A loom with a view: 200-year-old loom refurbished at Surrey Museum

SURREY — OK, I admit it: The concept of fabrics and needles and threads and the way they all work together to produce sweaters and curtains and tablecloths hasn’t exactly been my lifelong passion. I liken it to my girlfriend’s response when I start yapping about sports or cameras – the way her eyes gloss over as she contemplates her escape.

So I certainly didn’t think my visit to Surrey Museum to report on the repair of an antique loom would produce a personal “wow” moment. And I was right. I didn’t have a single “wow” moment. I had a bunch of them.

It started when I walked in. Directly in front of me sat a monstrous behemoth, about the size of an ensuite bathroom. It was so big that the two-person repair team currently walked comfortably atop it, their heads literally scraping the 12-foot raised ceiling.

This, I was told, was a Jacquard loom, a device conceived by French silk weaver and inventor Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1801 at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Jacquard, ingeniously, had figured a way to mass-produce sophisticated textiles by using a hyper-complex system of threads and hooks and, of course, that enormous wooden exoskeleton.

One other thing: The Jacquard loom was also the first-ever device to use “punch cards.” Another Jacquard invention, punch cards allowed the user to change patterns completely, merely by swapping out a gaggle of Swiss cheese-like cardboard plates. Each featured a unique array of holes, which were then “read” by the loom’s hooks and threads as a portion of a unique pattern.

Punch card variants eventually became de rigueur in a wide variety of machines throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and are now commonly viewed as the first formative step in the age of computing.

Clearly, this was no ordinary loom, it was big-time history.

A weaving instructor at Capilano College, Ruth Scheuing, helps Dario Bartolini and Julie Holyoke restore a Jacquard loom at Surrey Museum. (Photo: GORD GOBLE)

And I was intrigued – more so when I stared into the eye-popping maze of threads and hooks that resides in its centre. This particular model, obtained in the early 1960s from the collection of noted local textile pioneer Honey Hooser, features no less than 960 individual thread/hook combinations, positioned perilously close together and forming a web of such delicacy that one could not help but wonder how it had functioned this long without a malfunction.

Atop the beast, repair person Julie Holyoke and assistant Dario Bartolini were investigating. Holyoke, as it turns out, is one of the world’s foremost authorities on all things Jacquard. Born in Seattle, where the northwest’s inclement weather drove her to explore indoor pursuits, she became obsessed with textiles.

“I like to make textiles,” she said with a laugh from her elevated perch. “It not only gave me something to do during the many rainy days in Seattle, but to produce from sloppy threads something of order is, to me, gratifying.”

She moved to Italy in the early 1960s, where her love for the craft bloomed and her expertise evolved. There she met Bartolini, a native of Florence and an artist and architect who would eventually create the dazzling illustrations for Holyoke’s most revered book, Digital Jaquard Design.

At Surrey Museum last week, they spoke to one another in Italian, conferring and analyzing and drawing conclusions.

Left: Dario Bartolini and Julie Holyoke atop the Jacquard loom at Surrey Museum, Ruth Scheuing below. Right: Holyoke concentrates on the meticulous repair process. (Photos: GORD GOBLE)

On the floor, but inside the machine directly below Holyoke and acting upon her guidance, was Ruth Scheuing. A weaving instructor at Capilano College and a semi-regular at the museum’s textile wing, Scheuing had acted as conduit between the Cloverdale facility and old acquaintance Holyoke, and ultimately helped spirit her to Surrey from a Los Angeles conference.

In the end, the verdict was multi-faceted. The loom – the only mechanical Jacquard loom in B.C. and one of precious few in the country – had been pedalled too hard by too many people. It had twice been moved, a demanding task in itself that had certainly impacted its fragile precision. It had originally been designed for a height-challenged operator. And the threads – and much of the machine, for that matter – had grown dirty over time.

For now, and over the course of the next few days, the team would make gentle adjustments to most crucial areas to get it up and running once again. But the full-on restoration Holyoke recommended would take far more effort, far more money.

The threads – all 960 of them – would need to be individually replaced and painstakingly rethreaded. Many of the most vital parts would need a thorough cleaning or reworking. And a new batch of punch cards would need to be sourced and customized.

To arrange a visit or a group tour of the Surrey Museum’s Hooser Textile Studio, or to contribute to the Jacquard loom’s restoration effort, contact the museum at 604-592-6956.


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