By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — It was out of alignment and needed a few new parts. But to one member of a local handweavers guild, all it really needed to spring back to life was some expert and loving care.
The old barn frame loom that John Greenleaf Whittier’s mother used to weave blankets, shawls and other items that made winter on the homestead tolerable is working once again after sitting for decades as an artifact from Haverhill’s past.
Gus Reusch, curator of the birthplace, says he never thought the loom would ever actually be used again and that having it in working condition will add a new dimension to visitor tours. He wants to learn how to use the loom and put on weaving demonstrations for visitors.
“There’s nothing better than to have it working again,” Reusch said. “The women brought it back to life and didn’t ask for a thing in return.”
Terry Anderson of Haverhill had seen the loom years ago on a visit to the Birthplace of Haverhill’s most famous poet, J.G. Whittier.
“It wasn’t working at the time, although it was mostly put together,” said Anderson, who has been weaving for over 20 years.
Gus showed her some Whittier treasures, including linen towels he is nearly certain were made on the old loom by Whittier’s mother, Abigail Whittier. “She used linen made from flax they grew on the homestead,” Reusch said.
Three years ago Anderson joined a then relatively new NOBO (North of Boston) Handweavers Guild. Its members would get together for meetings and talk about the items they made on their own home looms, such as wool throws. They also talked about their own looms, some of which were the same kind of barn loom that Whittier’s family used centuries ago, and have guest speakers.
In February of 2012, Anderson returned to the birthplace for Snowbound, a biennial re-creation featuring the Whittier family and friends, in full period dress and performing scenes from the famous poem.
“I spoke to Gus (Reusch) and the trustees and they were all thrilled at my idea of getting the loom working again,” Anderson said. “I went back to the guild, showed them photographs of the loom and five members were interested in working on it.”
The old wooden loom had survived since the time of Whittier’s family life on the homestead and was in need of expert help, the kind women in the guild were eager to provide.
“This is the first time we’ve taken on a project like this as a group,” said Vicki White of Haverhill, exchequer for the guild. “It was neat to see it transform and get it working again. And the history of it ... it’s really amazing.”
The women began working their magic on the loom starting on weekends early last fall while Reusch puttered around the birthplace and caught up on paperwork. The birthplace is closed to the public during the winter, affording the women unfettered access to an upstairs room that houses the loom and other tools Whittier’s family used in weaving.
“They came every Sunday and worked for an hour and a half or so,” Reusch said. “I stayed out of their way, although I could hear them and knew when they ran into a problem.”
Whittier’s collection includes a great wheel (large spinning wheel) a spinner’s weasel, which is mechanical yarn measuring device, and various hand tools such as a “niddy-noddy,” which is used to make skeins from yarn.
“The loom needed a brake so the cloth doesn’t slip and undo, and it needed two pulleys,” Anderson said, noting that her group decided to use modern metal pulleys, some rope and a steel bar needed to tie the yarn onto. The old “reed,” a yarn spacing bar made of real reeds, was far too delicate to put safely back into operation so the women installed a modern one.
“We ran into a few glitches,” White said. “On modern looms the threads go straight and are horizontal from back to front. On this loom we didn’t realize how much of an angle downward it really was. We had a lot of trouble getting the shed, where the threads open up, to throw the shuttle through. They weren’t opening cleanly.”
Kathy Kelleher of Merrimac, scribe for the guild, said many hands were needed to wind the threads onto the loom.
“Because it was a wide warp, it was helpful to have someone turning the back beam and someone pulling at the other end while several of us were tying the threads onto a rod,” Kelleher said.
Peg Plummer of Lynn, whose guild title is “Lady of the Draft” (meeting program planner), could not help but smile as the loom began to take shape.
“At one time this was considered high technology,” Plummer said, noting she is a relative newcomer to the craft having started weaving just three years ago. “We all get a lot of satisfaction from weaving.
One of the final steps in getting the loom back into working order was to “warp” the loom, which is basically loading the loom with yarn before they could actually begin weaving.
“It took us several Sundays as we struggled with settings for the warping,” Anderson said. “We finally had it set up and ready to go around December.”
The group’s master weaver, Diane Howes of Danville, N.H., helped other members of the group to understand the finer details of setting up the loom.
“I have several looms like it,” Howes said. “The quality of items you can make with this loom is very fine.”
Their first weaving project is a shawl. It’s partially made now and the group hopes to return to complete the job. They also want to teach Reusch how to weave so he can demonstrate the process to visitors.
“We all learned a lot from this project,” said Kathleen Corcoran of Amesbury, whose guild title as president is “Lady NOBO.”
Reusch said the women were so impressed with the birthplace they hope to hold a “fiber” day this summer and present demonstrations by area weavers, spinners and possibly dyers. The group also hopes to have its June meeting at the birthplace.
“And it’s all because Terry (Anderson) came to Snowbound and saw the loom,” he said.
The NOBO Handweaving Guild typically meets on the fourth Thursday of each month, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Newbury Library in Byfield.
Whittier’s Birthplace is now open for the season. For more information visit online at www.johngreenleafwhittier.com.