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'My Dreams have Finally Come True': Talented group of weavers given opportunity to contribute, thrive at unique non-profit

by Bill Vossler


Some of the talented weavers at the Annandale Arts and Textile Center include (front row), Erin, Abby, Heidi, (back row) Jacob, Annika, and Michael. Photo by Bill Vossler.

When one of the ten Heart of the Lakes Weavers finishes a creation on their loom at the Albany Arts and Textiles Center in Annandale, all heck breaks loose. At the announcement, all the weavers rise, move near the loom with the finished work, yell, scream, and begin to dance while singing “Celebration,” with Michael and Erin twirling tambourines and others dancing as they whirl around. Pure joy unleashed.

Sandy Hay, who works in the finishing area prepping the fabric from the looms and sewing it, said “If you ask Michael what his favorite job is, it is cutting off the loom.”

“Cutting off” means snipping the cloth that one of the weavers has finished on a loom. Diane Nelson, Director of the Weaving Studio, said, “We use the celebration as a motivator for them to finish a project. Some weavers can weave a lot, yards in a day, and some are slower, only thirty inches a day. So at first we had a couple of people cutting all the time, and some not at all. Then when we started with the music, that became more of a motivator.”

Even more important are the positive feelings that come through the completing work, and celebrations. Sandy said, “From what I know, most of their lives people with disabilities have been told they have not done anything right. We want to praise them to let them know that they have.”

Gallery Manager Jackie Frauenholz agrees. “When they’ve made beautiful fabric, they get to be celebrated. The weavers all know what they’re making and how much work it took to get to that cut off, so they get to celebrate.” 

Another thing they do independently in middle of weaving, Diane said, “Is ring a bell when they finish a bobbin, and note on the chart that they finished it. It‘s more about getting them up and moving. Nobody should sit at the loom for two hours without moving.”


Lineup of the workers at their looms at AATC. Michael is in the foreground. Photo by Nikki Rajala.

The Weavers

Weavers come to AATC by registering with the state of Minnesota, “Which recommends them to our county,“ Elizabeth Mayer, co-sponsor of AATC with her husband Joe. “Weavers need to operate independently, with nobody needed to support them in the work; they need to want to work; and we hope they like to weave. So they will intern with us to see if they meet this criteria so we can hire them. We want them to feel confident and comfortable and thriving in their position, want to be there, and have a job, like any adult.” 

Diane said “Every weaver has a cognitive disability--physical, mental health, emotional, behavior, deaf, hard-of-hearing, non-verbal--that takes them longer to process information and a longer time to learn things like how to weave. But once they understand what we’re looking for and that I want their weavings pristine, if you provide enough time, sometimes four months until they finally are at the point of getting what we want, their work will be perfect every single time. Every time.”

She added that she loves to see how the weavers work as a team. “Michael will help Addie when her loom isn’t going, and together they’ll get her going again. Most of our weavers know how to help each other, and will, with fixing a broken thread, after we walk them through how to do it. It’s pretty neat to see their skills growing too.”

Diane said people with disabilities often don’t get praised for jobs they do. “As a society we limit so much of what they can do. We kind of put them in a corner and a box, saying ’You can do this, but not something complicated,’ so that‘s why we celebrate what they are doing. Working on the looms is complicated, but if you mentor them side by side to teach the skill, that‘s it. They will do it. ” 

They work four days a week at higher-than minimum wage, which is unusual for people with disabilities. Elizabeth said, “This program  provides jobs with dignity, inclusion and artistry where our weavers can thrive!”

Diane said at first she was told the weavers were never going to get it. “I thought, ‘Baloney. What we do as a society in one day, they can do in three. If they are given the right amount of time to learn to do the tasks, they can do amazing stuff, as people can see in their works in our gallery. The weavers see each other every day in the studio. They are friends, and support each other. If somebody’s grandfather dies, they will all write a note to them. They are very compassionate and caring. Our society is missing out on a huge work force. They are dedicated, coming in every single day before nine. If they are a little late they apologize, and work a couple minutes later at the end. And they like working.”

Elizabeth said, “Weavers enter the program with no weaving experience. Diane and team members provide them opportunities to learn basic skills, make errors and learn from them, as well as hands-on support to ensure skills improvement and success.”

As weavers become better, they can do more complex things, like warping (setting up) the loom, which had previously been done by staff or volunteers. 

Elizabeth added, “Our weavers have been transformed through this means of self expression and they demonstrate daily the mindset of an artist. As Michael, one of the Heart of the Lakes Weavers, said, "‘I just wanted to be an artist when I grew up. And here I am! My dreams have finally come true!’"

Elizabeth also points out how the workers have noted significant changes in the Heart of the Lakes Weavers. “One of our weavers had only a four-word vocabulary--yes, no, maybe and ugh. He now has a broad vocabulary which he uses every day. We believe this was made possible through the process of weaving. The right and left hands crossing the midline involved in weaving fires both sides of the brain. A Columbia University conference titled Weaving: Cognition, Technology, Culture, and research shows that weaving improves concentration, hand-eye coordination, problem- solving, vocabulary, expanded language and communication skills, and others. We’ve seen all of these at work with our weavers, through their lived experiences. We believe the weaving arts may be a pathway to healing the brain.”

Elizabeth said, “For example, Michael’s grandparents shared a story, saying they didn’t know if they would ever be able to have a meaningful conversation with their grandson. Now after weaving for three years, Michael comes to them and says, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ He initiates and asks questions. That is so meaningful to the parents and grandparents. You just wonder what they must feel like now.”


Heidi shows one of the bobbins she is using on her loom. Photos by Bill Vossler.

A Little History

The idea for the AATC was triggered fifteen years ago when Elizabeth Bayer’s husband, Joe, and his late wife saw in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, adults with mental disabilities working on looms making fabrics that were sold in the gallery store. “That idea never left Joe’s mind,” Elizabeth said. “We’ve lived in Annandale for more than thirty years, so we thought, ‘Why not do that in Annandale?’”

Elizabeth and Joe have a ton of business experience running multiple businesses, so they knew they could make the weavers business work. “When we found Diane Nelson right in our community, a person with a master weaver art degree from St. Cloud State University, who worked for fourteen years with special needs youngsters and those with disabilities. Her skills and background and personality matched our program. After we provided the start-up fees to get the business going in 2020, we began to see how students thrived under her guidance. I’m so proud of what we’re doing. We really love doing that right here in Annandale.”


Volunteers

Fifteen volunteers help with the business from time to time, and work with the weavers. Diane said, “Our weavers will say, ‘Hi Chris, glad you’re here.’ Zane comes for coffee and sits and talks with them, so the weavers are making relationships outside their family units, where they probably have a pretty solo life.”

Diane said when she started at AATC three years ago, none of the weavers having lunch at the studio talked. “They didn’t know how to. Then an intern started asking them, ‘What would you rather,’ questions. like, ‘Have a hamburger sausage or a pizza?’ By doing a bunch of those she taught them how to talk and have conversations. Today I heard one girl who always talks only about herself, because she has not learned the skill yet, ask somebody, ’How was your weekend?’ When the answer came, she said, ‘That sounds like fun for you.‘ That’s the first time heard her acknowledge thought about other people. That’s a big skill to learn.”

She said she fosters the skill of teaching the weavers to say, “I need more bobbins,” or “I need help.”

“When I applied for the job three years ago I kept thinking, ‘Please pick me, please pick me!’ It is my dream job.”

Sandy agreed. “It’s a great place to be. I’ve been doing this for three years, and every time we do it WHAT IS “IT?” I’m as happy as the first time we did it. I get up in the morning and absolutely love coming to work.”

Jackie works with all the finished products the weavers make, and the forty-five Minnesota artists and artisans that have their work at AATC. “I wanted to find something I enjoyed and this was the most joyful place I walked into. I couldn’t believe how wonderful this place was. I always say every day, ‘Come to work every day her make me fuller than when I walked in. What a joy it is to be here with the weavers and what a family everyone has become.” 

Elizabeth said, “What is most difficult is a delightful predicament we‘ve had for the last couple of years. We have a long and always growing waiting list of people who want to become heart weavers. We  have the lovely problem of a successful growing organization, and we need more space, planned for 2024 and 2025.


Sandy Hay, who works in the design and finishing area of AATC, and Jackie Frauenhoz, Gallery Manager, show off some of the weavers’ works.

Programs

AATC offers over 30 classes for the general public who want to enhance their artistic abilities, classes like acrylic painting, weaving, watercolor, cartooning, and an ever-expanding catalog of classes. 

Tours are available, also. “We love having groups come in,” Elizabeth said. “Senior men are often interested in the function of the loom.” Jackie, Diane, and Sandy all participate in tours.


Enjoy Most

“What I enjoy most,” said Elizabeth, “is hands-down, the weavers. They have so deeply enriched my life and Joe’s life. They have opened my heart to experiences I didn’t have before, because as you walk in the door  you come alive with the sound of the looms and music and singing. It‘s such a sensory experience. I‘ve learned so much from the weavers, including how to be a kind person.”

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