in the colony used the loom room as well, as evidenced by a photograph taken in 1908 (viewable at www.hrvh.org) depicting a creatively chaotic scene of worktables strewn with materials and a roomful of weaving looms holding works-in-progress.

But the once-busy beehive of activity ceased operations within a matter of years, and few of the fiber works created in the loom room have survived due to the fragility of the silk and natural dyes used. After Whitehead’s death in 1929, the art colony struggled on into the ‘30s under the direction of Ralph’s widow Jane and their son, Peter; but after Jane’s death in 1955, Peter sold much of the land to pay taxes and to cover maintenance on the remaining land holding the heart of the colony, where he continued hosting artists- and writers-in-residence. The Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild inherited the land and buildings in 1976 from Peter Whitehead’s estate and established the now-thriving regional center for the arts that maintains the original Byrdcliffe colony’s practice of and appreciation for fine hand craftsmanship.

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Now, after a long hiatus, the historic loom room at White Pines will be pressed into service for its original purpose once again. Woodstock-based textile designer Isabel Wilson will conduct a series of monthly textile classes in the loom room at White Pines beginning Sunday, May 3 and running into the fall. The classes will meet once a week for a three-hour, four-week session, with Wilson maintaining an “open studio” format where students can come in on their own time to practice the techniques that they learn in class and to use the facilities and equipment. The loom room will be open all day and available to students Sundays through Wednesdays.

This will be particularly helpful in the machine knitting classes held on Tuesdays. “Getting started on the machine is the difficult part, and you need the free time to go in and make your mistakes,” says Wilson. “It’s one of those things where you just have to practice.” The first session of machine knitting will be offered on Tuesdays from May 5 through 26 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. or from 5 to 8 p.m. The second session with the same hours runs on Tuesdays from June 9 through 30. The cost for each four-week session is $280 for the general public and $260 for Byrdcliffe Guild members, plus an additional $50 materials fee.

The Level One class is focused on beginner-level machine knitting. Students will learn how to care for the equipment, how to cast on and off and use a variety of natural fiber yarns to create swatches, learning techniques to create plain knitting, buttonholes, cables, dropstitch knitting, hems, pleats and intarsia. The subsequent sessions that begin in June can be taken by beginners or by students who have mastered the basics in Level One and are ready to move on to apply those techniques to garments or fine-art projects.
Mondays will be the day for the lap loom weaving classes. The first session runs on Mondays from May 4 through May 25 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The second session will be held on Mondays from June 8 through June 29. The cost for each four-week session is $280 for the general public and $260 for Byrdcliffe Guild members, plus an additional $50 materials fee, which covers, in this case, a small lap loom and materials to make two samples per week.

Wilson says that she will prepare the looms in advance for the beginning students so as to leave maximum classtime to learn techniques. As with each of the courses, beginners can start at the beginning of any four-week session, while those who wish to move onto more advanced techniques can continue in the months that follow. The beginning weaving class will teach the basics using natural fibers on the lap looms, while the more advanced classes will use the restored original floor looms from the colony days.

Wilson will offer classes in surface design of textiles on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The first four-week session will be held on Sundays from May 3 through 24, the second session on Sundays from June 7 through 28. The cost for each session is $280 for the general public and $260 for Byrdcliffe Guild members, plus an additional $50 materials fee, covering paints, dyes and paper, which will be used in the beginner sessions to learn the techniques that can be translated to fabric in Level Two classes. Beginner students will learn how to make a square repeat design and half-step repeat using collage, painting and dye techniques on paper.

Wilson earned a BA in Textile Design from the Rhode Island School of Design, spending her senior year studying apparel at Aalto University of Art & Design in Helsinki, Finland. “That’s kind of what got me started making clothing,” she says. “Before that I was focused on just the textiles.” After graduating in 2008, she moved to New York City, where she designed textiles for clients who included Marc Jacobs, Calvin Klein, Phillip Lim and Nicole Miller.

Wilson launched her own line of womenswear in 2013, made with natural fiber textiles of her own design. The silhouettes are flattering and easy-to-wear: uncomplicated shapes that take a back seat to the textiles. “Everything is driven by the textile,” Wilson says of her line. “I hand-paint all of my prints myself.” A team of tailors sews the clothing, with the exception of the knitwear, which Wilson creates herself on the same type of Brother™ portable flatbed knitting machine on which she’ll teach the students of the machine knitting class at Byrdcliffe. Wilson first came to Woodstock as a weekender while living in Brooklyn, but finding that she was spending more and more of her time here, has moved to the region full-time.

Wilson hopes to bring guest lecturers to Byrdcliffe from places like the Textile Arts Center in New York City or the Rhode Island School of Design. And she plans to offer weekend workshops for those who can’t make the time commitment to a full four-week session. In addition, she says, the people at Byrdcliffe are talking about starting a garden to grow plants to use for natural dyes for the fiber works to be created on the site.
“There are so many fun textile projects that we could do here,” says Wilson. “And in my mind, there are no rules if you decide that there are no rules; you can make or do whatever you want.”
Textile classes in loom room at White Pines, 454 Upper Byrdcliffe Road, Woodstock; (845) 679-2079, ulsterpub.staging.wpengineguild.org/education/textiles, www.isabelwilson.us.

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