The First Weavings

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 overnight.

 

By Elizabeth 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 expression.


Her good friend, Mrs. Edward Curtis Smith, wife of Governor Smith tells how it began:

Through persuasion she induced some of the older women to bring their looms to light once more and teach her the intricate process of setting them up.

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.

Mrs. Smith continues:

I had 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 manner.

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 being done.



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 writes:

So 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.

Nettie Fleury at a loom on Isle La Motte

In addition 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.


Cartoons are 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.