Woven In Time: From Historical Swatches to Contemporary Weaving

15 September 2021

Sponsored in part by:

Ad description: Cover of the book Sheep, Shepherd & Land, and the words, "THE book about Canadian Wool, by Anna Hunter. Photos by Christel Lanthier. Buy now."

Ad description: The words, "The socks you knit won't last forever, but you can make them last for years and years. Shop now." Also featuring the cover image of the Sock Mending Guide.

As museum objects go, this one is not flashy, nor particularly beautiful. It’s big. It’s a book. A very large book.

Surprisingly large. At least a foot wide and another twenty-plus inches tall, and at least eight inches thick. It’s leather-bound, with faded inscriptions along the spine. The page edges are worn and brown and brittle from age. A ledger maybe, or inventories. Some kind of day-to-day listing of nineteenth-century living.

Opening the book is tricky. The binding is old and dry, and the pages crackle as they turn.

image description: an old book, the image focussing on its spine

The book.

There are no accounts inside. There are no lists. There’s page after page of pasted-in fabric samples. Each sample, roughly one and a half by three inches, is recorded by number and arranged by style and colour. Different weaves, different finishes, and an unexpected range of reds, grays, oranges, and purples.

The discovery of this book was a complete accident.

It was lodged in the rafters of the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum and discovered during a restoration project.

Located on a pleasant side street in the former mill town of Almonte, Ontario, the museum is dedicated to preserving and studying the industrial textile heritage of the Mississippi Mills region. It is housed in the restored counting-house of the former Rosamond Woollen Company, one of many mills that once flourished in the area.

From its beginnings in the nineteenth century, the Rosamond Woollen Company grew to become one of Canada’s largest mills, employing 400 people. As markets changed, so did production, and the mill closed in the mid-1980s. The Rosamond Mill produced a vast array of yarn goods, but few examples of those products remain. The sample book discovered in the museum’s rafters is one of very few records of the Rosamond mill’s production, and one of the only ones with a collection of usable swatches.

Michael Rikely-Lancaster is the Executive Director/Curator at the museum. He was inspired by the book’s discovery: “It was such an important piece of the Rosamond Woollen Mill’s history, and it was so interesting to see what the fabrics actually looked like. I really wanted to be able to show that, and make that part of our exhibitions.”

image description: an antique book, lying open; the left page is blank, the right page has fabric samples pasted onto it

The book is large; each sample of fabric is about four by eight cm (one and a half by three inches).

He reached out to Weavers Unlimited, a group of textile and fibre artists that had a long-standing partnership with the museum, demonstrating weaving techniques and giving talks on textile history. Based in Eastern Ontario, this artists’ collective works on both joint and individual projects, striving to explore the limits and intricacies of woven fabrics.

Among them are Roberta Murrant, Master Weaver and textile artist, and Jean Down, weaver and textile artist. Both had experience in decoding and reproducing historic textiles, and they set about recreating a selection of fabrics from the newly discovered samples.

The Weavers Unlimited are Jean Bair, Ellen Good, Jarin Hendrikson, Ruth Jarvis, Deb Mackay, Francesca Overend, Karin Riches, Anne Rombeek, Pam Thielman, Roberta Murrant and Jean Down.

The small size of the book’s pasted-down samples makes analyzing them difficult, and the book itself is both fragile and unwieldy. Working carefully with the one-of-a-kind samples took time. Scale photographs and years of experience helped the weavers uncover the technical specifications.

The nature of industrial weaving means that many of the patterns are twill woven, and although they are detailed, they are not complex. According to Murrant, while there are some eight-harness patterns, most are four-harness, making them compatible with the ranges of the weavers’ modern looms. Four-harness looms are fairly common in the weaving community, and concentrating on those patterns opened the project to a greater number of participants.  Translating these patterns gave the weavers a chance to explore different techniques, materials, and finished textiles.

“It was a bit difficult in terms of identifying the patterns since we couldn’t really pick the samples apart, and some of the yarns are just not made anymore. But we came as close as we could,” said Murrant.

image description: several items lying together on a table - a fabric sample, a close-up photograph of similar fabric, and some handwritten technical notes

One of the reproduction fabrics, with research notes. 

Using combinations of Jaggerspun and British yarns, and including some vintage yarn from the long-gone Rosamond Mill, weaving began. Members of Weavers Unlimited were asked to complete two yards of reproduction fabrics each, to be displayed in the permanent exhibition of local textile history.  

The resulting eleven fabrics are diverse, colourful, and provide a unique way to experience the history of the area’s textile traditions. They range from a nearly traditional black and white glen plaid to an exuberant purple and black windowpane pattern.

The range of textures, weaves and patterns is surprising to eyes that expect nineteenth century textiles to be subdued and plain. These fabrics are bright and vibrant. They call to mind patterned waistcoats, women’s walking suits, and boys in plaid knickerbockers. There are warm yellows and oranges, cool greys, and pops of red and purple.  

image description: samples of handwoven fabric

Some of the reproductions.

image description: samples of handwoven fabric

More reproductions.

The weavers continue their work at the museum with demonstrations, talks, and helping in the preservation of the museum’s textile collection.

The sample book is kept in climate-controlled storage, carefully wrapped. A sheet of archival tissue paper has been laid between each page, to protect the samples and the pages. Handling is kept to a minimum, to protect the delicate pages and binding.

The finished fabrics hang in the permanent exhibition at the museum, providing a colourful context for the industrial looms, carding machines and spinning frames. Along with the mill paystubs, spools and spindles, they show us what life was like in tone and texture, over one hundred years ago.

mvtm exterior

The Mississippi Valley Textile Museum is located at 3 Rosamond Street, Almonte, Ontario, part of the Municipality of Mississippi Mills. Home to the Norah Rosamond Hughes Gallery, and the Wool Hall, this museum and gallery exhibits both contemporary fibre and fibre-related works of art and offers a unique look at industrial textile technology from the past and present. Further information including exhibition schedules is available at www.mvtm.ca.

All images used courtesy of Elizabeth Thrasher and the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum.

Copyright © Elizabeth Thrasher except as indicated.

About Elizabeth Thrasher

Elizabeth Thrasher is chair of the Board of Directors of the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum. She is an artist, writer, and photographer whose skills range from puppet-building to policy-writing. She learned to sew and knit as a child, and has expanded her skills in the fibre arts to include dyeing and silk fusion. She lives in Ottawa, Ontario, and works in heritage and culture as a manager and consultant.

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