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DESCRIPTIONFor 42 years it has been an Island mainstay, a business synonymous with all that is best about Nantucket. During this time it has been a gathering place of artists and artisans whose work it has showcased and celebrated.
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TraditionsFor 42 years it has been an Islandmainstay, a business synonymous withall that is best about Nantucket. Duringthis time it has been a gathering place ofartists and artisans whose work it hasshowcased and celebrated.Its signature products have become Nantucket icons, cherishednot only by Islanders but also by numerous visitors that include our nations First Ladies, legendary designers, andmovie stars. For generations a visit to Nantucket has not beencomplete without a stop at Nantucket Looms.
The Looms is back on Main Street after a six-year hiatus onFederal Street. From the beginning, the emphasis has beennot only on high quality, but also on perpetuating traditional methods of manufacture. Although Nantucket Looms openedits doors at 16 Main Street on April 1, 1968, its origins canbe found in an enterprise begun several years earlier.
It started in the mid-60s under the tutelage of Mary Ann Beinecke, current Looms owner Liz Winship noted recently. Itwas initially called the Cloth Company of Nantucket and oneof its missions was to refurbish the former Ocean House onBroad Street with hand-woven fabrics. The whole idea wasalmost like what ReMain Nantucket is trying to do now, Winshipsays, noting that Mary Ann and her husband Walter Beinecke, Jr., were trying to breathe new life into the downtownthrough the restoration of the Islands grand old buildings.
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By Steve SheppardPhotography by Jared Golen
and Courtesy of Nantucket Looms
By using age-old production techniques, the Ocean Housewas transformed into the stately Jared Coffin House, itsfurnishings harkening back to a time when weavers and artisans were respected professionals.
Master Weaver Andy Oates, a graduate of the famed BlackMountain College, was there at its inception. Sitting down todinner at the Woodbox with the Beineckes one night, Oatesrecalls, Walter said, Now, if you had lots of money on Nantucket what would you like to do? I said, Well, if I hadlots of money Id like to start a weaving business. It was justwhat the Beineckes had in mind, particularly Mary Ann,whose background was in needlery and the decorative arts.The idea was that we would train local people to weave withthe intent that we would make fabrics for the Jared CoffinHouse. Jim Hendrix was hired as the decorator. We workedwith Mary Ann and Jim making restoration fabrics. We triedto stay within the period of the beginning of the building. Wedid everything carpets for the hall; bedspreads for the bedrooms; silk draperies in the two living rooms; placematsfor the tables in the dining room.
They made beautiful fabrics that lasted well over 30 years,Winship notes. It was a traditional, Sturbridge Village-likelook.
The Cloth Company set up shop at H. Marshall Gardiners oldphotography store at 16 Main Street. Oates oversaw production and design, with the early emphasis on production.Rather than the twentieth century image of a weaver laboring fastidiously over one piece at a time, the Cloth Company was a throwback to the days before mechanizedlooms, when hand-weavers mass - produced cloth at a rapidrate. Beginning with 10 Island women who learned to weaveunder Oates guidance, many Nantucketers eventually cameon board, with the steady beat of several looms working atonce providing a factory-like rhythm to the daily operation.
The Cloth Company also featured the hand-printed silkscreenfabrics of Doris and Leslie Tillettt, who set up a production studio at what is now the Sunken Ship on Lower Main Street.
Bill Euler, an assistant manager at the Plaza Hotel in NewYork, oversaw the Jared Coffin House restoration as the hotelsmanager. In 1968, he and Oates bought the Cloth Companyand renamed it Nantucket Looms.
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A brown, very serviceable colors. The idea was you could travelwith them or you could wear them. And they all got sold, almost immediately, and from then on we made throws, bythe thousands probably.
One of the very first throws was bought by interior decoratorBilly Baldwin as a gift for his friend, the Baroness Philippe deRothchild, taking the Looms into the realm of internationalhaute couture.
The linen and ramie fabric, moreover, was a historic design innovation.
We made upholstery fabric and we also made wall fabricsfor contemporary architects, Oates recalls. I would visit NewYork and act as salesman. I had designed this linen and ramiefabric. Ramie is a type of fiber related to linen. We used thefine linen warp thread with this heavy ramie yarn as a fill.
On a visit to the offices of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill,Oates recalls, One of the senior partners said, Wow, whatis this fabric? Id like to cover the walls of my office with this. The firm later used the same fabric for some of the buildingsit designed, including the Trump Tower. One of our big jobs
Although weaving was still central to its mission, NantucketLooms also featured the work of Island artists whose disciplines were rooted in traditional forms.
Among those whose art found a home at the Looms wereMara Cary and her hand-crafted baskets, the ship models ofMark Sutherland, the carved birds of Pat Gardner, and thepaintings of Bobby Bushong, Paul LaPaglia, Robert Stark, andKen Layman. John and Frances Elders lightship baskets werefollowed by those of Karol Lindquist. Margareta Nettles hand-woven rag rugs were also a staple, a tradition carriedon today by Hilary Anapol. It became known as a placewhere you could find unusual things, things you couldnt find anywhere else, and it was all locally done, Winship says.The Looms recognized talent.
From the beginning, two of the Looms signature items were itsmohair throws and a linen and ramie fabric, both designed byOates. The throws, or blankets, were Doris Tilletts originalidea, Oates recalled. We were making scarves and stoles(at the Cloth Company) and we had good quality mohair yarnat the time. Doris said, Why cant you make us a throw sizeout of these yarns? So I sat down at the loom and made somesamples. We had six mohair throw styles, they were black and
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was doing the front foyer of the lobby. We wove 130 yards.Before long, we started producing this fabric for other architects.
Although Oates makes the design seem simple in the retelling,its creation was an artistic achievement. A few years ago aBritish trade magazine commissioned a group of designers toname the most important fabrics designed in the twentieth century.One of the fabrics chosen was our linen and ramie, Oatessays understatedly.
Another original idea that has stood the test of time is theLooms CPO jacket, hand-sewn from the start by Nantucketseamstress Lia Marks. I think that is what were most knownfor today, Winship says, the throws and the jackets.
Indeed, its hard to find a home on the Island without a NantucketLooms throw or an Islander who isnt the proud owner of aone-of-a-kind CPO jacket. Everybody you see has them,Winship says. I still see people wearing their original jackets;theyre generational.
Again, Oates was instrumental in the design. I had this ideathat we could make a tweed fabric and have it designed likethe navys Chief Petty Officer jacket, kind of like a shirt-jacket.
I remembered them from my days in the Navy. We designedthe tweed jacket with Lias help. When approached by Oatesand Euler, Marks suggested they line the jackets with the finecotton lining the Looms had in stock.
The jackets featured ivory buttons at first, Liberty of Londonlining, and, as they still do today, hand-woven fabric. Thejackets seemed a natural progression for Lia Marks, who atfirst made hand-sewn ties from handwoven fabrics for theCloth Company, followed by a wool challis Whalers Shirt, avery, very thin fine wool, Winship notes, with three ivorybuttons. It was a straight shirt with a large collar, a yoke, andpuffy sleeves.
Each CPO jacket is still cut from Looms hand-woven fabricand meticulously hand-sewn by Marks. Adding to eachjackets unique quality is the limited yardage woven for them.We never did fabrics that were any more than 30 yards,Winship relates. You might see another red one, but it wouldhave a different weave pattern.
As she has since she made her first design, Lia does all thework herself cutting the fabric and lining, doing all thestitching and sewing, right down to the last button.
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Demand for the jackets has always been high. In her heyday, Lia made 365-plus shirts a year. Think of it, thats overa shirt a day, Winship notes.
Now in her eighties, Marks isnt making the jackets at such arate, but every jacket sold exclusively at the Looms is madeonly by Marks from her original patterns. Family members requesting jackets are told to wait in line. Her grandson finally earned his only upon his graduation from college twoyears ago. Her granddaughter, a senior at Wheaton Collegethis year, is hopeful this will be the year for her own jacket.
Lias daughter, Karin Sheppard, who grew up watching theweavers at the Looms and later became a Nantucket Loomsweaver herself, vividly recalls the day she measured DustinHoffman for a jacket.
I worked as a shopgirl summers during college. If a famousperson came in, you notified everyone so that wed remainnonchalant and he could walk through the shop without beingfawned over. One day I went out to lunch and everyone said,You missed it, Dustin Hoffman was here. And then I was toldthat he was interested in one of Lias shirts, but the