The art of weaving

Max Hamrick is still learning after 40 years of weaving cloth just as it was done in the 18th century. May 1, 2006


Lloyd Dobyns: It’s May, and we’re celebrating our first full year of podcasting on We’re pleased that you listen, and we appreciate your e-mail. We’re still doing what you seem to enjoy on Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present, letting you meet “Behind the Scenes” the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Max Hamrick, who is a Colonial Williamsburg weaver. Obviously, you weave 18th-century style – I presume.

Max Hamrick: Yes, we’re using the tools and the equipment of 18th-century English cloth making.

Lloyd: Now, when it comes to weaving and cloth making, I know absolutely nothing. How difficult is it to do?

Max: Well, my apprentice and some of the folks that work with me tell me it’s pretty difficult, and that I don’t understand because I’ve been at it so long, but I think it’s like anything else, it’s in what you learn how to do, and “hard” is what you say when you don’t know how to do it until you learn it.

Lloyd: (Laughs) Okay, how long have you been at it?

Max: I guess, all totaled, about 40 years.

Lloyd: Uh…yeah, I think you would have it pretty well down by now…

Max: Well, so far we’re learning as we go.

Lloyd: Oh really?

Max: [There are] a lot of differences between what I do here and what we did in the real world of cloth making, the modern world of cloth making. There are a couple of problems. I have too much technology about some things and I don’t have enough technology about some other things. Weaving in the 18th century was learned through a seven-year apprenticeship. And, if you look back through English society you have about 800 years of accumulating knowledge. Where a master taught an apprentice – who learned more than his master did in his lifetime and taught another apprentice – and when they hooked up water power, and began to turn the machines on, those people were about as useful as a typewriter repairman would be today. So that technology died and was buried with its last practitioners. So I don’t know what a kid let’s say in the fifth or sixth year of his apprenticeship would know about the machinery of the 18th century, we’re just applying 20th century technology – which is the past now, too – to 18th-century equipment and see what we come up with.

Lloyd: That would be kind of fascinating. You’re still learning as you go.

Max: Absolutely positively – learn a little something new every day. Sometimes the hard things are real easy to figure out, and the simple things take years and years and years just to come across. We have several reference books. Jefferson kept pretty good records when he studied textiles. And another Virginia reference would be George Washington’s weaver who kept himself a good notebook which has traveled through time. And, we’re able to function at pretty close to the speed that would make us a living in a world where cloth was made by hand.

Lloyd: Oh…okay… what do people want to know when they come through watching you?

Max: The most asked question is, “what did you use to color the textiles, what were the dyes?” And of course people constantly say, “I always wanted to know how one of those machines worked. Can you show me what the weaving is?” And it’s really fairly easy to do. Almost everybody thinks they know nothing about weaving, but so very many people – certainly of my generation and your generation – made a potholder on a little looping loom where they went over under, over under, over under – well you were weaving! And it’s all in the world that I do. The patterns are made by which string you go over and which string you go under. The machines that make modern cloth basically do the same things that the machines that I work with today do. The major difference is that I can’t turn these machines on. And when I don’t have visitors to Colonial Williamsburg to talk to, and I’ve got to sit there and run that thing, I sure do miss being able to turn it on and walk away from it.

Lloyd: (Laughs) Yeah, that’s something you don’t think of until you’re stuck with it, then you’re there. I’d never thought of making that little potholder as, in fact, weaving, but it is I guess.

Max: Well, we use that every day, because we can show people that where you are going over under, over under, the machine will do that for you. You’re raising and lowering a series of strings, and passing yarn across in the opening between the strings. Then you take the strings that were on the top and put them on the bottom and the strings that were on the bottom and put them on the top, and the machine does that for you.

Lloyd: Okay, that’s where you push your pedals…

Max: You push your pedals, and that raises and lowers strings, and then you pass your little boat shuttle – and it looks like a boat – across between the rows of yarn that are raised and lowered, and you change that opening. And the pattern does depend on which ones are up and which ones are down, which ones you go over, and which ones you go under.

Lloyd: You mentioned people wanting to know what dyes you use. I mean obviously you tell them…

Max: Yes, we do. The dyes are fun. They are a very good stepchild. In 18th-century Williamsburg, dyeing was a practiced trade, and you spent another seven years apprenticing to be a dyer. Nobody was both a dyer and a weaver, but we make do here at dyeing. I tell people real quick I’m relatively new at coloring textiles; I’ve only been at that about 20 years. We use a recipe written in the 18th century. We have indeed changed one ingredient in one recipe, and if folks knew what that ingredient was, they would forgive us for making that change. But the most expensive dye in the world in the 18th century was the bright reds, the real scarlets. They are made out of an insect called cochineal. He’s a well traveled rascal – he traveled from South America to Spain to England to us. I’m told it takes 70,000 bugs to make a pound of red dye. I’ve always wondered who was the bug counter? I’d like to talk to him – how long does it take to count out a pound of bugs? The blue is indigo, and it traveled the same route. Also, South Carolina was growing indigo very much like we were growing tobacco here. Indigo gives you your blue. Your purple is the heartwood of a South American tree called Campeche. You chop the tree down, split it open and chisel out the dark wood in the middle, which is called logwood – l-o-g – and that gave you the purple dye. There are a lot of yellows. The Spanish had good yellows. The seed of the Annatto tree gave you a good yellow – it’s a buttery color. Fustic – which is the root or the rhizome that grows across under the ground of the Fustic bush – gives you a good yellow. But here we preferred a spice from India called Turmeric. Any time you can cut Spain out of trade, that’s good, if you’re a good Englishman, and of course that came from India, so that was a better deal for us. Green was yellow with blue on top of it. The husk of walnuts would give us brown, a very good shiny brown, and the root of the matter plant gave us orange. If I needed black I’d put so much purple on it that it would look black. All the recipes that we use didn’t come from one source. We’ve looked desperately to find recipes that were safe, easy to use, and fairly quick. And, we’ve done that, and as I said, we’ve changed one ingredient. We changed an ingredient in the blue. I’m using a little different source of ammonia as a catalyst for the blue than was used in the 18th century.

Lloyd: First off, I can’t imagine how you remember all that. I guess it’s just years of doing it. You say a weaver and a dyer were two different trades that you have now in your shop. Which takes more time?

Max: You know, I think probably they’re about equal. It’s hard to decide. Either one of them can take a lot of time, depending on what you are doing and how much of it you’re doing. Set-up time on a loom – we’ve kept pretty good records here – and over the past 18 years, we’re setting up per 100 strings in the set up, per 100 ends or yarn, pieces of yarn, about an hour per 100, so if you are running a blanket, that’s around 540 ends or strings, and that takes about five hours. And if we’re running toweling or something real tight, 40 – 50 strings, we can get as many as 2200 strings packed into a warp or the set up, which is what yarn stretched on a loom is called, a warp. It takes about an hour per 100 strings to set that up. And it doesn’t really matter how long it is. The set-up time is in the width and not the length.

Lloyd: Oh really? I didn’t know…I guess you can just keep going until it runs out.

Max: You can run it ’til it runs out. If you had the same thing to do again, you could tie it back in and not set the thing back up again. In the 18 years I’ve been here, we’ve never made exactly the same product twice, so each piece of cloth we make is a new learning experience, which is always a lot of fun. They’re a lot of fun until you’ve gotten ’em down, you can run ’em real well, and then they are very repetitive, so you’re always anxious to get through with what you’re doing so you can get to the next one, because it’s fun to set up.

Lloyd: What do you make? Obviously you make cloth, but for what?

Max: Well, we make cloth from wool, flax – which is where linen comes from – we do occasionally work with hemp; we work with three distinctively different kinds of cotton and whatever silk we need. We generally make the things we need here at Colonial Williamsburg that modern man doesn’t make. So, some of the more recent projects – the last set of sails we ran on the windmill were linen and they came off our smaller loom. There’s a dimity – curtains, canopies and skirts – on Peyton Randolph’s bed and then some other beds on that house that we have covered. We got involved in the project with the Courthouse, and we made the covers for books. The bookbinder and I went to Middlesex County, Virginia, where they have some of the older record books, and the books were still there, and they were kind enough to let us look through the court dock books, so that we could copy the books. So we copied that cloth. Wagon covers, mostly utilitarian stuff – a lot of blankets and a lot of bed covers all over Williamsburg have come off of our looms.

Lloyd: So, when people are walking around looking at these things, it’s not original, but it’s authentic.

Max: It is. Their idea is that if we own the antique especially, and we’re using it, if I can copy it, make some more of it, using the right yarn, the right fiber, the right dyes, the right machinery – that we have another one, and we can place that antique in a controlled environment and have that for future generations to be able to look at and study.

Lloyd: Because everything is eventually going to wear out, run out.

Max: Textiles are some of the antiques that go away from us quicker than, let’s say, pieces of furniture. So, we’ve been very fortunate we have a good collection at Colonial Williamsburg to study. Sometimes we need something we don’t have and we look at other museums or we’ll look at a private collector. Every once in a while I’ll make something we see in an 18th-century painting, so that someone could actually step out of the painting dressed in the same clothes the person in that painting was wearing.

And, occasionally we’ll need something by name, and we can’t find it, but we can find it in a weaver’s draft book, which basically is the programming. Looms are the first thing in the world man regularly programmed, so they are the granddaddy of computers. And, the programs you would write down so you could come back and do them again, and many of those weavers’ notebooks have passed through their family and through time to us. And every once in a while we’ll make a piece of cloth that we really don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like until we put it on the loom following the instructions from the 18th century.

Lloyd: On the other hand, that ought to be fun.

Max: It’s a great deal of fun. It’s a great deal of fun. It’s a pretty good job – get paid to study, work with antiques, copy cloth and get paid to talk to very nice people – which is a lot of fun – every day.

Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. Check often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.

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