‘Slow cloth’ practitioner in Newbury, Vt., draws inspiration from the past

  • Justin Squizzero, shown here at his farmhouse in Newbury, with some of the fabric he has dyed and woven at home. He’s wearing a hand-woven shirt that he sewed on his great-great aunt’s Singer treadle machine, and finished by hand. The buttons are made of ivory. Photo by Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger

  • Justin Squizzero uses this English four-post hand loom, which he acquired in Rhode Island, to weave fabric. He estimates the loom dates to around 1800. Photo by Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger

  • Justin Squizzero, a hand-weaver who calls his business Burroughs Garret after the original builder of his farmhouse, hand-dyes wool in his kitchen. Photo by Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger

Published: 7/6/2019 10:01:13 PM

NEWBURY, Vt. — Justin Squizzero comes from one of those old Yankee families that saved everything, including 19th-century tools used by previous generations.

That stuff came in handy when Squizzero was a teenager who was bored with school but loved to work with his hands. In his early teens, Squizzero learned from his grandmother how to spin, knit, sew and dye yarn. She taught him how to card a fleece of raw sheep’s wool and use the threads to weave fabric on a loom.

Now Squizzero knits together a living creating high-end fabrics for museums, galleries, collectors and historical sites such as Mount Vernon and Colonial Williamsburg. Using a 200-year-old loom, the Scituate, R.I., native has found a way to ply his trade from a farmhouse in Newbury a small town in the Connecticut River Valley.

While still in his early teens, Squizzero learned from a woman in Rhode Island how to carve slate gravestones. That showed him, he said, that it was possible to make a living doing what you love and to have some control over your own time.

“You might have to be really creative to figure out how to make that hustle work, but it can be done,” he said.

Squizzero, 31, comes by his love of the past through a lifetime of exposure to it. Both parents were Revolutionary War and Civil War re-enactors, and from an early age, he was camping and cooking meals over an open fire on recreated battlefields all around the Northeast.

“I was totally into it,” Squizzero said.

He enjoyed regular glimpses of a pre-industrial past where, he said, people were more connected to the natural world and their environment. He found the handmade tools that people used in daily life back then beautiful, and he appreciated the quality of the workmanship.

“Knowing something about the people who used those objects, too, finding a connection with people who used to live and don’t live anymore, has been an intriguing thing to me from a pretty early age,” he said. “Not that I was able to articulate it at that age.”

That connection to the past is now available to Squizzero through his home and surroundings, where the neighbors have gotten to know him and offer advice about gardening and his livestock.

The Orange County area, said Squizzero, “is the sort of really rural Vermont that has maintained a lot of aspects of the culture. There is an aspect of the past that is preserved here.”

Squizzero learned how to recreate the textiles of the past from his grandmother but perfected the art by working as an intern and then employee for Kate Smith, who leads the Marshfield School of Weaving in central Vermont and runs a business called Eaton Hill Textile Works.

Squizzero — who teaches at the Marshfield School of Weaving — sells his handmade fabric now for $200 to $300 a yard.

Squizzero was still a teenager when he wrote to Smith in 2007 asking if he could be her apprentice.

“She’s an incredibly generous person and she said, ‘Come up, and we’ll see if it’s a good fit,’ ” he said, adding that she also taught him how to dye, a skill that’s central to his work. “That was my first taste of some of the culture that still exists here that I did not experience growing up.”

Smith describes her own work and that of other weavers like Justin as part of the “slow fabric” or “slow cloth” movement which, not unlike the slow food movement, integrates some philosophical beliefs into a production process.

“The community is very small,” said Smith of the hand-weavers she knows in the Northeast. “Most museums buy it machine-made.”

After an apprenticeship with Smith, Squizzero spent several years working at museums and as a historical reenactor at Plimouth Plantation and Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts before returning to Vermont to work for Smith. He set up shop in Newbury on his own last year, although he still works with Smith on some jobs.

“I do a lot of stuff like table linens and cottons she’s not interested in pursuing anymore,” he said. “It’s a pretty good division; we collaborate on things.”

While dying and weaving to create upholstery and drapery fabric, table linens, and other items for museums and historic sites, Squizzero also has made a practice of studying the 1810 farmhouse he purchased in 2016. The house has remained largely as it was after centuries of occupancy by just two families and had been vacant since 1989 when he moved in. For Squizzero, restoration means returning the farmhouse as closely as possible to its original form.

There are very few people who take their connection with the past as seriously as Squizzero does, Smith said. Squizzero eventually installed a furnace in his house, but he relished the freezing experience of his nearly insulation-free, wood-heated first winter there. As a historical reenactor, Smith said, Squizzero made the period clothing for his roles from materials he had woven himself.

“Always, since I’ve known him, he’s gone beyond” what others do, Smith said. “Most re-enactors, they buy fabrics at JOANN’s and sew it on a sewing machine.”

These days, Squizzero is trying to balance his reach into the past with expanding his clientele. He’s put the story of his business, called the Burroughs Garret after the builder of his home, William Burroughs, on Instagram, but in general, he prefers to communicate on the rotary-dial phone attached to a wall in his kitchen.

He recently gave up his cellphone.

“I was concerned about how much of the human experience was I not having because I was replacing it with this virtual one,” he said. “I didn’t want to be 80 years old and looking back and thinking, ‘Did I actually experience what it is to be fully human if I’m always separated from everything around me?’ ”

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