The Loom in the Attic

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Barn loom while still in Wilcox attic. Submitted photo.

The Granby Land Trust acquired the Wilcox property on Simsbury Road, owned by the late Steve Wilcox Hastings, in 2019. Since it does not have houses on its property, the Trust generously offered the late 18th century home to the Salmon Brook Historical Society if we agreed to preserve and maintain it. The agreement was made and this beautiful West Granby house is now historical society property. The house is a treasure—but that is another story. This story is about the loom in the attic. 

It is a four-post barn loom and it is large. It is 73 inches long, 62 inches wide and 70 inches high, made of oak posts and held together with wooden pegs. Looking around the attic we found a large frame holding a double row of wood spools, other wood sticks holding strings or wires and some oddly shaped pieces we thought might belong to the loom. None of us know anything about looms. This was going to be a challenge.

I did some research in probate records and found an “old loom” valued at $1.50, listed in the 1833 inventory of Sadoce Wilcox Jr., the first Wilcox to live in the house. There is also a loom in the 1777 inventory of his father, Sadoce Wilcox Sr. of Simsbury. It was worth 6 shillings and 5 pence. And a loom is also found in the 1773 inventory of Sadoce’s grandfather, William Wilcox of Simsbury. There is no proof that all these records refer to the same loom, but it is possible. Interesting to note, the first Wilcox to come to the colonies in 1635 was a linen weaver.

We decided to move the loom to one of the second-floor bedrooms, because visitors would not be able to tour the attic. Howard Berg and Dave Laun started taping paper around the joints and I marked numbers so we would be able to put it back together properly. We wanted all the pegs or pins back in the original holes. We gathered everything in the attic that might have been loom parts. I bought a 1915 book about looms to help us identify the parts. 

A few days later I received a phone call at the historical society and a young man asked, “Do you have a loom?” In my surprise at this absolutely perfect timing, I just said we did. He then asked if he could measure and photograph it. His name is Nevan Carling and he was representing the Marshfield School of Weaving in Marshfield, Vermont. Its goal is to find out how many of these 18th and 19th century looms still exist in New England and to record all pertinent information. 

When I finally asked how he found us, he said he was calling all the historical societies. I invited him to the Wilcox house the following week, planning to ask him many questions—about the construction, dating it and how to clean and preserve it.

Nevan was enthralled with our loom and told us many things about it, saying it was not built by a carpenter, but by a timber framer using a Dutch framing technique. He showed us faintly scratched Roman numerals in the wood indicating matching joints. He pointed out scratches in the wood, called tally marks, made by the weaver to keep track of his or her work. Some of the tally marks were in chalk and Nevan said we should save them. Then he asked where the weaver’s seat was. We had already removed it and brought it to show him. He was looking for a “bum print” and sure enough, there were worn areas in the seat where weavers had been sitting through the years. 

Our loom is 18th century and Nevan said the heddles are definitely from the 1700s. (Heddles are the sticks of wood with strong string that we found.) I asked if it was difficult to take apart and reassemble and he said he could take it apart in half an hour if he had his mallet. I asked him how to clean it and he said with alcohol and then he would oil it with a mixture of pine tar and turpentine.

Mark Williams asked where a loom was usually kept and Nevan said it would be in one of the first-floor parlors. We decided on the spot to rethink our decision to put the loom in a bedroom and chose the north parlor instead. Then Martha Korostynski asked if he could help us and he said he would be happy to. I then wondered if he got paid for this project and he said he was always looking for grants. We decided we could help with that and immediately arranged for him to return the following week to take the loom apart.

John Horr and Martha cleaned the north parlor and we bought a rug to protect the floor. Nevan brought a huge tarp to cover the area during cleaning. He first took many photographs of the loom for the Marshfield Society and promised to share them with us. He also took measurements for the project. He kept his word and the loom came apart in about half an hour. As the posts and bars and rollers were removed, the volunteers carried them down to the first floor. Step one was completed.

The following week, Nevan came back to clean the loom parts. We set up a fan to ventilate the area. A few parts of the loom needed some repair and after discussion of methods with Nevan, Dave took them back to the Society to work on. A few inches at the bottom of one post was rotted and split. He repaired the split and replaced the rotted base, using a piece of chestnut from one of the Rowe house beams. Dave then replaced a piece of wrought iron that was a much earlier repair for that post. He also cleaned and creatively reattached the hand forged ratchet for the warp beam.

Two weeks later, Nevan finished the cleaning and oiling. Then, the volunteers helped him to reassemble the loom. It wasn’t in the right place, so with the help of Dave Laun’s magic wheels, the men were able to turn the loom around the way a weaver would use it—near a window for light and sitting as close to the fireplace as possible to keep warm. 

Barn loom after relocation to front parlor. Submitted photo

There were still some parts in the attic that needed to be cleaned and added to the loom so another visit was scheduled. Our usual Wednesday meeting was postponed because Nevan had to be at the Wadsworth Athenaeum to work on their loom. 

Looking around the attic, we realized that at some point, weaving was actually done in the attic. There is a hole in the chimney to hold the stovepipe for a heating stove. There is a warping frame built into a wall with long dowels in two rows spaced several feet apart. The dowels were used for winding the thread from the spools. Holes in the wall indicate that the dowels once went all the way to the floor. We also found a little box shelf on the loom where the weaver placed small items he was using—and it still had a collection of quills, string, chalk, nails and the broken top of a spool rod.

Nevan told us we have a complete weaver’s workshop, which is impressive and rare. We also have a very rare table for making heddles in the attic. The heddles usually survived, but the tables did not. We have both wool and flax spinning wheels, a quilling wheel, yarn winders and of course, the loom. Everything needed for a spinning and weaving workshop.

In addition, there are the rugs. Steve Hastings gave us a slightly damaged 25 by 6-foot rug made on the loom. We had it cleaned, cut into two 12-foot pieces and bound. The colors are still bright and beautiful. There also was a hand loomed rug on the front stairs. Dave and Martha removed the rug and many tacks. It was in two pieces and folded in half before being tacked to the steps. It also retains the original vivid colors. We are having it cleaned, repaired and the cut edges bound. 

In the future, we hope to find a weaving group to set up and actually use the loom. Right now, we are delighted that the loom was moved, cleaned and assembled in the proper location. We would not have been able to accomplish this without the enthusiastic help and competent guidance of Nevan Carling. 

This young man has been traveling from Maine to New Jersey and throughout New England in the Marshfield School search for early looms. He obviously has the skill to be engaged by the Wadsworth Athenaeum curators. And to our surprise, we found out he is only 19 years old. It is rare to find someone his age with so much interest and knowledge about this ancient technology. However, looms are not Nevan’s main field of interest. In his own words, “I suppose I am a carpenter in the original meaning of the word. I practice preservation carpentry of timber framed structures, using traditional tools and techniques.” He is hoping to be called to work in France on the restoration of Notre Dame Cathedral. 

This historical society loom adventure was a rare moment when everything came together at just the right time.