Featured Artist

The Warp And Weft Of It

By Published On: June 29th, 2020

The shirt on your back. The comforter on your bed. The flag flying in the yard. All the work of the weaver’s art.

True, most of the delicate hand-work done with mesmerizing rhythm by hand weavers has long ago been eclipsed by one of the early developments of the Industrial Revolution. Great bolts of cloth almost fly out of mechanized weaving mills with only the machine maintenance of any great concern. Once the backbone of New England commerce, the weaving mills became abandoned buildings resting near area rivers, were transported to locales where labor was less expensive and, finally, many were moved off-shore.

But in studios scattered throughout the world, the artistry of hand weaving is still very much alive, and the miles of broadcloth wound in giant bolts of material are set in counterpoint to the luxurious look and feel of had woven shawls and jackets and tablecloths and napkins.

Karin Gerstel and her husband, Joe Woodward, are weavers – artisans who keep the elegance of hand woven fabric art alive in their Salisbury, CT studio – Under Mountain Weavers. On looms already antiques when they were brought from Scotland to the area in 1941 by Karin’s father, Master Weaver Eric Gerstel, as well as on smaller Leclerc Nilus looms from Canada, the couple have not only kept the family tradition alive, but continued to develop an artistic style all their own.

The road taken

Neither Karin nor Joe began their careers as weavers. It was while working in Oregon in labor relations that the couple met and eventually returned to the area to continue the family tradition.

“My father was 93 years old when he taught Joe to use the fly shuttle loom,” recalls Karin. “We’ve been working together ever since.”

There was a sojourn for the couple in Falls Village, CT, where Falls Village Designs occupied a small studio on Lime Rock Station Road above the Housatonic River. “My parents had sold Under Mountain Weavers to the Pinkstons of West Stockbridge, MA, in the mid-80s” Karin reflects. “But thirty years later, we were offered the name and business back – and here we are.”

“Here” is 535 Under Mountain Road (Route 41) just south of the Massachusetts/Connecticut border. The original hand painted sign adorns the barn, just across the road from where the endeavor began so many years ago.

Keeping the art alive

Joe Woodard has become the master of the 250-year-old Scottish loom that dominates the studio/barn. “It takes about two weeks to set up the loom in order to make a rug,” offers Joe, who has become adept at keeping the antique functioning. “The actual weaving process takes about two days. It’s the preparation that is time consuming.” Each string of yarn is wound into the bobbins used by the loom. Even the winding is done on a machine long out of production that is carefully kept running.

Joe and Karin not only create the pieces offered by Under Mountain Weavers, but they offer classes for those intrigued by the ancient process. With smaller looms – designed by Karin’s father – set up in a comfortable barn loft, a week-long class is offered in the winter months. Students learn the basics of the craft and graduate from the class with a piece of their own making.

From sheep to shawl

Sourcing the threads that become the warp (the longitudinal threads on the loom) and the weft (the thread on the shuttle that forms the filling for the woven piece) of the weaving process has become an intriguing journey of its own. Under Mountain Weavers creates pieces in cotton, bamboo, and wool. Some of that wool comes from the Icelandic sheep of Birdseye and Tanner Brooks Farm in Cornwall, CT. The items created from that wool are available from the farm when they present their offerings at the Cornwall Bridge outdoor market.

In addition to the Icelandic wool, Under Mountain Weavers has established a relationship with

the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, CT, an intriguing museum that not only displays the striking Impressionist art collection of Alfred Atmore Pope and his daughter Theodate Pope Riddle, but also maintains relationships with area farms including Clatter Ridge Farms where Under Mountain Weavers sources Shetland wool.

“We find that the farmers’ markets in the area are really the best way to present our work,” offers Karin. “Several of them are very active, including the Norfolk Market that attracts quite a following. Then, there’s always word of mouth and the tremendous loyalty of our customers who come back for gifts and to expand their own collections.”

To the market

Holiday markets are also a great place to display and sell their work. With the uncertainty bred of the COVID-19 pandemic, those avenues may be closed during the upcoming holiday market season. In the meantime, Karin and Joe continue to create their colorful, imaginative work and offer it through their Facebook page and to those who call for an appointment and visit their Salisbury studio.

Visitors who make the drive are rewarded with work that is unique, colorful and purely functional. Designs woven into the pieces are originals, allowing Joe and Karin to stretch their creativity to match the fabrication potentials of both the looms and the raw materials.

“Bamboo is slippery,” offers Karin with the hint of a laugh. “It’s nice for setting up on the loom, but we must be careful during the weaving. In order to get the texture but add absorbency for towels and napkins, we add some cotton.”

And, color. From the elegant earth tones of the Icelandic wool to the rich colors in shawls, blankets, tablecloths, place mats, and napkins, the meticulous work of Under Mountain Weavers brings character and depth to its work. •

With the tenuous outlook for festivals, fairs, and outdoor markets, it might be best to contact Karin and Joe at Under Mountain Weavers via their Facebook page, or reach out by phone (860) 435-9265 or via email to kjgerstel@gmail.com to schedule a visit to “the barn” where the magic happens.

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