Sue Gervais hasn’t always been a weaver, but fabric has long been the focus of her interest and talent. As a child, she went with her mother to select cloth for the clothes her mother would make her. Later she studied design at Seattle Community College and worked making patterns for ski wear companies. In 1983, her job brought her to Sandpoint, where a class sparked an interest in weaving.
Sue acquired a four-harness floor loom then, but put it away when she had children.
As many of us did when we had small children at home, Sue shifted her energies into their classrooms and sports teams. Fabric and design remained in her life as she made quilts and her children’s clothes. Eventually, as they inevitably do, the kids grew older and more independent and wanted clothes from the store.
This made time for a job in the library at Sandpoint Middle School. But simultaneously, a transformation began to occur in the Gervais home. This author remembers the dining room table seemed to disappear. That loom—long in storage—appeared next to it.
“The table always was there,” Sue insisted. “But it became more of a worktable, and it was piled up with books and projects and stuff.” Friends and neighbors noticed that Sue was wearing new handwoven scarves. On holidays when the table resurfaced for dining purposes, there were handwoven placemats.
Now a ten-harness loom dominates the “loom room” in the new house she and her husband, Phil, recently moved to in Dover, Idaho.
It’s not quite accurate to say Sue has taken up weaving full time since she retired from her library job five years ago, but it’s become an essential hobby that provides many of the elements necessary for a healthy retirement.
For starters, there’s the mental challenge. Woven fabrics consist of a warp—the lengthwise threads rolled on the loom, and a weft—the crosswise threads passed through the warp threads on a shuttle. With several hundred threads in a typical warp, the number of patterns Sue can weave verges on the infinite.
Using classic patterns passed down through generations of weavers, she uses color and repetition to create her unique pieces.
“I like to come up with my own designs,” she said. “I think about the design, and I think about the process of warping the loom, and the [actual] weaving is just one part.”
“Warping the loom”—that is, setting up the warp on the loom—provides further mental challenges as well as some physical ones.
Each thread of the warp must be passed through some combination of harnesses that are raised or lowered with treadles—pedals at the foot of the loom.
“Without changing anything other than treadling, I can get all these different patterns,” Sue explained.
Once she has figured out the patterns she wants to use and has threaded the warp onto the loom, the actual weaving begins: As Sue presses each of the treadles (or some combination of them), some harnesses go up, and others go down, creating a “shed” between a top set and a bottom set of warp threads. She passes a wooden shuttle containing the weft thread through this shed to create the weave.
But the shed is not a simple construct. To get it right, Sue has 72 different adjustments to make to a complex system of ties and connectors. Each adjustment affects others.
“It’s an inexact science as far as I can tell.”
Hurrying the process doesn’t help, so she goes into a “Zen mode” and lets it take as long as it needs. To make the adjustments, she must crouch on the floor and repeatedly reach deep into the 6-foot-wide loom, and this provides the physical benefit. Sue finds that as the shed approaches its correct form, her flexibility increases as well.
Once the warp is on and the shed is set, the act of throwing the shuttle is more contemplative, kind of like a physical mantra.
“When you’re actually weaving, you’re thinking about the treadling pattern, and you’re thinking about the selvage, and you’re thinking about the beat. Once I get into it, it goes fast.”
Sue sits on a stool at the loom, throws the shuttle, and watches the pattern emerge for maybe 20 minutes. Then, before her back can tire, she gets up to change the laundry or stir the soup.
She’s not in a hurry. Over time, scarves, rugs, napkins, or table mats collect on the warp. Then she cuts it off and starts all over again.
It’s clear that, for Sue, weaving is not so much about the product as the process. She may wear a new scarf that elicits a chorus of complements, but the unique pieces that come off her loom are the byproducts of a practice with even greater benefits. ISI