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Featured Artist: Tom Knisely of The Mannings

by The SpinArtiste on September 30, 2011

Publisher’s Notes:  As many of you know, it was a fateful visit to Picasso’s Moon Yarn Shop in Sarasota, Florida where I first fell in love with Debra Lambert’s beautiful hand spun yarn and decided on the spot to become a spinner.  If the first chapter of my story belongs to Debra, the second chapter certainly belongs to Tom Knisely of The Mannings Handweaving School and Supply Center.  Tom was my first spinning teacher and I’ve taken many classes from Tom since then including a full week this summer learning to weave.

Tom and I tried to estimate the number of students he’s taught during the course of his career and finally concluded that Tom has influenced many thousand fiber artists.  To that end, Tom was awarded Teacher of the Year for 2011 by Handwoven Magazine — a well-deserved honor.  Not long ago, Tom and I sat down and talked a little about his career as both a teacher and an artist.  Read on for the transcription of our conversation.

Spin Artiste (SA): Tom, first tell us, how did you get started?

Tom Knisely (TK):  I started when I was 14 years of age.  I was always interested in history and antiques.  I was a non-typical child – pretty geeky.  But my parents were older when I was born and I think that was a great influence.  I bought a spinning wheel when I was 14.  And, fortunately, for me all the parts were there.  I found out about The Mannings Handweaving School and Spinning Supply Center in East Berlin, Pa.  I was too young to drive at the time so my father drove me over the East Berlin and I bought some books on spinning and some fleece.  I went home and read the book and re-read the book and tried to make some thread.  And, like any beginning spinner I had lots of thick and thin spots but eventually, was able to overcome that with practice and persistence and started making thread.   So, I thought, “now, what am I going to do with this thread?”  So, I kept coming to the studio and looking at all the looms and I was hooked.  It was one of those things that made me connect with all these people that went before us that had to do this for their existence and I just thoroughly loved it.

SA:  And, then, how did you become the Education Director for The Mannings?

TK:  When I graduated from high school, I worked for my father in his business for about a year.  And,  it was fine, but I didn’t quite know what I was going to be doing with my life and college was not an option at that time.  I was approached by Mr. Mannings.  He called one evening and said “We’re having our annual spinning seminar and I need some help preparing for that.  Would you be interested in coming to help set up for that event? “  And, I did and continued on.  In the beginning, I packed and filled orders and waited on customers.  I started teaching spinning classes and then advanced classes.  When the resident instructor left, I moved into the role and started teaching all the classes unless we brought someone in for very specific things.  Ever since then, I have been designing classes to fit the needs of our customers.

SA:  How have you seen the needs of the customers change with respect to the classes they want?

TK:  I have seen it change drastically.  When I started spinning and weaving, it was during the bi-centennial years so there was a great interest in going back to nature at that point and learning about how things were down in the past due to the bi-centennial.  Then, it started to wane for awhile.  But within the last ten years, people are taking up knitting again.  They are taking up weaving.  And, what I find is a lot of people in their 50’s and 60’s are looking for something they can do after retirement.  A common story is that the folks are raising their children, they get them off to school and then after the last one goes off to college, they take over a bedroom and make it their workplace and they thoroughly enjoy it.

SA:  Congratulations on your recent honor!  What does it mean to you to  win this year’s “Teacher of the Year” from Handwoven magazine?

TK:  First of all, it was embarrassing to be given that award in that it made me feel self-conscious.  But it shows me just how much I’m appreciated in this industry.  It’s not the type of thing where you are going to go out and make lots of money like an attorney or other professions.  But everyday I come to work and I love what I do and I’ve made lots of great friends and people really appreciate that I can give them something they can enjoy themselves.  The award really shows how much someone is loved and appreciated.

SA:  A lot of the readers are heavily involved in other forms of fiber art but who are very curious about weaving, but they for whatever reason, they haven’t tried it yet.  If someone comes from one of these worlds, without taking a big plunge, how would you advise them to begin?

TK  Without a doubt, the first thing that you do is to take a weaving class to find out if you do really like this because to buy the equipment, including a floor loom,  would be several thousand dollars if you are buying everything new.  So, take a class which will cost several hundred dollars but you will know by the end of the class whether you are hooked.  A lot of the skills from the other fiber arts transfer directly over to weaving.  Not everyone can afford to jump in with all new brand new equipment, of course.  We, at The Mannings, sell new equipment but if you are not buying new, we encourage you to find a good used loom.  You will spend a little less money and that way you can afford to continue learning and take more classes.

SA:  Let’s talk a little bit about the fulfillment that weaving gives you versus the fulfillment of spinning versus the fulfillment of knitting – do you have any opinion on how they differently resonate with people?

TK:  I think in everyone of those cases – knitting, spinning, weaving – you have something to show at the end of the day for your effort that you put into this.  My wife, who will be sometimes working on the computer, will shut it down at the end of the day and say, “I really don’t have anything to walk out of the building with”.  But for me, I have either satisfied the need of the student and I have that going for me or if I’m working and I’ve woven something or spun something, I have a tangible thing to show for it.  I think we are all looking for that.  I will never forget thinking about people’s destiny – what they’ve left behind – and I look going through graveyards and looking at the tombstones and thinking they really had a purpose here.  You don’t know who they are but you think they’ve left something behind.  Or when I look at an old coverlet, a lot of times I’m thinking, “who wove that coverlet?”  “What was their family life like?”  “Did they spin the thread themselves?”  And, I think, “what a neat thing to leave behind.”  They had maybe passed away 150 years ago, but they’ve left something behind that says, “I was here.”

SA:  A lot of Spin Artiste readers are knitters/crocheters – what similarities would they encounter with weaving and what would be foreign to them?

TK:  The similarities are yarns and the love of yarns.  A lot of knitting yarns will work very well with weaving.  The only thing you want to be careful with is the amount of stretch they might have with a knitting yarn versus a weaving yarn.  Weaving yarns tend to be a little bit sturdier.

Foreign would be the amount of yarn that’s wasted.  With weaving there is quite a bit of waste that happens from working on the huge frame.  When working with a very expensive yarn or a hand-spun yarn where you know every inch of it personally and then you have to cut it off the loom and put it in the trash can, it’s painful sometimes to do that.

SA:  The Mannings has a fabulous set up for spinning and weaving and you have the kind of access to equipment and supplies that very few people have, but tell us about the equipment you have in your own fiber studio at home.

TK:  Right now I have set up a Swedish Countermarch loom and it’s made by a very small family-owned company, Oxaback.  I actually have two of their looms because they are very strong and sturdy and I like to switch back and forth in my work between weaving finer fabrics and weaving rugs which I love to weave.  Since the loom is really well-built, I can pound on the rug and make it nice and sturdy.

SA:  Why do you love to weave rugs?

TK:  There’s something satisfying about it:  working with beautiful threads and whacking them down really tightly and you’ve got a really firm, firm fabric.  I’ve also been fascinated by Navajo rugs for years.

SA:  What materials do you prefer to work with?

TK:  Anything natural.  However, for a long time I avoided rayons and  the yarns that we have now called tencel.  I thought, “well, they are synthetic yarns and I just don’t want to work with that because they are not natural – they are not wool, alpaca, mohair, cotton, linen.  But rayon and tencel yarns are actually made from wood pulp and reconstituted just like bamboo is.  So, I will work with those, but I still stay away from an acrylic or polyester.  They just don’t have the same feel to me.

SA:  What do you have in your fiber stash that you have just to have and can’t bear to use in a piece?

TK:  That’s really easy.  I had a wonderful trip to NYC and visited Habu in Manhattan.  I had to buy this little skein of handspun cotton and fiddlehead fern.  It’s very soft.  Who would have ever thought to take the lint off of this little fern and to spin it with cotton!  It was pretty expensive but it’s a collector’s item.

SA:  That is wild!  I’d like to see that.  I’m feeling a trip to Habu coming on…Tom, what’s on the horizon for you?

TK:  I am constantly studying antique textiles and textiles  from different cultures all over the world.  I’d like to know more about South American textiles, especially very old Peruvian fabrics.  It intrigues me how these fabrics were woven and in some cases, we really don’t  know how they were woven.  In this day and age where you can pretty much tell a computer to weave something, people are studying these fabrics and dissecting them without destroying them and trying to figure out how they were woven, but it’s lost.

SA:  If you weren’t doing what you’re doing, what other profession would you have chosen?

TK:  I would probably been either an archeologist or an architect because I really think of weaving as building with thread.  It’s no different than girders or two by fours, it’s just that I’m using thread as my material of choice and constructing something.

SA:  OK, Tom, it’s time to get a little personal — what is your favorite guilty pleasure?

TK:  Collecting old textiles and what’s really bad about this is collecting antique looms.  My wife is really patient with me on this one.  We laugh that it would have been easier to collect coins or stamps.  They are commonly known as a barn frame loom and I have a number of them.  Right now they are in storage and what I’d like to see more than anything is to be in a position where I put all these looms in a situation where people can come in and weave on them.  The museums tend not to allow people to do that because it’s an antique, it’s an artifact, but what I know is that these looms are very sturdy even after hundreds of years.  I’d like to give people an opportunity to try one of these old looms and see what it would be like to actually weave in the same equipment as what they did years ago.

SA:  Tom, that is a great dream and I, for one, hope it comes true!  Thanks so much for letting us get to know you a bit better.

Dear Readers, if you are looking for a fun fiber-getaway adventure, consider taking some classes with Tom.  The studio is set in the beautiful countryside near historic Gettysburg, Pa. and the store is a yarn-lover’s paradise!

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