During February, Arlene Morris and Christine Macchi from Maine Fiberarts went to visit a gathering of rug braiders who meet each year in Kennebunkport. Many belong to different rug braiding guilds in their own states but come together to braid, share a weekend and get help with their work. There were 32 braiders at this event (the maximum they could accommodate) from Maine and as far away as New York, Connecticut, California and Tennessee. Pam Rowan from Lebanon, Maine was the organizer, and this is her fifth year gathering people. Pam also spends the three-day weekend answering questions and guiding the braiders. The braiders also help each other. (More about Pam below.)
Arlene’s notes on some of the participants, February 11, 2023
Rose Robertson-Smith came from Nashville, Tennessee but learned to braid at the Dorr Woolen Mill when she lived in New Hampshire for many years. She teaches braiding classes through community education programs on Zoom that she says are very successful, but she does not get many young people taking classes. For Rose, braiding is “beyond utilitarian.” She has shown work in museums (as have others in the group). Rose likes doing displays in libraries. She really enjoys getting together with other braiders, buying more wool, and starting new projects. Rose informed me that five of the people braiding with the group today at the Kennebunkport Friary are teachers, and that Alice Zanga from Massachusetts is the “Rug Whisperer” of the group. Alice is one of the braiders—along with Nancy Young and others—who has the most experience in this group.
Carol Broadbent from New Hampshire has been braiding since the mid-1980’s. Her sister-in-law got her interested in hooking and then she decided to start braiding because it “worked up faster.” At this meeting, she was making lined “kitty beds” that she gives away to cats in need. Carol told me that she has “a ton of wool in my cellar.” She likes using old Army blankets because they are really sturdy. Carol does it for “fun,” and not for profit. “I don’t put a price on my time; “it’s my time…and my therapy.” Carol has sponsored New England Braids every October since 2008 along with Pam’s help. She has donated 3 braided rugs to PBS—she likes to “pay it forward.” “I don’t do anything over 3’ x 5’ as it takes a whole season braiding at least one day a week. She referred to Pam as the “Fairy Godmother of Rug Braiding,” and to Nancy Young as the “Grand Dame of Rug Braiding in Maine.” Carol told me that she unraveled a large braided rug that she bought for $3 and made three small rugs from the braids she recovered. She also told me that she has three Singer Featherweight sewing machines.
Ann Roy is from New Hampshire and is a former nurse and attorney. She also has a lavender farm with about 1400 plants, 800 of which she just moved by herself from one location to another. (She’ll finish moving the rest this Spring.) Before moving to New Hampshire, she spent a winter in Maine, where she found Nancy Young. “It all started out with Nancy Young… I think everyone here today started with Nancy.” Ann said that she is not a fancy braider; she likes things that are practical and utilitarian. “I just put them on my floor.”
Cheri Coberly from Elliot, Maine and has been braiding for about 15 years and learned to braid from Pam Rowan. Cheri was working on a round blue, black, grey and white rug for her son who she said will appreciate it. Braiding is Cheri’s second hobby as she loves to quilt. She quilts during the day and braids at night. She does not braid in the summer because she likes to ride her motorcycle. Cheri said she “braids with feeling.”
Cathy Winship said that she found Pam (see below) when she retired and fell in love with braiding. But her mother’s influence is an important part of her braiding story. Her father worked in a woolen mill and brought home remnants for her mother to sew and braid. Her mother learned to braid at the Maine Cooperative Extension Service after losing her eyesight at the age of 30. As a child, Cathy helped her mother label rolls of wool in Braille as an aid for choosing colors in her rugs. It wasn’t until after her mother passed away that Cathy became interested in braiding and attended a workshop with Nancy Young. Many years later, after retiring she found Pam. Cathy says, “I just love wool. Sometimes things just work and sometimes they don’t.” Cathy considers herself to be part of the “Badass Braiders.” She also uses the expression “UFO” for an unfinished object. In memory of her mother, Cathy sews a small button from her mother’s button tin onto her rugs.
Pam Rowan talks to Christine on March 8, 2023
Master braider, teacher and organizer, Pam Rowan is from Lebanon, Maine, and a member of the Valley Forge Guild, a nonprofit organization based in Pennsylvania hosting information about all things braided. She started braiding in 2005 when she inherited a family braiding stand. When her loom wouldn’t fit into the new house she and her husband Byron were moving into, she thought she’d try braiding. She immediately signed up both she and Byron for an Adult Ed class. He completed his coaster, gained a new appreciation for the work, and now helps Pam by choosing colors that are brighter than Pam would choose for herself. “He makes me think outside of the box,” says Pam. That same year, Pam went on to study with two different Maine braiders—Betty Mutina and Nancy Young—since they had different styles. One year later, Nancy and Pam attended a braiding event in Cape Elizabeth where Nancy told her it was time she started teaching the beginners. Pam has enjoyed a long friendship with Nancy and has been teaching ever since.
Pam went on to organize The Franciscan Retreat Braid-In in Kennebunkport which has continued for seven years. Originally, the monastery could accommodate only 18 people since they shared space with quilters. Once the quilters stopped coming, 35 braiders could be sheltered for workshops, meals, and good times. For these yearly retreats, Pam brings together people from as far away as CA, PA, TN, CT and NY, as well as Maine.
Pam completed “Ocean Waves,” a 9×9-foot area rug as a result of a Valley Forge challenge on the topic of “water.” Many of her wools comes from Dorr Mill in New Hampshire and the Oxford Mill-End Store in Maine. She does not favor wool from thrift shops, as braiders need lots of uninterrupted yardage and similar-weight fabrics to form the strips that go into braids.
Pam’s “Spiral” originated when she saw a rug at a Braid-In in Gig Harbor in Washington State. The technique uses a “multi-strand” interspersed with a regular braid at planned intervals. The term “multi-strand” refers to a braid that uses multiples strands of wool that are actually woven together (but the locals call it “braiding.”) These strands can consist of between one and thirteen strands of wool. The wider the band (formed by using more and more strands), the bolder the finished work. Pam used the same colored wool, but varied the number of strands between 3, 5, 7, 3, 9, 11 and finally 13 strands to form her “Spiral.”
Pam’s three-dimensional work started in response to another Valley Forge challenge on the theme of “native.” She created “LL Bean Boots” to represent Maine, and has since gone on to create cowboy hats, bunnies, turtles, bugs, and baskets. She is working on a series of fruits for an exhibition of Maine braided work taking place at Maine Fiberarts in Topsham this May and June 2023.