Weaving Lessons: Ruth Ingvarsson’s Manuscripts

Among the treasures in Cranbrook Archives is a manuscript that, although I can’t read anything written inside, is one of my favorite things at Cranbrook. Bound in handwoven cloth by the author herself, the cover hints at what’s inside. This is Ruth Ingvarsson’s weaving book.

Ruth Ingvarsson’s weaving manuscript, hand-bound in a cloth cover of her own design and execution, ca. 1932-1935. Rigid Swedish-style counterbalanced loom depicted on the front, “R I” on reverse. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

One of two manuscripts written in Swedish and assembled by Ingvarsson between 1932 and 1935, each of the more than 100 pages discuss different weave structures, materials, patterns, and techniques. Who was Ingvarsson, and how did these treasures end up at Cranbrook?

Rut “Ruth” Elisabeth Ingvarsson was born on October 1, 1897 in Glemminge, Skäne, Sweden. Like many Scandinavian girls, she learned weaving first from her mother and then at school, graduating from the Glemminge Folkskola in 1918. In 1922, Ingvarsson began studies at the celebrated weaving studio of Märta Måås-Fjetterström in Båstad, Sweden.

Ingvarsson continued working for Måås-Fjetterström until 1928, learning technical skills including knotted pile rya or flossa weaves, rölakan flatweave, and a discontinuous (or supplemental) weft style of tapestry weaving known as the MMF technique. Under Måås-Fjetterström, Ingvarsson developed great skill painting watercolor sketches on graph paper in the popular “Swedish Grace” (or “Swedish Modern”) style. She also befriended another young weaver, Lillian Holm, who entered into the Måås-Fjetterström studio in 1926.

Watercolor of a rug design in the “Swedish Grace” style by Ruth Ingvarsson in her untitled manuscript on weaving, ca. 1932-1935. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

In late 1929, Ruth Ingvarsson and Lillian Holm immigrated to America to start work that December at Studio Loja Saarinen, Cranbrook’s weaving workshop. Here, Ingvarsson executed designs from Loja herself and other members of the Saarinen family, as well as designs by the Studio’s shop supervisor and prominent Swedish weaving expert Maja Andersson Wirde.

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Vroom Vroom goes the Loom

In preparation for the Center’s upcoming show, Studio Loja Saarinen: The Art and Architecture of Weaving, 1928-42, we recently moved a historic Cranbrook Loom from the Kingswood Weaving Studio across campus to Saarinen House.

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The Cranbrook Loom at home in the Kingswood Weaving Studio.

I wanted a Cranbrook Loom to be a part of the exhibition as a teaching and demonstration tool, so guests can understand how the many beautiful rugs on display were produced. Studio Loja Saarinen started with just one loom in 1928, but grew to include thirty-five. The original looms used by the Studio were quite heavy and difficult to work with; Saarinen’s unhappiness with them eventually resulted in her demand for a loom built exactly to her specifications. She worked with John Bexell, a skilled cabinet maker and husband of one of the Studio’s weavers, Marie, to construct a loom that was lighter, sturdier, and easier to operate. The first Bexell loom was delivered in 1936.

Cranbrook Weaving Studio Loja Saarinen April 1936 Neg 3354

Bexell (or Cranbrook) looms in the Cranbrook Weaving Studio, April 1936. Cranbrook Archives.

John P. Bexell descended from a long line of woodworkers. Born in Korstrask, Sweden in April 1899, he emigrated to the U.S. and settled in Flint, Michigan in the 1920s. He had made looms back in Sweden, and when he made the first to Saarinen’s specifications he saw potential in the design and made others to sell.

Loja Saarinen and her weavers were so pleased with the new Bexell-made loom she immediately ordered more. Other weavers ordered the looms too, and Bexell also received a commission from the federal Farm Security Administration for several hundred looms. His career as a loom specialist took off. In 1945, at Loja Saarinen’s suggestion, Bexell named his now quite popular (and profitable) loom the “Cranbrook Loom.” He produced the looms with his son, Bert, in Flint until 1977, when he sold the business.

All that to say, I still needed to get a Cranbrook Loom across campus.

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Our first victory! Getting the loom out of the weaving studio and into the truck. Ed looks pleased.

Working with my colleagues Leslie Mio and Matt Horn, along with Matt’s husband Marc Meyers and game members of Cranbrook’s moving crew Ed and Trevor, we got the loom on the go. To exit the weaving studio, we each grabbed a leg of the loom and walked it above the others and out of the double doors, through the courtyard, and into the moving truck.

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Trevor, Marc, Matt, and Ed walking the loom toward increasingly smaller doors.

At Saarinen House, we had to remove the warp stick catcher to get the loom through the door. It then had to turn completely on its side to fit through the narrower interior doors. Nothing but our nerves were harmed in the process.

You might be thinking to yourself, don’t looms come apart? Well, yes. However, the loom had been partially prepped for weaving, and we didn’t want to have to reassemble it from scratch inside the studio. I am not, after all, a loom expert. So instead we twisted and turned until the loom was in place in the Saarinen House Studio!

A few days later, Lynn Bennett Carpenter, Academy alumna and instructor in weaving and fashion at Cranbrook Kingswood Upper School, came to finish setting up the loom for weaving a plaid. There was much tensioning, counting, tensioning, threading, twisting, and tying. It was fun, and quite stressful! One wrong heddle threaded, and our weave would be ruined.

Guests to Saarinen House will now be able to learn about the history of the Cranbrook Loom, see it in action, and even throw the shuttle back and forth to help us make our 12 foot plaid. Tours of Saarinen House start in May and run through December 1, 2019. The exhibition will open during Open(Studios) on April 28, 2019. Come and join us to explore the house and exhibition during our free Opening Reception from 1:00—5:00pm, with demonstrations and lessons from Cranbrook Kingswood Upper School weavers!

– Kevin Adkisson, 2016-2019 Collections Fellow, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Special thanks to Lynn Bennett Carpenter for loaning us the loom, for her time prepping the loom, for volunteering her students to assist in our Open House, and for teaching me how to weave.

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