A free spirit

Narrowsburg weaver ditches a traditional upbringing for a very non-traditional life

Author: Deborah J. Botti
Posted: Thursday, November 01, 2007

Look closely at the cloth. The individual threads are laced with the weaver’s essence; the design, a reflection of the very fabric of his life.

And at first glance, Narrowsburg, N.Y. in 2007 might seem a far cry from the banks of the big lake just south of Springfield, Ill., circa 1947. But it’s not.

The young Charles Hadley Blanchard whose happiest hours were spent drifting alone in a sailboat is much like the more mature Charles Hadley Blanchard who finds bliss in front of a loom.

“I was supposed to be a lawyer,” Charles laughs, from the perspective of the second son and middle child – there’s an older brother and younger sister. “My brother and I were groomed to be yuppies.”

Charles knew that wasn’t the suit he was destined to wear – but he hadn’t a clue as to what venue he was tailored to. “I had no idea of what my medium was,” he says. “I tried to draw, but couldn’t.” He didn’t have any success with a guitar, either. So rather than the

University of Illinois where his mom majored in mathematics and economics and which launched his dad’s career as a lawyer, he got as far away from Illinois as he could, and attended the University of the South, a small men’s school in Tennessee, known as Sewanee.

It was during that time he befriended an apprentice potter. The master potter’s wife was a weaver, but between her husband’s business and the kids, the looms sat empty.

“That was my first exposure – sitting at the loom and studying the logic of it,” Charles recalls.

Weaving, though, was still not part of the equation when he graduated in ’69.

Armed with a degree in English literature, he joined the Peace Corps to avoid the draft. He was sent to Cameroon, West Africa, to teach English. “That was where I discovered that everything was made by hand, that there was a manual effort to life,” he says, recalling the machete-wielding man cutting the grass. “Let it grow,” he remembers suggesting.

“The Third World can be quite a shock, and at just 21, I was frightened,” he says.

Nine months later and 45 pounds lighter, he was sent home. With his sense of wanderlust temporarily quenched, he enrolled in grad school at the University of Illinois. It was an assignment in non-verbal communications that prompted his creative threads to intertwine.

Along with an illness, he also brought back from Cameroon a fascination with the colorful, tie-dyed fabrics that the people fashioned into big shirts and skirts, head wraps and cloth to carry objects in. “I tried to duplicate this in grad school, spending my time tying knots and dying cloth,” Charles recalls.

It was a mother’s wisdom and connection with her son that brought the search full circle.

“She introduced me to a friend of a friend of a friend. I talked with an elderly lady, and she gave me a loom,” he says. “I was told to weave something as part of my master’s course. And in 1970, I was hooked. Weaving was a lot like playing with the wind while sailing.”
His mother finally allowed him to “drop out” of school – something he originally proposed in high school – after attaining his master’s degree in communications. His love of the outdoors and quiet – and need of a cheap place to live – brought him to a farm in Wisconsin.

“I tried to impress a girl with a horse with a saddle blanket,” he remembers. But a more lasting impression was made on him by a yoga master, and the next 25 years were spent living in an ashram, which moved from Wisconsin to Chicago to Honesdale, Pa.

“How wonderful to be totally isolated,” Charles recalls, mixing in moments on the lake with memories of the cloistered existence in the ashram. “It was an American-based experience, not religious or cult-like, but certainly spiritual.”

He’d get up at 3:30 a.m. and weave until yoga practice. Then he’d return to his loom until it was time to go to work in book manufacturing, which evolved from a mimeograph machine to a setup with a press, bindery and darkroom. After work and practice, there were a few more minutes for weaving before sleep. “People can be creative anywhere, even working in a factory. I know; I’ve done it. It’s really about doing something right,” he says.

It was during the time spent in the ashram that he married and had two sons: Charles Hadley Jr., now 27, who is a glass artisan, and Joseph Myles, 20, who’s on an entrepreneurial path since dropping out of high school, ironically working for a company that supplies glass. It was also during that time that he traveled to India and Nepal with the ashram.

“Sure I saw stuff – like the amazing cloth in a sari shop in India – but that’s not what I’m producing,” he says. “I’ve recently met someone who has had great influence – Jack Lenor Larsen, a renowned weaver from Eastern Long Island. He’s critiqued some of my work and has been pleased. I also keep in touch with Mary Zicafoose, a fabulous rug weaver in Omaha. We exchange gallery notices.”

But it’s not another’s style or a country’s colors that inspire him. He didn’t study and copy. “My inspiration comes from living in a spiritual place, allowing grace, and

working with what is shown to me. I suppose, put simply, it comes from within – all the while admitting and thanking the powers that be,” he says.

About five years ago, changes in both the ashram and his marriage prompted his move to Narrowsburg. Now, the boy who was most content on the lake can spend unlimited hours in front of his loom.

He weaves every day, seven days a week, in his Main Street studio. The walls are now covered with woven shoulder bags, wall hangings and protective bags for rugs. And speaking of rugs, there are piles of them in a variety of sizes for a variety of places, scattered and stacked, here and there.

“It’s nice to get out of bed and step on silk,” he says.

He lives in an apartment down the street, where he’ll regularly grade 10th-grade English papers (he is contracted by the Honesdale school district to grade theme papers on a per diem basis) or read a book on yoga philosophy. On Tuesdays he watches the local wine store to give the owners a break.

He meditates regularly – although not while weaving, as one might suspect.

“Weaving is hard work. I use my arms and legs and have to concentrate. I can’t be thinking, ‘She done me wrong,’ or I’ll make a mistake.”

After his evening walk, he’ll often return to the studio to do the painstaking finishing work on the pieces that are off the loom. This doesn’t disturb the couple residing upstairs.

“It’s not a monastic life, but a quiet one,” he says. “How fortunate I am to enjoy something not traditionally enjoyed – a twist of historic fate.”

And as if more proof were needed that Charles has found his medium. “I used to be highly allergic to wool,” he says. “But now I only sneeze very occasionally.”

A sign of the times

Not many generations ago, everyone knew a weaver. And women traditionally made cloth by the hearth for items such as bed linens, while simultaneously cooking and looking after the children.

“And before the weaving began, you’d have to spin the yarn,” says Charles. “And before you’d spin the yarn, you’d have to raise the sheep or plants and then process it. Cloth was very expensive, and part of the drive of the Industrial Revolution.”

Today, Charles buys white yarn, which he dyes to create the exact color he wants. “I use hot water, a stove and acid dye for wool and silk, which is activated with vinegar,” he says. “It smells like wet sheep and Easter eggs.”

He uses anywhere from one to 10 colors. Recently, he finds himself drawn to contrasts, such as blue and white or brown and white, but he’s worked in shades of one color, and is equally comfortable producing some catchy eye candy.

“Sometimes there’s no pattern, just the play of light on white silk. Plain weaving is actually more complex because my brain tends to wander more, and I make more mistakes,” he says.

Along with wool and silk, he’ll use alpaca or plant fibers such as linen, hemp or flax – or even acrylic. His choice of yarn is based on the desired finished effect – and his mood. “And the mood has to last for weeks,” he says, because of the very set-up of the loom. “Right now, I’m finding great expression with linen.”

Although the size of the finished product and the weight of the yarn come into play, most pieces take four weeks from start to completion.

Charles works on a Harrisville rug loom, which was designed by Peter Collingwood, an English weaver and scholar of weaving. Although built in 1989, it looks ancient – and massive, sporting huge pieces of wood.

“The weaving area is 45 inches wide, with a foot (of framing) at either end,” he says. “I’m five-foot-five, so it’s about seven feet tall, and six feet deep from where I sit.”

The purpose of every loom has to hold the warp (or longitudinal) threads tight. The warp threads go through the overhead beater, which has 25 pounds of steel.

The weaver picks up the weft – or latitudinal – threads and passes those yarns through harnesses or shafts, using a shuttle.

“I use my legs to push down on levers called treadles, which are connected to the harnesses,” he says.

By raising and lowering the harnesses, an opening is made called a shed, into which the shuttle is inserted. “I can do this 140-150 times an hour – as compared to 800 times a minute in a factory. I can’t compete with modern machines.”

But artists aren’t supposed to.

While he displays pieces at galleries, most of his sales are from his studio. Average prices range from hundreds of dollars to thousands.

He’ll even do custom work, although it’s expensive, he warns. “I want to make something beautiful – and there’s almost a sense of magic when it happens.”

Deborah J. Botti is a freelance writer whose work regularly appears in Hudson Valley Life magazine. She lives in Orange County.

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