Clare Matthews spotted her first loom lying in a pile like firewood at a pottery.
“Give us a hundred pounds,” the man told her, “and you can take it.”
She says, “I gave him the hundred pounds; in England it would cost a thousand. I took it home and put all the bits together, and it was a perfect loom.”
Ah, is this a pattern?
After meeting Matthews at a poetry reading in Leeds, Ala., I knew only that she was a weaver, and that she had taught art as a Fulbright Scholar for one year at Hoover High School. She was invited not to read poetry but to bring Tiddledywinks, her handmade wall-hanging that was featured in the current issue of the Birmingham Arts Journal. She also displayed some of her other woven pieces as well as her beaded tassels, passementerie. What I came to learn about Matthews and her disparate creations — the dutiful wool and cotton rugs alongside the feminine Japanese seed beads — made her grist for my analogy mill.
Matthews’ home studio is set back on a wooded lot in Forest Park. Wall hangings in warm colors from the American Southwest lead us up the stairs, and into her studio, which is walled with skeins of woolen thread that she calls “pencils.” The left half of that wall holds oblong-shaped skeins in shades of yellow, orange and red, the colors of Bryce Canyon in Utah — a direct influence, she says, for her Dazzling Desert rug. Its chevron patterns dance and shimmer like heat rising from a canyon. Skeins of wool on the right side are arranged in cool shades of the Irish Sea: She once lived in Cumbria and on a clear day, could see the Isle of Man. Blue and gray undulations of water are reflected in her Rhythm and Blues piece. It is the eight-shaft Leclerc loom, however, that dominates the small studio.
“This is a rescue loom as well,” Matthews says.
Clare, the rescuer. Do tell.
“This fellow, he’d been a weaver in our guild,” she remembers. “I’d never met him. When he died, his sister wanted a weaver to have his loom. It had been stored for some time in her cellar and cellars can be damp. One of the pedals was bent. But I have a neighbor who is a good woodworker and he steamed it and straightened it out for me. He made some little bits I needed, and I polished it up. It’s a beautiful little loom.”
As she talks, she rubs the loom’s golden maple finish. Next to the loom stands a “super cop winder;” she explains that its gizmos and gadgets wind the woolen threads from a large roll on a spool called a “cheese” into the smaller pencils, thereby cutting down on the time of “dressing the loom.” Bought at a woolen mill in the U.K., it was powered by a small washing-machine motor whose English power source had to be adapted to her current home.
Matthews seats herself like a concert pianist on a bench in front of the loom. She has the loom dressed with rayon threads for making scarves. The vertical threads, the “warp,” are taut. Her feet rest on pedals much like organ pedals. These are connected to “lams” that lift the “shafts” to make the chosen pattern. Matthews steps on a pedal that lifts four shafts. Next, she will step on another pedal to lift the opposite four shafts. She demonstrates weaving the horizontal threads, the “weft,” from left to right from the bobbin inside a wooden shuttle. She then grasps the horizontal “beater” with both hands to “beat it up,” pulling this apparatus toward her body. “With scarves you’re not trying to push the threads up tight.”
“But when I’m weaving rugs, I can make the house shake pulling the beater,” Matthew says. “You get into a rhythm — pushing and slamming — and you become a part of the machine.” Her voice pushes and slams. “The weaving is done in a way they did it a hundred years ago. The only thing that has changed is the power source. I’m the power source here. I’m just a part of the machine. Working. Hypnotic. I have to count a lot.” She breathes. “My feet are going in 4s, but in my head I might be counting 27s.”
Matthew’s method of marketing works like that of a clothier who has a trunk show. Samples are shown and, depending upon the color choice and size, she weaves a custom piece. When I ask her how it is possible to duplicate patterns, she was quick to take a stuffed three-ring notebook from the shelf. She had a page or two for each of the 82 pieces she’d ever woven, with swatches of thread colors and numbers of threads, plus a drawing of the finished pattern.
As much craft as art
Matthews holds an art degree in constructed textile, yet, she calls herself an artisan. “Fine artists have a hard time accepting fiber as a fine art,” she says. “I’m tired of fighting it. Craft is seen as something lesser, what women do for pin money, not real art. I’m tired of fighting that, too. Artisan to me implies an artistic skill of value.”
Matthews explains that she came to this position late in life when she learned that her grandfather, Mr. W. Worrall, was a well-known stained glass maker who had made windows for churches and cathedrals all over England and even one in New Zealand. She has a leaflet with a picture of Saint Finbarr’s Cathedral, Cork, consecrated in 1870. Around the picture is an inscription: “All Windows in this Cathedral were painted by Mr. W. Worrall himself.”
Matthews reaches for two spools of rayon thread and sets them on the upright posts of a wooden machine sitting on the floor. “The ‘creel,’” she explains. Like the super cop winder, the creel is a thread organizer. It was fashioned from an elm tree, felled by Dutch Elm disease.
“Another rescued machine?” I ask. We both laugh.
We move to the end of the thread cubbies to view her rows of beaded tassels. “I initially got into this when I was waiting for my loom to be shipped from the UK.” If her woven pieces have a utilitarian side, forget that with these baubles, as prissy as their French name suggests, and in all lengths. Her largest tassel hangs 25 inches long. Its colors range from maroon through reds to terra cotta. The beadwork is in reds, crimsons and iridescent golds.
Matthews has wasted no wall space in the studio. Opposite the loom, the wall is papered with post cards from all over the world. And on the last wall is a painting she bought from a former student during her nearly 20 years of teaching art and design at the high school level in Cumbria. It pictures a pile of cheeses, those spools that hold a quantity of wool.
Matthews calls herself a collector. She showed me wooden pebbles from Oregon, Navajo wall hangings, an India wall hanging made from wedding dresses snipped into pieces, and a framed picture of her favorite cathedral, Ely. Her handiwork includes scarves, earrings of miniature beaded tassels, Christmas cards sewn with decorative cloth circles, covered bamboo, and painted gourds.
This weaving woman becomes very animated in speaking of her work with VSA Alabama, an international organization that provides arts and education for people with disabilities. Each emerging artist in the group was allowed to weave a portion of a rug, five feet by sixteen inches.
Clare seems to waste nothing, not even young minds. I could call her collector, artisan, fellow teacher or resident alien who holds a green card. Yet, she has in common with Salinger’s catcher in the rye, Holden Caulfield, that she is a rescuer. In a single afternoon her characterization broadened tenfold. As did my vocabulary, and my thinking.
See Clare Matthews and her loom at www.mattfinishfibers.com.
Kathleen Thompson holds an MFA in fiction/poetry from Spalding University.