Loom Weaves the Past into the Present

History student keeps Scottish weaver’s patterns alive

Deborah Livingston-Lowe

Once a month, Deborah Livingston-Lowe leaves her Toronto Beaches home, heads to the Ontario Science Centre (OSC) and steps back into the Victorian era. As with other occasional OSC volunteers, she spends a day recreating patterns of a prominent 19th-century Ontario weaver on a massive, one-of-a-kind loom now owned by the science centre.

But Livingston-Lowe has a deeper connection to the loom and its maker.

This fall she began a master’s degree in U of G’s history department studying Scottish immigrant weaver John Campbell, who spent almost four decades near London, Ont., turning out Jacquard coverlets and rugs, blankets and flannel items on that loom. Besides highlighting his early work, her research will likely help correct a few romantic misconceptions and stereotypes about 19th-century lives, says her adviser, Prof. Catharine Wilson, a specialist in Canadian rural history.

This is a dream research project for Livingston-Lowe, a full-time schoolteacher who learned to knit as a youngster and who took her first class in weaving and spinning as a teen. “I was interested from the time I was young in textiles,” says Livingston-Lowe.

Currently on a year’s leave from her elementary school classroom in Scarborough, Ont., she is pursuing details of Campbell’s life and work. Her one-year project involves combing through local genealogical and census records as well as newspapers, public archives and diaries from the mid- to late 1800s. She has also examined 19th-century textiles, including pieces by Campbell, held at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

One key resource is Campbell’s accounts book, acquired by the science centre along with the loom about half a century ago. Filled with entries about his clients – including entries for barter transactions instead of cash – the book details a key stretch of the weaver’s business life. “It’s 26 years of his work as a weaver,” she says.

It’s also a window into the reality of 19th-century lives in Ontario, says Wilson. “The pioneer period is one that is highly romanticized. We don’t understand how they worked on a daily basis.”

Those spare entries written in Campbell’s hand dispel something of the myth of pioneer self-sufficiency. Rather than making everything themselves from scratch, women employed tradespeople to obtain finished goods.

Says Wilson: “I also think people think of farmers as producers and not as consumers. Deborah’s work shows evidence of farm families and especially women going in and having fancy coverlets and carpets woven, and being concerned about the appearance and comfort of their homes.”

Campbell helped introduce new weaving technology to rural Ontario and likely relied on expanding railroads to obtain supplies and sell his wares. “There’s also a blend of old and new,” says Wilson, who runs her department’s rural roundtable speaker series. “The account books show people paying for things in cash, which was new, but also paying for a coverlet with a chicken or a bit of labour.”

Born in 1810 in Scotland, Campbell learned his trade there before immigrating to New York at age 31. He came to Canada in 1854 and worked in Middlesex County until his death in 1891.

Working in his home near London, he turned out numerous pieces for area customers. His son and daughter worked with him, and Livingston-Lowe suspects that his wife, Janet, did as well.

His loom – about two storeys tall and five feet wide – was one of only a few dozen in Ontario at the time making figured or patterned fabrics, such as coverlets adorned with pictures of birds or flowers. In Canada, that kind of “fancy weaving” was done only in Ontario then, says Livingston-Lowe.

In the 1950s, Campbell’s family donated the machine to the University of Western Ontario. From there it went to the science centre. Occupying a glassed-in enclosure, the loom is run once or twice a week by volunteers. “When it’s operating, people are very interested in anything with moving parts. We get lots of questions.”

Those visitors are interested not just in textiles or rural history but in a kind of early computer-aided manufacturing.

Modern computing appeared only a century after Campbell’s day, of course. But his Jacquard-style mechanical loom developed in the early 1800s was controlled by punched cards that led to, among other things, punch cards used in early digital computers.

In Jacquard looms, rows of holes punched into cards correspond to rows of the woven design. It’s a binary system, says Livingston-Lowe: pins in the machine poke through the holes to determine which threads are picked up or not. She and other OSC volunteers use sets of cards preserving Campbell’s original designs.

Weaving was an important part of the 19th-century rural economy, she says. “It’s a part of history that deserves attention.” She says it’s a privilege to use a machine that has survived against the odds. “The thing I find intriguing about textiles is that they’re produced from very simple equipment. Basically, it’s beams and pulleys and cords put together in a very ingenious way.”

Livingston-Lowe says it’s also important to share that mechanical know-how with today’s digital generation. Besides her volunteer stints at the OSC, she does that in a few ways.

She keeps a small loom in her elementary school classroom, using it as a route into history with her students. (Having taught for 11 years in Scarborough, Ont., she has a year off to pursue her master’s degree.)

She has also spoken about early weaving and her academic project to such groups as the Canadian Celtic Arts Association.

At home, she has two looms that she uses to make reproductions of nineteenth-century samples. Originally trained at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto, she took several spinning and weaving courses where she learned to work on historical equipment.

She took Celtic studies for her undergrad at the University of Toronto, where her husband, David Livingston-Lowe, now teaches in the program.

That background was intriguing to her adviser. Says Wilson: “Deborah herself brings together a wide variety of skills that we don’t always see. She comes from a fine arts background and knows a lot about textiles and the craft itself.”