A few weeks ago, my daughter and I traveled to Parishville, New York to learn how to braid rugs. It was my daughter’s birthday and Mother’s Day weekend. Helen Condon, whom we’ve gotten to know from Great Camp Sagamore, has a thriving cottage industry in the old grange just by the dam over the St. Regis River there. Her second floor is a vast workshop with shelving all around and heaving piles of wool in chromatically arranged colors.
For a fee, she will feed and house two people at the grange over a weekend, provide a kit with the colors of your choice (and Helen’s theme) and teach you how to braid a rug or a basket or a chair seat. I chose a rug color scheme called “Blue Heron.” My daughter chose “October Forest.” During a weekend with Helen, you can form about eight rows of an oval rug and on Sunday, you bag up the remainder with all the accouterments, haul it home and finish it. It is now some weeks later and my daughter has finished her rug. I am now up to row fourteen of seventeen total rows for a 4 1/2 x 2 1/2 foot oval rug.
A braided rug begins with a “navel,” the center connector of the three original 2-inch strands of wool in different colors or patterns. The strands are folded, imbedded and stitched in a T-formation. We attached the navel in a clip on a piece of plywood bound to the worktable by a C-clamp, and the braiding began.
My mother used to braid my long hair when I was a child. It was a somewhat painful ordeal, especially for someone with my thick, easily tangled hair. But every day after breakfast until I was about eight or nine, I had my hair braided. If my mother was not around, one of my older sisters would do the duty. Straight part down the middle of my head, braids over either ear, barrettes to hold back the wisps on each side. Scrape, tug, pull, twist, pull, twist, pull, twist. There was a ferocity to the process which I endured and not quietly as I recall. However, I loved to braid and there was no one younger or willing to suffer my attentions. When I had measles (several times), I was forbidden to read (there was, and is, some medical evidence that measles could cause blindness in children, but as a result of a measles-concurrent Vitamin A deficiency, not, perhaps, from reading or eye strain, but this was the 1950s.) To entertain myself through the interminable days of illness, I would tear strips of tissue from a Kleenex and braid the strands, making little book marks for the books I would not be able to read until I was well.
Helen would strip long yardage of wool for her rugs and tear them into 2-inch wide lengths to be used for braiding. Every time we’d get to the end of a strip, we’d add the same (or at a given point another strip) with a diagonal run through the sewing machine, then back to braiding. After about three feet of braid lay about us and around the fattening rug, we would stitch the braid to the last row of rug with a special thick, waxed thread and a broad flat needle. We’d break for wonderful meals with Helen and then back to work in the fields of wool. Helen had acquired a new kitten, named Della Reese, who sat either on my shoulder or on my daughter’s lap while we braided and stitched and turned. With the rushing sound of the St. Regis River outside the window, it was a lovely way to spend a weekend.
Helen, myself and Della Reese
I’m not sure I will start my own cottage industry of Adirondack rug-braiding, but it has been interesting to learn a new skill set, one passed down from Helen’s grandmother to Helen and now to my daughter and me. At home, my own cat, Wink, sits on the rug while I work. “Blue Heron,” Helen’s Adirondack canvas the colors of pond, stilted regal bird, moss and reed greens and blue sky, is growing row by row in my imagination – perhaps a poem. I look out at the waning Adirondack spring and imagine a canvas of my own with all the shades of green we see driving through the hills, the colors of lilac, honeysuckle and forsythia by the farm houses, the blue of sky. I wonder how much of those colors I could capture, as Helen has, in a 4 1/2 x 2 1/2 oval rug. I might call it “Adirondack Spring.” But Helen will probably beat me to it.
I made sure to keep my daughter’s hair short when she was much younger. She could grow it as long as she wanted when she could shampoo and care for it by herself. I spared her, at least, that childhood imposition of forceful braiding. She did have the vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella. I’m not sure if I or someone else taught her to braid, but how lovely to have the ability to take something so inherent in our shared lives to make an object as useful and enduring as a woolen rug.