Coulwood weaver keeps ancient craft alive

by Alan Hodge

Coulwood resident Maurice Blackburn weaves cloth at one of the two wooden handlooms he built. (Alan Hodge/MIM photo)

As a young boy in Newcastle, England, 80-year-old Maurice Blackburn often watched his mother weave her own cloth on a handloom.

Today, the Coulwood neighborhood resident not only keeps that same loom in his home, but has also built two larger looms that he uses to weave his own material, just as his mother used to do.

Blackburn, a retired textile sales manager, said the inspiration to build his own looms came eight years ago after seeing the price of a ready-made loom in an Asheville craft store.

“It was a gorgeous Scandinavian thing,” Blackburn said. “But it costs $5,000.”

Following a case of sticker shock, Blackburn began researching the world of handloom construction and called upon his skill as a woodworking hobbyist to set about making his own.

“I found a book entitled ‘Wheels and Looms’ that had building plans in it,” Blackburn said. “I tweaked one of the designs in the book and built my first loom in a couple of months. It’s called a counter marche loom.”

Blackburn’s first loom is made up of a complex arrangement of parts that he strings with yarn. Sitting in front of the machine, he manipulates the loom like a fine musical instrument, creating a cloth that has been woven the same way for centuries.

“I’ve been weaving for eight years, and I’m still learning,” Blackburn said.

For an encore, Blackburn built another machine with an interesting technological update. His second loom is partially controlled by a computer that uses weaving pattern software to trigger the timing and movement of the various parts.

“I still push the treadles,” Blackburn said. “The computer determines which thread of the weave is inserted at what time.”

Since the first days of his hobby, Blackburn has put the looms to frequent use, weaving a variety of items, such as scarves, rugs, coverlets, napkins and table runners. Many of the patterns and colors he uses have historical origins.

“About half of what I weave is from the 19th century,” he said.

Often working alongside Blackburn is his wife, Isle of Man native Ursula, who makes quilts. Four of the five bedrooms in their house are filled with some sort of textile art, craft machinery or material.

Blackburn said he believes in sharing knowledge and passion for handloom weaving. He often takes part in living history events at places such as the Historic Latta Plantation in Huntersville, where, dressed in Civil War-period garb, he gives demonstrations to visitors on backcountry cloth weaving. He also serves as president of the Piedmont Fiber Guild, a group that meets at Unity Place in Gastonia to discuss and demonstrate textile arts.

“If someone is interested in getting started in weaving, then joining the guild is a tremendous resource,” Blackburn said. “Everyone is willing to help newcomers with their time and ideas.”

Want to know more?

For more information about the Piedmont Fiber Guild, go online to www.piedmontfiberguild.org or send an email to piedmontfiberguild@yahoo.com.

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