In October 2017, Ability Weavers ventured into offering a new product. Since then, hand-woven towels have become a hit. The once basic design has evolved into selections of various colors, designs, and patterns. This new challenge for Weavers has become an important step in learning new skills.
According to Beryl Bartkus, owner of Ability Weavers, “Towels are a more complex weaving process and require even more skill than the heavy-duty fabrics used to weave rugs.” She felt it was time to challenge some of her more experienced weavers with the new product. In addition to a more complex process of weaving, there are additional steps required when making towels including gluing, cutting, pressing, hemming, soaking, washing, trimming, and labeling. And this doesn’t include dressing the loom, or preparing it for use.
The process started with a couple of Weavers who were interested in learning the new process. Currently, most of the Weavers are making towels in addition to rugs, table runners, and other products. This new product has allowed those employed at Ability Weavers to advance their skills. Bartkus believes in continually challenging her Weavers. She doesn’t want to just provide a job where they can be successful. She wants to teach them new skills.
Any loom being used to make a product must be “dressed” prior to use. Warp threads, or those lengthwise in the towel, are loaded onto the loom. The warp is wound onto the loom and then threaded, one piece at a time, through small eye holes. This task is typically done with two people to ensure threading is done properly. The dressing process can take 6-7 hours to complete, depending on the number of towels which will be produced and how complex the pattern of the towel will be.
Ability Weavers is using two looms for making towels. They are both 4 harness looms, which are more complex than the 2 harness ones used when making rugs. The additional harnesses allows for more complex patterns and designs.
Towel looms are also light duty compared to those used in making rugs. A more delicate touch is needed when creating a towel so the loom used does not need to be as sturdy. The threads can be pushed together tightly without as much force needed to make a rug.
The majority of the towels weaved are made from 100% cotton yarns. They are extremely soft and highly absorbent. They’ll even continue to soften with use and washing and will last for years. Bartkus believes once customers try a hand-woven towel they won’t want to use a commercially manufactured towel again.
It can take 30-45 minutes to weave a simple towel or 2-3 hours for a more complicated pattern. The twill towel is the easiest to make and is also the most popular. Two Weavers are currently able to help Bartkus with threading looms and six Weavers are able to weave towels. Additionally, co-owner and husband, Eric Bartkus has been on hand to help dress looms.
The two looms being used to make towels were donated. Bartkus says, “We are especially thankful to the families that donated each of our looms. One came to us for the U.P. [and] the other was donated by a family right here in Lowell. These beautiful looms have allowed our Weavers to attain new skills, and broadened the scope of products we create.” The generosity of individuals and businesses through donations like this and of yarn and fabric enable more money to be spent hiring additional Weavers.
Hand towels start at $18. Custom orders are also taken for this and additional products offered in the retail store.
Providing Gainful Employment
Ability Weavers has 10 hired Weavers and seven volunteers making products and running the store. Individuals with developmental disabilities, mostly autism, are able to have a job, learn and work with peers, and be challenged. They are proud of their work and are eager to show it off and explain the process of using a loom.
Bartkus is proud of her Weavers and how far they’ve come. All profits are used solely to hire more weavers. Bartkus does not take anything for herself, working as a volunteer. Weave Your Own classes are held every Thursday and Saturday. Customers are able to make their own rug or table runner, with guidance from Weavers. It’s a fun experience which will also give those who participate a better understanding and respect for Ability Weavers’ employees.