As Christmas approaches, the Thomas house is abuzz with activity. Clara Rose is weaving her blue ribbon-winning fabric and Walt is cranking out brooms like who laid the rail.
In an old farmhouse near Baldwinsville there is a treasure. It’s not gold, or buckets of precious stones, it’s more. It’s alive. In Japan, where skilled artisans are revered, the government has designated many of them “Living National Treasures,” making them eligible for special protection and support.
The U.S. – unlike Japan, France and other nations – has not adopted this practice. But if it did, master weaver Clara Rose Thomas would certainly be on the roster.
I first met Clara Rose 30 years ago when my wife began taking weaving lessons from her. We eventually purchased a loom kit from her as well. Those two events became the foundation of a relationship that has lasted to this day.
From the outside, the country farmhouse where Clara Rose and her husband Walt have lived for nearly 60 years looks like any other. But when you step inside, you instantly know that a weaver is in residence. There are looms everywhere! Clara Rose owns 15: seven floor looms, seven tabletop models and a massive antique rug loom, which dates from the late 1790s.
When we met, she was seated at her 20-inch Macomber model. Employing the “double weave pickup” method, she was fashioning a long section of double fabric that would eventually be cut and sewn into wall or window hangings.
As I admired her craftsmanship, she said, smiling, “Nobody but me is crazy enough to do this kind of weaving anymore.”
The unique feature about this technique is that each side has the same design, but the colors are reversed. At the top of each a pocket will be sewn and the hanging hardware inserted. It consists of two antique wooden bobbins salvaged from long defunct New England knitting mills.
Right around the corner, in a bright sunlit room, sat yet another loom, a Harrisville 22-inch, 10-harness model threaded for making note card inserts (more about those later). On a table sat a squadron of shuttles loaded with various weft colors, looking just like a miniature rainbow.
Ready-made weaving patterns for her work are not available. Clara Rose painstakingly works out each warp and weft pattern on graph paper.
“Thirty-five years ago,” she told us, “I started repeating, ‘When I get old and gray, I’d like to learn to spin and weave.’ My son Bruce chirped up, ‘Mom, then it’s time you got started!’ So we sold a cow and bought a loom.”
The next year, in an effort to meet other weavers and learn more about the craft, she joined the Syracuse Weavers Guild and eventually became president. In 1979, the rigors of running a 500-acre dairy farm coupled with the challenges of increased regulations led the couple to sell the rest of their cows. They reinvented themselves as full-time weavers.
For the past 21 summers, Clara Rose has been a vendor and exhibitor at the New York State Fair. In that time, by her own count, her work has won some 50 blue ribbons. “This year, I only won three,” she told us, quickly adding: “And an honorable mention.”
Given the incredible quality of her work, it’s surprising anyone else wins any ribbons at all.
In an upstairs bedroom were two perfect examples. Covering the bed was a 90-inch woven coverlet done in the “Whig Rose” pattern, named in honor of the Whig party. Because of the width of the piece, it was made from a pair of matching 45-inch panels carefully sewn down the middle. She said it took 50 hours to weave and sew it – incredible.
Atop the coverlet was a hand-woven, hand-dyed wool blanket in a replica pattern of an authentic English wool blanket from the 19th century. “I dyed the red using madder, the same dye used to color the uniforms of British Redcoats,” Clara Rose said. “For the blue, I used native indigo.”
As much a student of history as she is a skilled weaver, Clara Rose frequently uses traditional colonial weaving patterns such as “double orange peel,” “4-leaf clover” and “star of Bethlehem.”
Another pair of blue-ribbon blankets was across the hall. On a bed laden with note cards, placements, mug rugs, baby blankets and bookmarks were two of 2010’s winning entries. One was a baby blanket, the other a folded piece of fabric made so well it appeared to be machine-woven. At that point I mused that if you threaded one of her looms with strands of light, Clara Rose could probably weave you a sunny day.
Behind the table, an entire wall was covered with table runners and wall hangings. Clara Rose explained that if the piece had figures or a geometric pattern, it would appear identical when viewed from the other side. However, reversing the green and red one would make it read “YRREM SAMTSIRHC,” which would confuse the daylights out of Santa.
It’s all in the cards
Clara Rose fashions tiny woven inserts which she places in the variety of greeting and note cards she creates. Some are seasonal – the October cards have orange weft woven into a row of tiny pumpkins. Her Christmas cards remain my personal favorites, as my wife and I have been the lucky recipients of these custom-made holiday treasures for the past three decades. As a rule, we don’t save many Christmas cards, but we have every card Clara Rose has ever sent us.
Pushing knowledge forward
Clara Rose graduated from Cornell University in 1950 with a degree in 4-H Extension. Today that same major is probably termed “Home Economics.” Her college education spurred a lifelong interest in books, personal growth, teaching, and sharing what some have called “proprietary intellectual capital.” To that end, she conducts weaving classes and readily shares her expertise with local school children. Each year, she and Walt volunteer at the Baldwinsville Colonial Crafts Festival, where they participate in mini-workshops for 500 local fourth-graders. Clara Rose weaves cloth while Walt weaves plant stems. Plant stems? Yep. He makes brooms.
Using an antique machine, Walt produces genuine “corn” brooms, although corn is a misnomer. The plant is actually a species of sorghum. After the seeds are combed out, it will be woven with others into a broom, replete with a hand-cut sugar maple handle. So just how strong is the demand for handmade brooms? Well, at the 2010 State Fair, Walt sold 120 of them!
When I was at the house, Walt was weaving bookmarks.
A thought struck me: If an earthquake destroyed the cable car system in San Francisco, or a rogue wave smashed Old Ironsides to bits, both would be viewed as a tragic loss to our culture. But both could be completely rebuilt and put back into service. They are after all just things, mechanical contrivances.
People are not afforded this luxury. In terms of our earthbound existence, it’s strictly a one-way street. Dedicated artisans like Clara Rose Thomas and her husband enrich the lives of others by fashioning simple natural materials into objects of lasting beauty. Clara Rose said, as I was leaving our interview, “It drives me nuts these days, because nobody seems to know how to make anything by hand anymore.” She may be right, you know. And if you agree, you might want spend time with somebody who still does.
A Colonial Holiday Sale – The 30th Anniversary
Cold Springs Craft
3280 Cold Springs Road, Baldwinsville
Friday through Sunday, November 19 through 21
Friday through Sunday, November 26 through 28
In addition to Clara Rose and Walt, other local artisans specializing in basket making and woodcrafts will also be selling their wares. Wise shoppers attend the first weekend, when the selection is best. For more details, e-mail Clara Rose at firstname.lastname@example.org, or give her a call at 315-635-3478.
From Thruway Exit 39, take Interstate 690 East and exit onto John Glenn Boulevard. Travel east to the intersection with Route 370 (second light) and turn left.
by Rich Finzer