The Cranbrook: Legacy of a Loom

The Cranbrook: Legacy of a Loom

Almost always, we design our own products, but from time to time we have acquired a product because Barry admired it. The Cranbrook Loom, purchased from Norwood Looms in 1996, was our first such acquisition.

The Cranbrook Loom was developed at and named for the Cranbrook Academy in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Its story involves a lot of lucky connections between families and family businesses. George Booth, a wealthy newspaper baron and art advocate, founded the Cranbrook Academy and in 1925 hired Eliel Saarinen, a renowned Finnish architect. Both men shared an appreciation of the Arts and Crafts principles of William Morris, striving to integrate life and art. George Booth encouraged Eliel’s wife Loja Saarinen, who had trained as a sculptor, photographer, and model builder, to design all the textiles for the new Cranbrook Academy buildings. Thus Studio Loja Saarinen was established in October, 1928. It began with a solitary loom in its workshop, then quickly expanded to 30.

Many of Studio Loja Saarinen’s weavers were Swedish, including Marie Bexell. She and her husband John P. Bexell emigrated from Sweden to Pontiac, Michigan, in the 1920s. John came from a long line of Swedish woodworkers; Marie was a domestic worker until friends at Studio Loja Saarinen urged her to join them. Soon after Marie switched careers, an opportunity opened up for her husband. Swedish artist Carl Milles, resident sculptor at Cranbrook from 1931 to 1952, hired John Bexell to build crates for the bronze works he shipped to Sweden. Then Loja Saarinen, dissatisfied with her current looms, commissioned John to build one to her specifications. All these connections shaped the remainder of John’s working life.

John Bexell’s first loom for Loja led to other commissions. In the late 1930s, an order for many looms from the Farm Security Administration (for a project to assist sharecroppers in the South) launched John’s loom building business. John’s son Bert joined the business until he was drafted into military service in 1942. After his return home in 1946, Bert decided to make woodworking his occupation. J. P. Bexell and Son continued to build Cranbrook looms.

In the 1970s, the company collaborated with Robert Kidd to improve the original Cranbrook design. A Cranbrook Art Academy alumnus, Kidd had taught weaving at Cranbrook and ran his own textile production business. He contacted Bert and the two began to work closely together to enhance the loom’s efficiency. The traditional Scandinavian-style rope tie-ups changed to chains with exact measurements. The straight treadles changed to tapered ones to mitigate shed adjustments. They also added a treadle lock to fix a depressed treadle in place; this helped keep the shed open, which was particularly helpful on wider loom widths.

By the late 70s, other hands took on the manufacturing of Cranbrook Looms. Bert Bexell sold his business to Les Hudson in 1978; Les soon sold it to Norwood Looms, where owner David Johnson continued making the Cranbrook. By 1996, as Norwood wound down its production of looms, Barry negotiated with them to buy the Cranbrook loom.

Schacht Spindle Company displayed their first Cranbrook at Convergence in 1996. Feedback from that conference led to a redesign launched in 1997. We lengthened the lamms and extended them out to the side of the loom for easier treadling. We increased the depth by 18"—the added room affected threading and treadling—and raised the loom 2" for more leg room. To streamline the tie-up, we switched to Texsolv cords that are permanently installed on the treadles, eliminating the need to change cords for different tie-ups. Finally, we added a worm gear, which improved tensioning of warps and made releasing much easier.

The above is excerpted from a June 2001 interview conducted by Jane Patrick and Barry Schacht with Bert and Mollie Bexell in their Gaylord, Michigan, home.

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