BAR HARBOR — In one form or another, since nearly the beginning of our history, humans have been weaving. From sedges and nettles for basketry and fishing nets to exquisite tapestries of silk and gold, weaving, beyond warming our floors and walls, has helped us build shelters, catch food and clothe ourselves. “I’m in a tradition,” said Judith Blank, leaning against the doorway of her workshop on Norway Drive. “I know in America you’re not supposed to say you’re in a tradition. But I’m very much in a tradition.” Blank began weaving after she and her husband, Steve Alsup, moved to Massachusetts, when she was offered a job at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. While the Pittsburgh native first became interested in textiles while doing field work in India for her Ph.D., she didn’t start weaving in earnest until she met the ladies of Sturbridge Village, a living museum in Massachusetts that recreates life in rural New England during the 1790s through 1830s. When the couple moved to Maine, in 1977, Blank began teaching at College of the Atlantic and, one winter, enrolled in a weaving class taught by a woman in Brooksville’s village of Bucks Harbor.
“She’d rent space on her looms,” Blank remembered. “She imported this wonderful yarn. This Swedish yarn,” she added, moving across the room and fingering the edge of a hanging rug. “It’s supposed to be the shadow of trees on the snow,” she said, pointing to pieces of light purple cloth (an old jacket) woven among the white.
As she became more serious about the craft, Blank eventually bought herself a midsize Glimåkra counterbalance loom, a floor loom made of Swedish pine with massive sturdy beams, allowing for “maximum tension.”
Blank, who is retired after working 29 years at the Northeast Harbor Library, does her weaving in a small workshop adjacent to her octagonal house, which she and her late husband built themselves (largely from salvaged and recycled materials) on a piece of wooded land off Norway Drive.
Rather than buy new, Blank put an ad in the paper, looking for materials to make into rugs. When no one responded, she scoured local thrift stores, until word got out, and friends began bringing her their old wool shirts, pants and blankets.
“I used to work at the library in Northeast Harbor,” said Blank. “There was this lady who was a friend of the library, and she volunteered at a thrift shop. Thrift shops have to weed their stuff. When she’d see wool going out the door, she’d save it. She’d bring it to the library and I’d find these big sacks by my desk and I would bring them home. I wouldn’t even know what I was going to get — I was just receiving this bounty.”
Wool kilts and good quality shirts make some of the best rugs.
“My favorite thing of all is those green Maine Guide pants that are felted like wool,” said Blank. “I weave a lot of kilts — kilts are a lot of wool. If you take a kilt apart, pick out the waistband and unstitch the pleats you get a big rectangle.”
Working with cotton, which is more plentiful and comes in a greater variety of colors, means Blank can “see something and try to imitate it — I have enough inventory that I can actually work that way.” With wool, however, “it’s more limited.” She uses a lot of pants, which are easy to rip, and is partial to wool from the British Isles, which tends to be of high quality and rich, earthy colors.
“It’s not like knitting,” said Blank. “It takes a lot of goods.”
Once the materials have been gathered, a rug takes about five days from start to finish.
“First you have to find it, then you have to cut it, then you have to piece it,” said Blank. “You’re always grooming these materials.”
Once the shuttles have been loaded, said Blank, “It’s ready to go. Then you weave. There’s a lot of time in it.”
The loom Blank now works on takes up much of the space in her simple workshop.
“This is the real deal,” she said, laying her hand on one of the beams. It’s large enough that she can walk between it, and because it is “unspecialized. this loom does not force me one way or another. [With] Modern looms, there’s almost a pressure toward complexity, computerization even,” said Blank. “I’m not that kind of weaver — I keep it really basic.”
Blank is the third person to own this loom, which was originally imported by local weaver Mary Anderson Chase.
“This lady on the Cranberry Isles had it,” said Blank, resting against one of the beams. “Her husband was a fisherman. I bought it from her.” One warm day in February, her husband delivered it on his boat.
The raw materials for the rugs are stored on the second floor of her octagonal house, spilling out of the eaves, organized by color and fabric. Blank apologized to a visitor for its messiness, but to the outside eye the space is tidy and full of light: a small woodstove at the top of a spiral staircase with an elegant wrought iron railing (her late husband was an accomplished blacksmith) throws off plenty of heat, and her old loom (she’s since bought a larger one) sits in the middle of the floor of what was once her son’s bedroom.
The former professor does most of her weaving in the winter, “which I like because it lets me visit with my rugs,” she explained. In a normal year, she sells her creations at two craft fairs, at the Mount Desert Island High School and another at the Neighborhood House in Northeast Harbor. Last year, because of the pandemic, both were canceled, so she strung the rugs up on a clothesline and sold them outside her house, which she plans on doing this year as well.
“I have a lot of repeat customers,” Blank said.
While Blank doesn’t take commissions, she will occasionally make a memorial piece — such as the wall tapestry she wove of her late husband’s tweed suits.
“My husband was sort of a dandy in his younger days,” she said, with a light laugh. “When he died, he left a lot of suits. He was very skinny. Nobody was ever going to wear them. So, I wove them. It’s been quite a comfort to me, really.”
Because the quality of the raw materials is high, Blank expects a rug to last through 25 years of hard use. “A rag rug, it doesn’t mean it’s old and worn out,” she added. “It means it’s a raw edge. A rag rug is going to be a little bit hairy.”
Although “there is sort of a critic of industrialization” in her work, Blank acknowledged that she is also “the beneficiary of the waste stream. It’s unbelievable, it’s so endless.”
Her rugs are “all experiments,” said Blank. “As you weave you witness metamorphosis.”
If you have high-quality materials you’d like to donate (wool blankets and shirts are good; sweaters are not) or would like to purchase a rug, email [email protected] or call 288-5145.