It’s easy to feel like you stepped back in time at the Little Loomhouse, because the place is so full of history. The only buildings on the South Louisville property are three board and batten cabins – Esta, Westeria and Tophouse – that date back to the 1800s. The oldest cabin, Esta, was where Mildred and Patty Hill first introduced the world to “Happy Birthday to You” in 1898. Other famous visitors include two First Ladies, Lou Henry Hoover and Eleanor Roosevelt, and architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
The Little Loomhouse got its name from master weaver Louisa Tate Bousman, known professionally as Lou Tate. She co-created the Little Loom with a local dentist, Dr. S. W. Mather, as an easier way for Girl Scouts to learn weaving. From 1938 until her death in 1979, Tate used the property at 328 Kenwood Hill Road as a work place, classroom, and vault for her collection of weaving patterns. Since Tate’s passing, the nonprofit Lou Tate Foundation has cared for the cabins and offered classes in spinning, dyeing and weaving. The organization also maintains the largest repository of textile patterns in the United States.
New Infusion of New Ideas
Sally Moss has been a fixture at the Loomhouse since she started taking lessons from Tate in the late 1960s. She has served as a teacher and executive director of the organization. Moss can still be found at the Little Loomhouse every Wednesday warping looms as a volunteer.
She says that the Little Loomhouse has been on the verge of closing several times in the decades since Tate’s death, but it’s always managed to survive thanks to volunteers, mostly women who knew or took classes there. However, Moss says for the Little Loomhouse to last another seven decades it has to evolve to compete for the attention of younger people.
“The Little Loomhouse has operated more as a neighborhood club than an arts organization since Lou Tate’s death,” she explains. “It was always hard to draw attention from the legitimate arts community because most of the weavers were just doing it as a hobby. That has changed in the last year. There is more activity there now than I can remember in a long time. A new infusion of new ideas and energy is just what the Loomhouse needed.”
Moss credits most of the positive change to the board’s decision to hire two fiber artists last year – Development Director Caitlyn Sollee and Michelle Amos, Director of Programming and Education. Sollee and Amos brought years of experience to the job. Amos is the former Arts Director for the Boys and Girls Club of Kentuckiana, and her jewelry and accessories are available in many area art galleries. Sollee, the wife of cellist Ben Sollee, worked for several organizations in Lexington before moving to Louisville. She also operates Tin Ear Productions with her husband.
One of Amos and Sollee’s first changes was the institution of regular hours since the nonprofit wasn’t dependent on volunteers. The Loomhouse is open for tours and classes Wednesday through Saturday each week. Amos and Sollee were also able to use their connections to integrate the organization into the larger artistic community.
Last year, the Loomhouse started an Artist of the Month series which has attracted local talents like pop artist Annessa Arehart, painter Damon Thompson, and basket weaver Maria Tinnell. Most of the featured artists have work available in the Loomhouse’s gift shop, and some of them either teach classes or give lectures on the property. The Loomhouse also uses artists to teach offsite classes. The group was able to get a grant to do a Sheep to Shawl program where public school students learn how weavers go from raw fiber to a finished product.
The new energy at the Loomhouse is spilling over into other disciplines too. Composer Chris Kincaid, the husband of Loomhouse board member Lesley Clements, has created a suite of music inspired by the organization’s coverlets patterns. The movements are aural approximations of Whig Rose, Chariot Wheel, Cat Tracks and Snail Trails, among others. Kincaid presented his compositions at Berea College (Lou Tate’s alma mater) last year, and his tune “Overshot” is now featured in “Warped: An exhibition on sound & weaving,” at The Center for Craft, Creativity & Design in Asheville, North Carolina. He will give a lecture about the project at the Little Loomhouse on August 13 at 7 p.m.
Adjusting to the 21st Century
Amos says the biggest challenge for her and Sollee has not been getting artists interested in collaborating, but getting the Loomhouse to adjust to the 21st century. “Most of the knowledge of how to run the place has been passed down through oral tradition,” she says. “Before Caitlyn and I got here, people couldn’t even find us on Google. Technology wasn’t a priority until younger people started joining the board. Now we have an up to date Facebook page, and we’re constantly creating documents so we can have some consistency in how things are done.”
Despite the increased activity, the Loomhouse is still living a hand-to-mouth existence. The organization needs to raise at least $100,000 for needed work on the historic cabins and the property. Tate Foundation Vice President Melissa Amos-Jones, who is Michelle Amos’ twin sister, believes the Loomhouse has never received the attention it deserves from the public because most of its history revolves around women.
“Weaving is an art that is usually associated with women, and women’s history has not always been valued as it should be,” Amos-Jones says. “From 1898 when artist Etta Hest bought Esta until today, the Loomhouse has been run primarily by and for women. If not for us the Hill sisters might have been forgotten. We’ve got to preserve this legacy for the next generation.”
Sollee adds that it has been the Loomhouse’s neighbors that have allowed the nonprofit to survive as long as it has. Two Kenwood Hills women, Stefanie Buzan and Rosemary McCandless, published a history of the neighborhood in 2006, “A View from the Top: The Neighborhoods of Iroquois Park and Kenwood Hill” (Aardvark Global Publishing). The authors donated all the profits from the project to the Loomhouse, which saved it from closing. Many other neighbors volunteer their time for everything from bookkeeping to landscaping the property.
“The people in South Louisville have always known that they had something special in the Little Loomhouse,” Sollee says. “We are trying to get the word out now to the rest of the city. The wild thing is that although we’ve grown and changed a lot through the years, we’re still following Lou Tate’s original vision of promoting and preserving the weaving tradition. I can’t think of many organizations that have the same mission for 77 years, and we’re doing it with two part-time employees and a 14-member all-volunteer board. That takes a lot of love and devotion.”