Amidst all the political hobnobbing, Elizabeth was determined to make
her own way. Not long after arriving at the Fisk place she discovered
looms the attics of various homes on the island, including her own.
With the rise of the industrial revolution, and the availability of
affordable mass produced fabric, the ancient practice of hand weaving
to make clothing and bedding for one’s family disappeared almost
Fisk’s day, hand weaving was looked upon as a lost art that
was no longer practiced by “modern” women. But Elizabeth
saw within the looms the potential, not of drudgery, but of artistic
Her good friend,
Mrs. Edward Curtis Smith, wife of Governor Smith tells how it began:
persuasion she induced some of the older women to bring their looms
to light once more and teach her the intricate process of setting
Rag rugs were the first attempt Mrs. Fisk made towards weaving and
she aroused an interest on the island which increased to such an
extent that the Isle La Motte rugs were sold extensively and after
some years she found that she had started a real industry which
was strong enough to live without her personal attention.
Isle la Motte rugs led the rag rug industry thanks to the work Mrs.
Fisk had done and now she felt she was not needed and could branch
out into a larger field. As we discussed the different kinds of
weaving possible for the old fashioned Colonial loom, I suggested
she leave the coarse weaving and try her hand at weaving household
linens. I then confided to her that I had been studying the question
of vegetable dyes and had found many interesting recipes among old
books as well as more modern ones. One of my rooms was filled with
mordants, indigo vat cans and boxes of madder, cochineal, etc.,
- a kerosene stove and general confusion - hanging in every available
space were skeins of wool and linen in every available shade.
been floundering in a complex of acids, astringents, powders, liquids,
and ignorance. With the true artists appreciation, Mrs. Fisk instantly
had the vision and quickly persuaded me to turn my laboratory over
to her. With infinite patience she has worked with the materials
- studying her recipes, testing her colors - experimenting with
her mordants to procure the tone desired, and to-day an array of
colored linens are produced which express the designs in an unrivaled
Mrs. Smith placed an order for what would become the first product
of the Elizabeth Fisk Looms, a linen luncheon set. When she saw
the result, she was stunned:
It was not until the following June that I saw my lunch set and
the beauty of it and the pride and respect I felt for the artist
brought tears to my eyes. During these months Mrs. Fisk had alone
and unaided worked out a method by which a most complicated design
could be woven into the linens at the same time the background was
Elizabeth’s innovation was a milestone in the history of weaving.
Traditional weaving is the systematic interlocking of 2 or more
sets of yarns and fabric is created row by row. The art of tapestry
weaving creates images within the fabric by changing thread bobbins
as each new patch of color is reached. Threads are not tied off
when the color changes, but are left hanging. These threads can
still be seen on the reverse side of medieval tapestries.
Mrs. Fisk applied the ancient weaving technique of building a piece
row by row and instead of leaving the threads hanging, she incorporated
the threads back into the body of the work. When her piece was finished,
it was the same on both sides, the image mirrored on the reverse.
This technique was extremely labor intensive and is thus very rare
and the Elizabeth Fisk Looms represent the only works in which this
technique was used to weave imagery into fine linens. Mrs. Smith
beautifully was this done that it is almost impossible to tell the
wrong from the right side. This lunch set was the first of the beautiful
linens known as The Elizabeth Fisk Looms.This was just the beginning.
Soon the two women realized they had the beginning of a burgeoning
industry on their hands:
My set was so much admired that orders began to come in and Mrs.
Fisk found her looms were busy most of the time.
It seemed to us there was a future in this work for which we should
prepare ourselves and so Mrs. Fisk came to St. Albans and taught
four St. Albans girls to do the weaving. Going back to Isle la Motte
she found her orders were too large for her to fill alone so she
taught some of the native girls.
Fleury at a loom on Isle La Motte
to organizing the work, developing the chemistry of the dyes, and
the weaving technique, Elizabeth unleashed her artistic vision. She
painted designs with water colors on butcher paper and then painstakingly
transferred them to oversized templates on graph paper, known as cartoons,
that would serve as guides to the weavers.
bigger than the actual woven designs and each patch of squares is
numbered to indicate the proper color to be used. The weaver would
keep this cartoon in front of them as the piece was created, in much
the same way as in Raphael's day.