Unravelled: The story of the Morse/Stiles weaving class
Yale Daily News
OCT 12, 2018
On Monday evenings in Morse, as athletes scarf down food in the dining hall and students stress out in the library, something else is going on in the basement. A dozen students are learning the ancient art of weaving. They wind yarn, thread looms and weave patterns into tapestries, towels and scarves. Each college has a special room in its basement devoted to a craft. Branford has a pottery studio, Berkeley has a carpentry room, TD has printmaking, among others.
The Morse weaving class was started as a way to destress students and hopefully imbue them with a transferable skill they could use later in life.
Sheau Lim ’19, an undergrad in Stiles, decided to take the class for this reason, saying, “I wanted a place to make things. I’m an architecture major, so I’m used to drawing, but I wanted to actually make the object I was thinking about.” Jocelyn Wickersham ’19, also in Stiles, had a different reason, saying, “I study art history, and I think it’s really valuable to study how art objects are made.”
Kristi Lockhart, the wife of the former Morse head of college, first implemented the program about seven or eight years ago, when Morse and Stiles were undergoing renovations. The project has always been shared between the two colleges. The administration started the project by buying a few floor looms. The looms got there in big boxes and required some assembly. They panicked a bit and called the loom manufacturer in Colorado, who put Lockhart in touch with a woman named Barbara.
Barbara agreed to come in and teach the students. The idea was that she would teach a few students, and they would teach other students and the project would grow. Well, that didn’t work out so well.
Barbara Hurley is a master weaver, literally. She went through a rigorous certification process and can now claim the title. She is also a member of three craft guilds. She says of the guild communities, “We teach each other and support each other.”
Barbara thinks that she has probably taught close to 100 students at Yale. There’s always a waitlist for the class, and she can’t accommodate everybody. The students enjoy it; sometimes they write thank-you notes to Barbara when they graduate. Sometimes, when they go to other weaving studios across the country and are asked where they learned to weave, they say Barbara taught them.
Barbara started weaving when she was about 30. Her husband grew up on a vegetable farm in Milford. They started their life together in Michigan and recreated the farm life they built there in Connecticut later on together. She likes to point to the farm as the genesis of her love of weaving: “First I had some tomatoes. Then they wanted cows, so in came a cow, then another cow appeared. So after cows, obviously I had to get goats,” Hurley said, somewhat sarcastically.
“And then after the goats, sheep seemed like the next obvious step. Oh, and I had chickens — I sold their eggs, so then I had a little egg money, all my own. Well, I needed someone to shear the sheep, and I hired someone, and suddenly I had all this wool. What was I going to do with this wool? I liked to knit, but there was way too much wool for only that. And then I heard a friend was selling a loom,” Hurley explained. She bought the loom, and thus began her weaving career.
For years, Barbara worked alongside her husband until they sold their business in 2001. For her retirement gift, she said, “He sent me out to buy a Home Depot gift card and a dozen roses. Well, he wasn’t going to send me out to buy my own gift, and I certainly didn’t want a Home Depot gift card! So I asked for a certificate to a famed craft center about 25 miles away.”
There was a woman at the craft center who taught a group of people, and Barbara picked the craft right back up after her weaving hiatus. It turned out this woman had terminal cancer, and before she died, she said, “Of all the people I have weaving with me, I want Barbara to take my place.” Barbara taught at the craft center for many years and ran the studio.
Barbara said, “I don’t normally weave on commission, I prefer to do it myself. Sometimes people ask me to finish up a project their deceased mother started. And that’s a lot of pressure. I prefer to weave what I want. I give most of the stuff away, or my children take it, or their friends do. I do like to make shawls for brides -— my children’s friends.” Barbara said her favorite thing she ever made was a gorgeous, colorful blanket. On the back she sewed on Mongolian lambskin. It was displayed in the Morse Art Gallery for a while.
Now Barbara teaches at her local senior center in Easton, CT. Her oldest student is 97. She likes the community and said, “We support each other, if someone’s not doing well we notice. And, as I like to say, it’s cheaper than therapy. We really connect. That’s why I’ve kept this Morse space cellphone-free so many years later, because this should be a place to calm down.”
Harry Westbrook ’21, a student in Morse, agreed that this is a calming space. He said he started taking the class because he “wanted an activity that was relaxing, but actually produced a product.” Another sophomore in Morse, Paige Davis ’21, echoed this statement: “I love weaving! First, it’s incredibly relaxing. Second, it’s just really fun to work in textiles and totally different from anything I’ve done before. Barbara is also really helpful — there’s no way any of us could make anything without her — and I can’t wait to make many, many more scarves!”
Before I came to Yale, I was most excited to have been sorted randomly into Morse when I learned about the weaving class. I’ve always loved to knit, and was excited to do something else with yarn. I didn’t realize, though, just how difficult it is. Setting up the loom can take as long as actually making the product. A small wall tapestry can take more than 20 hours to complete. After each class, my back aches. Taking the class, I realized why the Industrial Revolution emancipated women — machines took the brunt of human labor.
This fall I have made countless errors, which have nearly driven me to tears. Barbara likes to say that all errors are “character-building,” but mostly they are just frustrating. In some ways, the class is harder than some of my academic classes: I almost wonder if we should receive credit for it. But I also think there is something to learning a craft and doing everything with your hands.
In our increasingly digital society, this is the only time in my week when there is no technology in sight. Barbara is very serious about her no-tech rule. Because of this, weaving has become for me a meditative act as well as creative: one repeated motion, over and over, for hours. I think the class is really special, as it is the only college arts class that has an actual teacher who comes in every week, not just student volunteers. Whenever I tell people that I am in this class, they are surprised, because weaving is certainly not often spoken of these days. But I feel as if I belong to an age-old lineage of women (and the occasional man) who have learned this craft.
Anya Pertel ’21, a sophomore in Morse, perhaps summed it up best, saying the weaving class is “just a nice quiet place where I can touch soft yarns and do something creative.”