The Story of the Elizabeth Fisk Looms

The story of the Elizabeth Fisk Looms is the story of an inspired artist who made a unique contribution to the history of weaving.

Elizabeth Fisk developed an art which demanded intense manual labor, detailed technical knowledge, and an ability to weave together the aesthetic, cultural and social threads of her time.

In doing so, she succeeded in resurrecting an ancient art, bringing it exquisite levels of refinenment, and in training a generation of women to carry on her work. The Elizabeth Fisk Looms received international recognition as a type of fine weaving that had never been seen before, or since.

Weaving History

Archeologists believe that weaving and basket making were probably the first "crafts" developed by humans. Remnants of woven fabric have been found dating from 7000 to 8000 B.C. in Mesopotamia and in Egypt. The earliest evidence of looms has been traced to a model loom found in an Egyptian tomb.
Tapestries are woven fabrics which contain images. The yarns that are used are typically heavier than those used in weaving, producing a thicker finished product. They have existed for hundreds of years in many cultures. Ancient Egyptians and Incas buried their dead in Tapestry woven clothing. Important civic buildings in the Greek Empire, including the Pantheon, had walls covered with tapestries.

The French medieval weavers brought the art of tapestry to a new level. Tapestry became a status symbol of the aristocracy, as well as a way to cover cold castle walls. The subject matter was generally biblical, historical or mythological, depending upon the interest of the patron.

Of particular note are 10 tapestries, based on paintings by Raphael. They were commissioned by Pope Leo in 1515 for the walls of the Sistine Chapel. Raphael’s paintings formed templates, known as “cartoons” that served as technical guides for the armies of weavers that produced these masterpieces.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Arts and Crafts Movement gave rise to modern tapestry weaving. In England, William Morris gave new life to the tired industry, teaching himself the 18th century craft. His tapestries, such as the Woodpecker, are based on Medieval styles, and are still popular and sought after today.

As Elizabeth Fisk developed her work, she drew upon these influences, improved on them technically, and combined them with current artistic movements to produce unique hand made pieces.

Historical Context

During the late 1800s, Lake Champlain, which lies between Vermont and upstate New York was one of the major commerce routes of the northeastern United States. In the days before planes, trucks, and railroads, many trade goods were moved by water. Lake Champlain was a major conduit in the flow of goods between Montreal, New York and Boston.

In those days the tiny island of Isle la Motte straddled this important trade route and became a crossroads that attracted the commercial, cultural, and political figures of the region.

Much of this activity centered around the Fisk homestead. The Fisks were a family of quarriers who came to the island in 1788 and became regional business leaders active in state and national politics.

The Fisk place was founded by Reverend Ichabod Ebeneezer Fisk, who was born in New Milford, Connecticut and educated at Yale. Fisk surveyed the island and taught at the local school. His son Samuel started quarrying the local black marble in the late 1700s and built a home from the stone in 1802. The Fisk quarry was the first marble building stone quarry in the state of Vermont.

Demand for the fine black marble of Isle la Motte was strong and business boomed. Samuel Fisk built a general store and a post office to provide for the quarry workers.

Samuel Fisk’s son Nelson attended Eastman’s Business College, in Poughkeepsie, New York, to prepare him to take over the family concern. In 1880, Nelson Fisk married a young woman named Elizabeth Hubbell. Elizabeth came from the prominent Platt family, founders of Plattsburg, New York.

She was a descendant of General Benjamin Mooers, who had been an adjutant to George Washington during the American Revolution, and then served as a General officer in the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain.

Elizabeth was well educated and well traveled. When she married Nelson at the age of 21, the Fisk property was a bustling hive of economic and political activity. Nelson was elected to the Vermont State legislature in 1882 and then to the state Senate in 1888. He attended the Republican national conventions in Chicago and Minneapolis.

Life at the Fisks was a whirl of gaiety. As Nelson gained prominence, he became aquainted with three American Presidents: William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft.

During a gala luncheon for the annual meeting of the Fish and Game League, attended by Vice President Theodore Roosevelt, word came that President McKinley had been shot.

Festivities were abruptly cut short as Roosevelt was rushed away on a private yacht. Ten days later, Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as the 26th President of the United States in Albany, New York.

During this period, artists such as William Morris, Walter Crane and Phoebe Anna Traquair were making their mark with a body of work that would later come to be called the Arts and Crafts movement. Soon afterwards, the Art Deco movement appeared on the scene. Both of these artistic currents would play a role in shaping Elizabeth Fisk’s sense of design.

"Portrait of a Lady" by William Merritt Chase

She studied with the famous American painter William Merrit Chase and took courses in art and dye chemistry at the Pratt Institute in New York city where she and Nelson kept an apartment to avoid the harsh northern winters.


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