A Weavers’ Road Trip: Maurice Brassard et fils

IMG_8070It ain’t easy being a weaver.

Knitters, crocheters, quilters—you all usually have access to yarns and fabrics and textiles somewhere near where you live. Even if it’s a big-box craft or fabric store, usually there is someplace you can go to touch and fondle and squeeze the object of your desires.

Many, many weavers are not so fortunate. Stores dedicated to weaving are rare and located in far-flung places. We can go to local yarn shops (if there is one!) but most yarn that is designed for knitting and crocheting is not suitable for weaving—it’s often stretchy, often bulky.

So weavers are very dependent on the internet and on catalogs. And thank heaven for those shops, the places like Yarn Barn of Kansas, Halcyon Yarns, and the Woolery! A weaver can buy a set of sample cards to guide purchases and get beautiful things delivered to her door.

But, as anyone knows who works with fibers or textiles or any art supplies, there’s nothing like going into a well-stocked store and browsing the aisles, wandering the rows, and touching everything.

For that reason, my husband and I took the long-ish road trip to the small-ish town of Plessisville, Quebec, to visit Maurice Brassard et fils, makers of weaving supplies and home of LeClerc looms.

Yummy!

The round trip took us seven hours by car and isn’t one we will do often but the experience was so worth having! Just look!

I’d say that Maurice Brassard is primarily set up as a wholesale operation. We knew going in that we could buy these yarns at any of the on-line shops we use. The retail store has a warehouse feel—bins of yarns organized by fiber and by color—with little done in the way of presentation or marketing.

The shop is open to retail buyers but doesn’t really cater to them. Buyers are left alone to ramble and gawk, no one hovers and offers input. The whole place closes for an hour and a half at lunch and for two weeks in the summer. The checkout process is more time-consuming and old-fashioned than you find in most retail shops and, much to our shock, they don’t accept credit cards!

It was also a bit of a setback for us, English-only Americans, that only one person who works there, in the office and not in the showroom, spoke English at all. We didn’t get to ask many questions.

And, yet. . . . color and abundance and sheen and variety know no language.

It was such a luxury to walk around and see these fibers! To be able to see and touch the rich texture of the chenille and the unbleached linen. To be able to pick up a cone of color and walk around with it and hold it up next to other colors, instead of operating from little scraps attached to a sample card—I think I was hyper-ventilating!

Maurice Brassard et fils also purchased the long-established LeClerc loom company in 1995, so the showroom was a place to see and try a number of loom models, as well as to be able to handle and purchase other weaving tools. Again, this was a huge thrill for us—we’ve only seen new looms in catalogs or online!

We might’ve been a little overwhelmed. We might have gotten a little carried away. We might’ve had autumn on our brains when we chose our colors.

We didn’t buy a loom but bought plenty of yarn. With not nearly enough cash on hand, we made a flying visit to a bank and got back just before the shop closed for the long lunch break.

It was a long day—nine hours on the road.

We drove home via the rolling hills of rural Quebec, where the ancient barns are clad in weathered cedar shakes and every house has a huge hydrangea bush, showing the subdued colors of approaching fall.

We brought back lots of lovely work to keep us busy and happy and creative through the long North Country winter.

Our senses were filled, to capacity and beyond. We will struggle to go back to choosing yarns from a catalog or computer screen but still feel fortunate to have that option. And we will know that Maurice Brassard et fils is only a road trip away.

It ain’t easy being a weaver . . . but it’s good.IMG_8084

Weaving Our Way Through Ireland

IMG_1614Oh, look—sheep! It must be Ireland!

Yes, it was Ireland and, for newbie weavers, sheep mean wool and wool means weaving. One of our goals for this trip was to talk to weavers.

Hand weavers are still working in Ireland but not so easy to find. It seems many of the folks who know the trade are working these days to educate and entertain tourists, as was the case at Avoca Mills.IMG_0635The man we talked to at Avoca was certainly knowledgeable about weaving, and he talked as he wove. He even let a novice weaver take a turn!

IMG_0612We’ve long loved a song called “Nancy Whiskey,” about a weaver seduced by drink (what a ridiculous concept!). In that song, there’s the lyric, “I’ll surely make those shuttles fly.”

We had never understood what that meant because, when we weave, the shuttles move very slowly. But on this trip we were introduced to looms with flying shuttles—it makes hand weaving go so much faster!

We also watched the production looms at Avoca, moving faster than the eye can see. And it was evident that, in spite of the presence of a hand weaver, much of the weaving coming out of this mill is done on mechanized and computerized machines.

As much as we love old-fashioned handmade work, seeing the production looms, and even the flying shuttle looms, was a good reminder of a practical fact. We may have the luxury of doing this craft for creative purposes, but other people made their living at it, and still do.

In fact, the one weaver we met who still does hand weaving exclusively, Eddie Doherty, in the town of Ardara in County Donegal, also owns the pub next door. When we rang his bell, he came from his pub to show us his weaving.

He explained that, in the small towns in Ireland, one profession wasn’t enough to support a family. Years ago, as a young publican, he had needed a second source of income and had chosen weaving.

IMG_1215 That got us noticing other examples—Mannion’s Pub, next door to Mannion’s Butchers. King’s Pub, next to King’s Grocery. And our favorite—Kennedy’s Pub, next door to Kennedy’s Funeral Home! No question who supplied the gargle for those wakes!

Watching these weavers inspired us. I particularly loved the ways color is used to transform relatively straightforward patterns into eye-dazzling beauty.

We were sorely tempted by the beautiful things we saw. On previous trips we have done our best to support the handmade community, buying sweaters and woven blankets and tweed jackets.

But this time we had come to Ireland with an agreement not to add to our wardrobes and linen closets. We had declared a shopping moratorium.

But we couldn’t resist one thing—we bought yarn.

We couldn’t resist bringing home wool and cotton and linen, in the heathery colors of this lovely country.

IMG_1687The plan is to use what we saw as inspiration, and to combine our Irish yarns with our own effort. We’ll make, at home, something to commemorate this particular trip to Ireland. We haven’t decided yet what form our souvenirs will take but we do know they’ll be one of a kind!

I’ll keep you posted! In the meantime, more eye candy . . .

How Crocheting Saved My Life

IMG_1773Okay, so that title is an example of hyperbole. Crocheting didn’t save my life but it certainly saved my sanity during a really trying period of my life!

All of you with a creative outlet know how important that outlet can be in times of trouble. When you’re under stress and your brain is working overtime and imagining the worst, having busy hands and a project that needs concentration can distract and calm you.

And that’s what crocheting did for me. I didn’t crochet before and I don’t crochet anymore. I honestly don’t really enjoy crocheting (sorry to all who love it!). But I needed it.

Here’s my story: My husband and I had just moved to a home on Lake Champlain in upstate New York. Three weeks after we moved in, Lake Champlain reached record high-water levels and our house was surrounded by water. We had to leave and leave pretty fast.

The lake isn't supposed to be on this side of the house!

The lake isn’t supposed to be on this side of the house!

We spent 6 weeks in a tatty motel. Our cats spent 6 weeks in cages at the vet’s. It rained relentlessly and the flood waters kept inching up and we didn’t know if the whole house would flood but we knew the basement and garage were full of water. We could get to the house but only in hip waders.

Yes, a boat in the driveway.

Yes, a boat in the driveway.

One of the worst aspects of this was that we had nothing to do. We don’t really care about TV or movies or shopping. There are only so many walks a person can take in a day. So we sat around the motel and worried ourselves sick.

And that’s where crocheting came in. I needed something to distract me and crocheting seemed to be the simplest solution—after all the supply list is truly minimal. All I needed was one crochet hook and a ball of yarn and my trusty iPad, for instruction.

I spent 6 weeks obsessively learning one crochet pattern. I found a pretty picture of a 16-circles square on the Internet and set out to learn it.

This was the picture that inspired me. From http://undisthreadness.blogspot.com/

This was the picture that inspired me. From http://undisthreadness.blogspot.com/

Because I had no background in crochet or reading the language of the patterns, my progress was really slow and really painful. BUT it took my mind off all the other painful worries and focused me. And I finally learned to make the squares and made enough of them to out together a decent-sized throw.

And this is what mine looked like.

And this is what mine looked like.

And I’m happy to report that by the time I had enough squares to stitch together, we were back in our house! We didn’t have running water for weeks, because the well and the septic system were completely compromised, and pretty much every shrub and perennial in our yard died a horrible death. We had scum all over the garage and black mold growing up the walls, but the flood waters had not made it into the main part of the house.

Now, two years later, everything is groovy. The house and gardens look great again and we love living on this beautiful lake, when it behaves!

I tried to keep crocheting but, somehow, I just can’t get into it. It’s as if it served its purpose and now I can move on. But I’m keeping my crochet hook . . . just in case. Has your form of creative expression helped you through a difficult time? I’d love to hear about it!

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