Local Woodworker Creates Tools of the Trade
(Copied from The Mountain Times www.mountaintimes.com/mtweekly/2004/0617/spinningweaving….
June 17, 2004
By Kathleen McFadden
When his workshop burned down a little over three years ago, 76-year-old Robert Elbe kept right on working, even though the conditions were cramped and the setup inconvenient. He shoved aside what he could and moved the power tools he had been able to salvage from the debris into his house. Elbe stayed busy in his temporary quarters and he’s even busier today in his rebuilt workshop, creating two highly specialized devices that became obsolete many years ago.
Robert Elbe uses one of his own spinning wheels to demonstrate how to carded wool becomes yarn. Photo by Kathleen McFadden
Elbe is the only person within a 400-mile radius who handcrafts spinning wheels and looms. And even though he does not advertise, demand is high. Both women and men across the country are rediscovering traditional fiber arts, and High Country women who have continued the traditions handed down by their mothers and grandmothers — and even those who have learned the techniques in recent years — find newcomers clamoring to learn the basic and timeworn skills that transform raw wool and plant fibers into fabrics. Elbe’s commissions for spinning wheels, looms and accessories come from word of mouth among this group of fiber lovers.
Elbe learned how to spin and weave from his mother and has been dabbling in fiber since he was young, but it was a class he took with his daughter Robin in the early 1990s that led to the current state of his workshop and his home. Wood, tools and spare parts are stacked high in one, and multihued, multitextured yarns, shuttles, looms and spinning wheels compete for space in the other. Elbe and his wife personally own 14 looms and 7 spinning wheels, along with “about $2,000 worth of fiber.”
Robin, Elbe says, “had a wild idea that she wanted to know what we did at home when we were young.” So Elbe told her stories about how his seven sisters spun and wove the fabrics for the household. Robin expressed interest in learning how to do both, and Elbe registered the two of them for a spinning and weaving course that was being offered in Jefferson. “I didn’t care much about it,” Elbe says, “but my daughter didn’t have a driver’s license and I wasn’t going to sit and wait for her for three hours.”
He had a problem straightaway. Elbe wasn’t satisfied with the class’s warping mill (a device for measuring the threads that will form the warp of the fabric), so he made one he liked better. Later, when he made his daughter a spinning wheel, a classmate asked Elbe, before he even had his daughter’s loom set up in the weaving room, to make one for her too. “And that’s how I got into the manly art of loom building,” Elbe smiles.
“Most of my life I piddled with wood,” he explains. His formal training includes shop classes in high school, three semesters of cabinetry training at vocational college, service as a carpenter in the Navy during World War II and then work in the Army Corps of Engineers. In addition to his ability to build a perfectly balanced wheel incorporating hand-turned spindles, Elbe is also competent at welding, sewing and finishing — all important skills of his craft.
Elbe builds some of his looms and spinning wheels according to plans, others are his own designs and some are copies of devices he has seen and liked. He builds from various woods — including walnut, cherry, maple, oak and apple — that come from a variety of sources, much of it donated or recycled. Over the years he has constructed 45 spinning wheels, but has lost count of the number of looms he has made. Elbe can build a spinning wheel in 18 hours — every single component of it, save one. “The only part I don’t make myself are the 5/8-inch cup hooks,” he says. The hooks guide the twisted yarn onto the turning bobbin. He could make the hooks, but he likes the uniformity and the smoothness of the commercial hooks.
Looms take longer to build than spinning wheels. “It depends on the loom,” Elbe says, “but I can make one in a week easily if I really get at it.”
Elbe has used an even wider wood repertoire for his extensive collection of handcrafted shuttles. “I get hold of a piece of odd wood, I’ve got to make a shuttle out of it. I see a picture of a shuttle I like,” Elbe says, “and I just have to try to make it. I lost count of them at 80.”
He doesn’t have a particular favorite — “I enjoy it all,” he smiles — but he does have to be in the mood to work on a particular project. He has a backlog of orders — right now five customers are waiting for their single-treadle spinning wheels — but Elbe points out, “I don’t do first come, first served.” Instead, he makes what he “feels like building” at the time. “Have you ever tried to draw or paint when you don’t feel like it?” he asks. “Well, it works the same on this.
“I make everything that goes with spinning and weaving,” Elbe points out, and he also repairs equipment. In fact, he donates time every month at the Crossnore School Weaving Room to do any necessary repairs or adjustments to the school’s looms.
He still spins and weaves although he says he does not consider himself a great spinner. In addition to the esthetic pleasure of working with the fiber, there’s a practical purpose to his application. “I use what I make,” he points out. Before he delivers any new spinning wheel or loom, “it’s all tested out first,” Elbe says. He tests his wheels to make sure they draw the wool onto the bobbin at the rate he considers satisfactory. He tests his looms to make sure the beater doesn’t hit the cloth and to make sure the ratchets release like they should. “They can hang up, you know,” he explains.
All this care and expertise do not come at a premium price. Elbe says that he prices his work at about half the prices he sees in catalogs. For beginners, his 15-inch, four-harness table loom is priced at $250, while a 20-inch Dorset floor loom, also a good beginner loom, sells for $300. Larger floor looms cost more; his 40-inch, four-harness, six-treadle loom is $850. Spinning wheels range from $225 for the Orkney upright to $350 for the Norwegian wheel.
But once you order and once he delivers, don’t expect to send your wheel or loom back. “I don’t make prom dresses,” Elbe says. “You know how some people will order a dress from J.C. Penney, wear it once and take it back? I don’t do that.” He will, however, replace any parts that break, “except for when kids get after it with a hammer.” In all the years he has been making looms and wheels, he has only had to replace three parts.
In addition to sales all over the state, Elbe knows “for a fact that I have shuttles in Israel, looms in Petaluma, California and a loom in Philadelphia.”
“I like to work with wood, but I don’t like to make tater bins like you see everywhere. This is something for the serious person who appreciates and wants to recapture what happened yesterday.”
Elbe lives and works in Miller’s Creek and can be reached at (336) 838-5094.