NANTUCKET — Clack, clack, clack. It’s a soft sound in the near distance. But it’s not enough of a noise to interrupt the early spring shoppers browsing Nantucket Looms’ fetching display of home goodies and art, the two in close union in this store on Nantucket’s cobblestoned Main Street. A young couple is obviously delighted by much of what they see: He stops and calls her over when he finds a small Art Deco-style desk. A lone, older lady is obviously at home here, flitting from display to display and soon choosing several items she wants — no, needs, she says.
But no one takes any notice of that soft noise coming from the floor above.
If they did venture up the shop’s rear staircase, they’d discover a world beyond selling and buying. It’s one of craftsmanship in motion. This is Nantucket Looms’ weaving studio and, in an otherwise hypnotic aura of calm, there it is: clack, clack, clack. It’s the sound of wood on wood, rhythmic and repetitive, and in short bursts. Not startlingly loud, but it’s a commanding, no-nonsense sound, because it’s the sound of a weaver uniting the warp (vertical) and weft (horizontal) threads into Nantucket Looms’ treasured throws, blankets, pashminas, and classic Bretton style sweaters, each made either from mohair, cotton, silk, cashmere, or even wool from the island’s conservation land sheep.
But rarely do Nantucket Looms’ customers, many of them devotees, venture up to the studio, says Bess Clarke, Nantucket Looms’ CEO: “It’s Main Street’s best kept secret. I was raised around it and I kind of take it for granted how interesting it all is.”
Master weaver and co-owner Rebecca Peraner, a RISD grad who has been at Nantucket Looms for 20 years, is working on a custom cream-and-pale-blue, 10-foot-long rug, one of several for an island home. Studiously, her arms control the weft as her foot works the treadle. Nantucket Looms doesn’t make room-size area rugs, because although the looms can weave infinitely long, their size restricts width.
Peraner estimates each rug she’s working on will take 10 hours of weave time alone, plus setting up the warp, weft, and the machine. Then there’s the finishing: “It helps if you are a perfectionist,” she says of the endless patience it takes to complete each item.
At one end of the studio a weaver is arduously setting up the warp thread, which forms the backbone of the cloth. Next, the weft, a wooden shuttle about 7 inches long, is loaded with the thread that provides color and pattern. More perplexing to the layman, the weaver sets up the loom’s vertical wires before merging warp and weft. But it’s not done production-line style: A weaver works on one item from start to finish. It is their creation, their piece of art. This is a cottage industry, and out of half a dozen weavers employed year-round, a couple work at home.
Apart from a few moves around Main Street, little has changed at the studio since 1968, when Nantucket Looms grew out of a furnishing fabric business called The Cloth Company. In 1973, Elizabeth Winship, Bess’s mom, took a job there for a couple of weeks — she stayed for over 40 years, taking over the business in 1993. Upon retiring to Key West last June, she handed the reins to Clarke, who co-owns the business with Peraner and Stephanie Hall, the head buyer who runs the busy interior design section.
It was Winship’s keen eye that defined Nantucket Looms and directed the growth in its retail store, which features art from dozens of Nantucket-connected artists, as well as the woven goods. She also built the interior design business, and the website created an international presence.
The studio wall displays artifacts from the past, including a tweedy upholstery swatch for Chanel’s Paris HQ and a handwritten letter — a beautiful flowing script, small with occasional big loops — from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
“I think that’s about returning a sweater,” says Clarke wryly. “She was a good customer, though,” she adds fondly. Current high-profile clients are not named.
Some might think Nantucket Looms is exclusive, with prices ranging from $415 to $1,400 for a throw and $120 for a sweater — but when you witness the craftsmanship, the price tag adds up. This stuff is for keeps.
“Customers will say, ‘Oh I have the throw by my bed that was given as a wedding gift so many years ago and I still use it,” says Clarke. “They just won’t give them up. It becomes a part of people’s lives.”
Nantucket Looms is at 51 Main St. on Nantucket. 508-228-1908. Nantucketlooms.com
Linda Clarke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.