Restoring a Historic Loom at Cumberland Gap

One of the projects Tom and I had at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park was restoring a historic loom and setting it up in the Visitors Center.  The loom had been stored up at Hensley Settlement for years and the mice had gotten to it and eaten most of the strings.  When we first arrived at Cumberland Gap, the rangers asked if we could fix it.  Tom and I answered that we could, but we didn’t want to do it if it was going to continue to be stored at Hensley.  The mice would just destroy it again.  So the park made the decision to bring the loom down from Hensley.

The loom at Hensley Settlement

The first Friday in August, four of us headed up the mountain in a park truck to retrieve the loom.  The road up to Hensley Settlement is very steep in places, with lots of switchbacks.  Ancil, a local volunteer, drove a park truck – high clearance, four-wheel drive – up the road.  Ancil takes tours up there on Sundays, so he knows the road very well.  We also added Robin to our loom retrieval team to be some additional muscle for Tom.

Loom Retrieval Team: Karen, Robin, Ancil, Tom

Tom and I saw the loom in May but, over time, had enlarged it in our memory.  We were very glad to see that it was much smaller than we remembered when we arrived at Hensley Settlement.  In fact, it is one of the smallest barn looms I have ever seen.  That made it easier to take apart and load in the truck.  We took a bunch of pictures.  Then, as Tom and Robin took the pieces apart, I labeled them with masking tape and drew arrows so we could tell where the pieces went.

Tom and Robin loading the loom parts

It didn’t take us long to load the parts of the historic loom in the truck and we were soon on our way back down the mountain.  When we reached the bottom of the mountain and were heading back to the Visitors Center, I saw a bear in the woods.  Ancil back the truck up so we could all see it.  It looked like a yearling who was as curious about us as we were about it.  He studied us for while, then finally turned and headed up the mountain.  It was very cool to see him so close for so long.

Yearling black bear

Once we got back to the Visitors Center, we unloaded the loom parts and put them in the upper lobby.  Then Ancil and Robin left and Tom and I had lunch.  After lunch I washed all the parts of the loom and took off the pieces destroyed by mice.  Tom assembled the tools we needed to put it together and fetched clean water several times.  While we were doing this, we talked to visitors about what we were doing.  Then we reassembled the loom.  By closing time we had the loom back together, although it was not in working order.

Putting the loom back together

Over the next several weeks, we worked on restoring the loom and replacing the parts that were damaged.  The loom appears to be a small barn loom made from oak sometime between 1840 and 1860.  As far as we could determine, the loom was purchased by the park in 1999 to be a demonstration loom up at Hensley.  It had replacement parts that were not appropriate for the age of the loom.

Tom worked on replacing parts

I worked for quite a while taking off the old string heddles that were damaged and making replacement with a jig that Tom built.  Ranger Olivia and I designed a project for the loom, so that she would get practice warping a loom.  We decided to make three wool baby blankets.  The blankets would be blue and gray stripes two inches wide, with the completed size of the blankets 36 x 36″.  Ranger Olivia and volunteer Margaret measured out the warp while I got the heddles on the shafts.  In order to make the designed blankets, we needed 432 heddles (one string per heddle).  432 heddles meant 108 heddles on each of the four shafts.  I made enough replacement heddles so that we had about 116 heddles on each shaft.

Tom took off the metal pulleys on the shafts and replaced them with a wooden pulley system which was more period appropriate.  Then we had to get the shafts at the right height and balanced properly.  Tom worked patiently lengthening and shortening strings.  We had a problem with the shafts sticking as they moved by each other and he came up with several solutions to fix it.

Historically appropriate parts

We got the loom restored and ready to warp.  Sleying the reed was easy, but stringing the heddles was not.  Usually a barn loom is so large that I sit or stand inside it to string the heddles.  Because this barn loom was much smaller, I had to reach over a back brace and the warp beam to reach the heddles.  Tom and Ranger Stormy moved the suspended beam back so I could reach the heddles a little more comfortably.  Ranger Olivia also helped with stringing the heddles but it took several days to finish.

Ranger Olivia stringing heddles

Once I got the warp tied on, I found nine threading errors that had to be fixed before we could weave.  The worst was a missed dent about 190 strings in which required moving all 190 strings over one hole.  Patience is required when warping a loom, especially an old one.

Ready to weave

Finally, the historic loom was restored and warped and ready for weaving.  Weaving is a little awkward because we don’t have a weaving bench that is the proper height.  I also have to step on two treadles at once in order to lift up two shafts.  After I was satisfied with the shed and throwing the shuttle, I made Ranger Olivia weave some as well.  If anyone is going to be weaving after I’m gone, it will be Ranger Olivia.  But, even if no one weaves, the loom is set up and ready to go.  Visitors can see what weaving was like for the women in the region.

Weaving success!

I am very proud of the job Tom and I did in retrieving, rebuilding, restoring, and warping the historic loom.  Hopefully this will be a working display for Cumberland Gap National Historical Park for years to come.

On display in the Visitors Center