Place where love looms

ALPENA – The studio is quiet, with only a ticking cuckoo clock marking the half hours on a warm spring day. In place of conversation is the gentle clicking of treadles, lamms, jacks and beaters as Werner and Marion Cook Jagst weave complex patterns out of hundreds of threads on looms.

“I have to be very careful. I don’t want to make any mistakes,” Werner said.

He consults numbers on a sheet of paper above his head, steps on the loom’s pedals with his stocking feet, checks the warp strings visible in a mirror to his left, slides a shuttle of spooled red thread through and gently pulls on a swinging beater bar to pack the trail of red against previous threads. Then he repeats, stepping on different pedals.

String by string, he is creating a red and white Merino wool shawl with a pattern of connecting white ovals.

Werner’s loom is a second-hand Glimakra made in Sweden and he calls it Ivanhoe. Marion sits at a birch countermarch loom made by Toika in Finland, which she has named Tilly Toika.

“I’m just kind of silly about that,” Marion said. “They become friends because you spend a lot of pleasurable hours creating on them. But like computers you have moments of despair when you’ve made a mistake. Everything is attached to everything else with strings.”

The large looms are just two weaving devices in the couple’s second-floor studio at their home near Washington Avenue. And they are complicated pieces of ancient technology – a collection of lumber and weights held together by bolts and dozens of knotted strings, working like puppets.

If that isn’t enough of a challenge, Werner and Marion have to create a warp of 500 or 600 strings for the foundation of each weaving them make. Then they have to thread each of those warp strings through a blizzard of loops and combs, putting their craft on a par with the game of cat’s cradle to the 10th power.

Then and only then can they begin the mind-numbing process of weaving.

Although Werner has created eight inches of fabric for the shawl in two hours, he loses his count during an interview, and has to go back and rip out a half-inch of his labor, before commencing again. But he seems unfazed by the set back.

“I want it to be perfect,” he said.

When finished, the shawl will become an heirloom gift that no amount of money can buy.

Just stringing together the dozens of moving parts of the loom can take two to three hours, Marion said. Creating the warp takes another two. Then threading the warp through the loom requires another couple of hours. Trouble shooting takes additional time to make sure every thread is in just the right place.

“People faint when they’re told what the cost of a weaving is,” Marion said. “But up until the Industrial Revolution, this was the only way clothes were made.”

So they give their work away to family members or make items for themselves, such as the patch Werner made for the back of the vest he wears at the loom.

Marion, who was born in Scotland, first got involved in weaving after her mother gave her a spinning wheel.

“I ended up with all of this yarn I couldn’t use up fast enough by knitting,” she said.

So she approached the Northeast Michigan Weavers Guild in Alpena and began to study with Kati Meek and Norma Ewart.

“Basically I was held by the hand, but I really took to it,” she said.

Besides, as a church organist, she is used to working with her feet. Before sitting at Tilly Toika, Marion removes her sheep skin boots and tugs on pink ballet slippers to protect the finish of the birch treadles on the floor.

Church is also where she met Werner seven years ago, where he was a church elder.

“My mother, years ago as a young woman in East Prussia, wove all of her sheets, pillowcases, everything,” Werner said. “The way she had the thread in her thumb and finger, no wonder she would get mad at me when I wanted something.

“But I really enjoy it. I absolutely love weaving,” said Werner, who learned the skill from Marion, and now ties off her looms for her.

In other words, he strings all of the loom’s wooden parts together, creating the mechanical programs for the patterns she wants to make.

“Ladies’ hands are smaller and they have the advantage in weaving, but I have the advantage of tying up the looms,” he said.

Werner proved to be a quick learner, and his first project was to weave eight yards of silk and cashmere fabric for Marion’s wedding dress.

It was no small feat.

Working in the low-ceiling basement of Marion’s home, Werner kept hitting his head on duct work as he toiled for three weeks.

“The cashmere breaks very easily and the silk is so slick it will come unraveled as you are working with it,” Marion said.

But the intensive effort proved to be valuable. The pale lavender fabric is soft to the touch and drapes itself like a kitten over the hand, individual threads all but impossible to detect.

“With everything that goes on with putting together a weaving, you have to learn how to cooperate and listen to each other,” Marion said. “It was a good start of how well we work together.”