Bridgewater Nonprofit Uses Historic Looms to Transform Rags Into Rugs
Vassie Sinopoulos cuts a run of several wool rugs made by Lesley Scales, of Bridgewater, off the loom. Sinopoulos provides weaving lessons for free in a setting she says is cooperative, therapeutic and full of camaraderie. “This place has been a healing place for me,” said Scales. “It has really helped me out on a lot of levels.” (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Vassie Sinopoulos, left, and Karen Weinstein, both of Woodstock, tie off the ends of a rug made from donated wool yarn at Heritage Weaving Studio in the Bridgewater Mill. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Karen Weinstein ties off the loose ends of a rug. The weavers at the nonprofit sell their work out of the studio and at the Bridgewater Sustainable Earth Foundation’s thrift store at the mill. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
On her way to the hair salon across the hall from weaving studio, Kim Ryan, of Quechee, ducks under the warp, a 20-yard long bundle of 240 individual cotton strings being installed on a 250-year-old loom at the mill. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Vassie Sinopoulos, right, folds a new warp into a daisy chain as Eve Winslow, middle, and Karen Weinstein remove it from a measuring rack. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Vassie Sinopoulos, back left, and Karen Weinstein, back right, admire a woven pillow made by Debby Sleeper, right, at the Heritage Weaving Studio in the Bridgewater Mill. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Bridgewater — Using a stack of secondhand T-shirts and some old wooden looms, Woodstock weaver Vassie Sinopoulos has managed to tackle two sustainability-related goals: recycling unwanted items and boosting local employment. She’s also created a place where people can learn the ancient art for free.
Sinopoulos, 65, and fellow weaver Linnea Thompson started Heritage Weaving Studio in the historic Bridgewater Mill in 2009. Sinopoulos came up with the idea a few years ago, after attending a sustainability conference in Woodstock. A professional weaver, she wanted to revive interest in the craft, using recycled materials, and help people connect with the past through weaving. For materials, she thought of the thrift shop run by Bridgewater Sustainable Earth Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on job creation, environmental concerns and historic preservation.
Initially, she wanted to set up a loom and demonstrate weaving in the store, which is also in the 19th-century mill building. Instead, the foundation’s president, Jireh Billings, encouraged her to set up shop.
Billings is one of several owners in Bridgewater Mill Mall, a condo association. As a child, he had visited the woolen mill with the woman who had taken care of him, a mill employee. Billings told Sinopoulos he “would love to have weaving back in (the) mill,” which closed in 1973, and would do anything to make it happen.
“I wanted it to be there so much, and there is empty space in the building,” he said. So, “we decided we were going to incubate the business.”
The studio, which operates under the umbrella of the nonprofit foundation, makes rugs from recycled T-shirts and other donated materials (the T-shirts come from the thrift shop). It was the second business “incubated” by the foundation, after the thrift shop. The third, a sewing shop so new that it doesn’t yet have a name, is just down the hall from Heritage Weaving.
To get things moving, Sinopoulos, the studio director, donated one of her own looms and traveled to northern Vermont to buy another, for which she was later reimbursed. As word spread about the project, the studio began receiving some “amazing looms” as gifts, Billings said, some centuries old, others brand new. The Woodstock and Pomfret historical societies each loaned a loom, about 200 and 250 years old, respectively.
Back then, Sinopoulos said, farmers commonly made their own looms out of necessity.
“They made everything themselves,” she said, “sheets, clothing and everything.”
Anyone can learn to weave, Sinopoulos said, and since the studio opened, she has taught about 20 Upper Valley residents and visitors.
“Weaving’s all the balance of weft and warp,” she said. “Once the loom is set, it’s very easy.”
Some, students, like Karen Weinstein, later volunteer in the shop.
Last Wednesday, Weinstein, a retired medical transcriptionist, was making a large black and gray rug in the studio, an airy space with light blue walls. Tucked between looms, a weathered wooden table serves as a place to cut fabric and also eat lunch. It’s flanked by metal shelving filled with bright T-shirts stacked according to color.
“This is our palette,” the Woodstock resident said, motioning to the shirts.
Weinstein, 63, said she’d taken a course decades ago but was too busy raising her children to do much weaving. When she heard about the studio, she contacted Sinopoulos, who “retaught” her. Now, 18 months later, Weinstein is both a volunteer and an employee.
She says she likes working with customers and the “lovely sense of camaraderie” she and her fellow weavers share. And, she said, the studio holds a special practical appeal.
Weinstein, who also knits, said she doesn’t care to sell her creations and often runs out of uses for them.
“Everyone I know has a scarf or hat,” she said, laughing. But when it comes to her work at Heritage Weaving, that’s not a problem.
“I get to use all the equipment here,” she said, “and someone else can deal with selling (the rugs).”
In addition to rugs, the studio also makes place mats and bags. Some are made from a single color fabric, but many are multicolored, with stripes or other patterns woven in. The rugs, which sell for around $30-$60, depending on their size, take about two days to make, Sinopoulos said. The sales bring in enough money to make payroll and buy equipment and materials, such as warp thread and scissors, she said. Anything left over pays “a little bit on rent.”
Currently, the studio pays a few hundred dollars a month, Billings said, with a goal of $350.
He said the weaving studio has turned out to be a perfect fit. It helps the foundation meet its goal of recycling materials and is beginning to provide some employment. After starting with an all-volunteer staff, Heritage Weaving now has two paid part-time employees and hopes to hire more, he said.
Discarded T-shirts may not sound like very desirable material, but Sinopoulos said they are great for making rugs.
Rag rugs are often made from “harsh fabrics,” such as scraps from bedsheets, but those made from the soft, worn T-shirts have a “wonderful, cushy feeling” underfoot, she said. And since the weavers have little control over colors and fabrics — they use whatever is donated — “almost every rug is one of a kind.”
Editor’s note: To find out more about the studio, go to www.heritageweaving.talkspot.com. Aimee Caruso can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3210.