Weaving Old Traditions with New Friends: The World of Stephanie Morton
Photos by A. Vincent Scarano / profile by Carolyn Battista
Inedible black walnuts make an incredible dye. “Throwing the shuttle” isn’t a violent act. Some people still follow a Quebecois tradition in which weaving may be accompanied by gossiping. Others weave regularly on big wooden looms that are nearly 300 years old.
If you meet Stephanie Morton, her colleagues, and her students, you’ll begin to learn about all this and more. Stephanie has been weaving and studying traditional ways of weaving and dyeing since college. Now she runs The School for American Handweaving, offering workshops like “Rag Rugs,” “Alpaca/Wool Core-Spun Rugs,” and “Indigo Shibori” (tie-dyeing). She collaborates with spinners and dyers of yarn, with other weavers, and with people who raise alpacas and sheep. They all value sound practices in raising plants and animals, favor local resources, and have a high regard for recycling. When they get together, they have lots of say, lots to share. “Collaborations and friendships” Stephanie says, truly matter to them, as they do the work they love.
Stephanie has a studio in her Old Lyme home and leads a community weaving project at the Old Lyme Historical Society. Recently she joined forces with Caryn Erickson, who owns Flat Rock Farm in Lyme. The farm has alpacas and chickens, Caryn’s home, a separate guest house, and a barn with space for looms and workshops.
On one chilly day, all was warm and lively in Stephanie’s home studio. Patricia Fortinsky of Tidal River Yarns, showed some yarn samples. Patricia lives next to the Black Hall River, hence the name for the yarns that she spins and dyes. “It’s a labor of love,” she said. She buys wool from New England sheep farmers, spins yarn by hand, and uses only natural materials, including plants in her garden, for her dyes. In the fall, she gathers black walnuts because she says, “when you soak the shells, you get a beautiful, dark dyeing liquid. “
She and Stephanie have teamed up to design and produce Connecticut River Blankets—custom ordered “heritage” blankets that are woven in Stephanie’s studio with Tidal River yarns. Another weaver, Jeanette Pringle, works closely with them; and weavers from Stephanie’s Connecticut River Blanket workshops also help. The blankets are intended for long, long use.
Lori Dziedzic overheard Patricia’s comments on black walnuts. Lori runs Flatland Alpacas in Griswold, uses natural dyes on her alpaca products, and came over to ask Patricia, would she like some extra bags of black walnuts?
Lori was in the studio because the day’s work would focus on “catalognes”- coverlets woven by generations of women in eastern Canada. These women wasted nothing, ever. They wove beautiful, colorful catalognes fashioned from items like old bed linens cut into strips.
When Stephanie became interested in catalognes, she showed a few samples she’d acquired to Lori, who’s French Canadian; and who said, “I know this!’” Now Stephanie regularly offers classes in catalogne making, and Lori was showing some of her family’s catalognes. “My great-great grandmother wove that one in Coleraine, Canada,” she said. “These were made by my great aunt. She’s 89 now.” The catalognes, designed according to whatever was available, all looked fresh, bright, and ready for more use. “They wash up phenomenally,” Lori said. “My grandmother put them on couches. This is what we sat on.”
Poised over three looms were two students and Jeanette Pringle, each weaving a catalogne. Stephanie advised the students (and during spare moments, cut extra strips for them). Jeanette paused to talk. “I like to get people excited about weaving,” she said. She acknowledged that it can be difficult to plan a piece, then set everything properly on the loom. But mistakes “are fixable,” she said, and once all is ready, “You just go!” When the finished piece comes off the loom, “It’s like Christmas!”
Having learned that sometimes Quebecois women worked together on large catalognes, Stephanie began a community loom project. She set up a loom at the Old Lyme Historical Society, and members of the Handweavers’ Guild of Connecticut began working together there to produce coverlets and to show what community weaving is all about.
One morning, five women gathered to weave on the 108”wide community loom. “It’s like a quilting bee,” Cathy Purcell said. “You can gossip,” Jody Brewer said. Here, one person is the “principal weaver” of a coverlet, with others helping. Each in turn, will become the “principal weaver” for her own coverlet. Jody showed her finished catalogne—the first from the project. “I used old scraps of blue fabric,” she explained. “Some of it I had when I was a kid.”
Usually two people sit at the loom, carefully working the loom parts that make the pattern appear correctly; two others stand, one on each side, to “throw” back and forth the shuttle that carries the long strips of fabric being woven. “We have to work together,” Stephanie explained, or parts will wobble, lines will be uneven. The weavers worked—and chatted—steadily.
The weavers give demonstrations (recently, at an historical society open house), and a wall exhibit has photos with text that help visitors understand what goes into weaving each catalogne, including start-up tasks like winding of fabric strips onto 36 bobbins and placing 1,944 threads through individual heddles.
Not long ago Stephanie learned of two looms from the 1700’s that needed new quarters. One stood in a weaving shed in East Granby, Connecticut; the other was stored at the Gunn Historical Museum in Washington, Connecticut (where staff members were concerned because they lacked not only space, but also interpreters who could show visitors just how the looms were used).
Stephanie wanted to help, but she too lacked space. Then she spotted Caryn Erickson at the Old Lyme Farmers Market and said, “You have a barn, don’t you?” The two women began talking, thinking. Now the barn is home to looms, including the antiques, and new ventures are being planned. “Caryn and I have been shaping retreat packages, where the entire farm experience will include weekends of staying at the guest house and weaving in the barn,” Stephanie explained. They’re also thinking of retreats for other crafts, from knitting to woodworking, all with people sharing ideas, experience, and friendship in a lovely rural setting.
Caryn, a retired investment banker, had long dreamed of restoring an old farmstead. A few years ago she found Flat Rock (which dates to a 1694 land grant), moved into the main house with her son Max, now 13 (her “right-hand man”), and plunged into tasks, from starting a garden to renovating the guest house.
She and Stephanie recently had a combined open house-open barn. Visitors toured the now very comfortable guest house, which is furnished with art and antiques from Caryn’s travels. Caryn, who has always liked to entertain, wowed people with her crab cakes, chicken satay, sourdough bread, and other specialties.
Those visiting the barn learned about Stephanie’s workshops, gently touched yarn and other samples, and heard Stephanie’s apprentice, Steve Pohl, tell what it was like to dismantle, move, and then reassemble a big antique loom, made mostly of chestnut. “Holey moley, that was daunting,” he said, before resuming his weaving—of an alpaca/wool core-spun rug—on a 1700’s loom that still works just fine.
Both antique looms are expected to keep working just fine as Stephanie and Caryn’s new ventures evolve.
For more information: Stephaniemortonhandweaver.com or email@example.com; Handweaversguildofct.org; flatrockfarmct.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Steph the article is awesome so proud of you.
Taking rug weaving lessons at Stephanie’s studio is one of the best things I have ever done!
Hey Steve. “Holey moley, that was daunting,” Heh heh heh. Great article, Steph!
Fantastic article about a amazingly talented woman!
Wow, wow and double wow! What a great article Stephanie. For those of you who don’t know, Stephanie is my sister! She is very talented, her work is incredible!- Terri Baumbach
Stephanie Morton, you are a force to be dealt with! Congratulations on your enthusiasm, energy, and joy of weaving.
Thanks so much for such a great article and beautiful photos!
A correction. My email address is stephaniemortonhandweaver @gmail.com
Thank you Stephanie, so glad you enjoyed it. (will switch out the email.)