Carpet weaving is key part of Amana history

Posted at 2:43 PM, May 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-28 15:43:31-04

AMANA, Iowa (AP) — Linda Grabau finds odd moments throughout her day to prepare the material that she will later weave into a rug.

She’s made rugs from pantyhose and shirts. She was recently tearing into a pair of blue jeans ... while also cooking dinner on her outdoors grill.

Grabau purchased her first loom in 1993.

In the nearly three decades since, she has become a bit of a carpet-weaving mentor. She’s been teaching classes for about four years in Amana, and her former students stay in touch as they journey through the art of carpet-weaving, which is a central part of Amana history.

People like Grabau are keeping it alive.

In March, the nonprofit Amana Heritage Society was announced as one of four recipients of a folk art apprenticeship grant provided by the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs.

The goal of the new program is to sustain “artistic traditions and cultural heritage in Iowa by encouraging master artists and culture bearers to pass on their skills and knowledge to emerging or apprentice artists,” according to the Iowa Arts Council’s website.

The Amana Heritage Society received $3,820, which is being used toward Grabau’s classes to preserve carpet-weaving.

“I love the hands-on experience (of carpet-weaving),” Grabau told the Iowa City Press-Citizen. “I was in 4-H, and so I try to learn something new all the time. … I just love showing other people how easy something is.”

Grabau teaches carpet-weaving inside the Amana Arts Guild Center.

The woolen mill in Amana donates excess material, so people who take Grabau’s classes do not have to concern themselves with bringing and preparing their own.

Her classes host no more than five people. That way, everyone can work on their own loom.

“I will show them as much as they want to learn,” Grabau said.

Grabau also helps people by finding affordable looms of their own. They could otherwise cost a few thousand dollars.

That makes Grabau one of a long line of influential Amana weavers.

Dorothy Trumpold was another. She was a 2001 National Heritage Fellow, which recognizes a master folk and traditional artist for their contributions to the arts.

Trumpold watched her grandfather prepare his loom when she was 8 years old in 1920, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. She weaved for decades on a loom that was brought to America in the 1840s. Trumpold died in 2016.

Before 1932, the year of the “Great Change” when Amana no longer operated as a communal society, the work of carpet-weavers was considered a duty to the community, not something that was to be compensated, said Jon Childers, executive director of the Amana Heritage Society.

Back then, carpet-weaving was something men did, providing community members carpets that spanned an entire room.

All Amana homes would have had carpet, according to Childers. These carpets were largely similar in appearance, using material from the woolen mill. The most common colors used in Amana carpets included brown, blue and black, according to the Amana Heritage Museum.

Those that were moving into a new home would get their carpet and rugs done by a carpet-weaver. Those handmade carpets would stay in the home often until the people living there died.

It’s only in the last 20-30 years that carpet-weaving was no longer being passed down to the next generation, Childers said.

In South Amana, there is one resident that has been carpet-weaving since the 1950s.

George Berger, 89, descends from a family that knew how to weave.

Berger’s grandfather wove. So did two of his aunts. His mother learned it from her father and offered custom weaving, he said.

Once, while she was fulfilling an order for a family, her back went out.

She told Berger he would have to finish the order.

“I said, ‘I’ve never done it.’ And she said, ‘I’ll sit right here, and I’ll tell you exactly what to do,’” Berger recalled.

Berger, then 20 years old, said he fell in love with it right away.

He hasn’t stopped carpet-weaving.

Berger spent 39 years as a fourth-grade teacher in Amana. After supper on weekends — when he didn’t have to mow the lawn — and during the summer, Berger would be working on his looms in the workshop adjacent to his home, where his father had done carpentry.

When people found out Berger was carpet-weaving, they’d drop off any material they thought he could use, such as bed sheets, blankets, curtains and clothing.

As boxes of material piled up, Berger decided to work out of his father’s shop. The space now holds two looms, boxes of material and balls of fabric ready to be woven, carefully wrapped so that the material is unraveled from the center of the ball without the ball moving around.

Berger has sold carpets to someone in every state in America. He kept track by coloring in a state on printed maps, the sheets tacked to a wall inside his workshop.

His carpets have been in Herbert Hoover’s birthplace cottage, the Hotel Pattee in Perry and in the Amana Churches.

Berger’s home is a former Amana schoolhouse. He was born in a room upstairs and would go on to raise his family there. His two sons and daughter all learned how to carpet-weave.

“There used to be a weaver in every village (in Amana), and I think I’m about the only one, only original ones, that’s still here doing it,” Berger said.

Rhonda VanNostrand raises six alpacas on her land outside Amana, but did not know what to with the fiber from the animals.

VanNostrand began looking for classes on carpet weaving.

That’s how she connected with Grabau. Now, VanNostrand has her own loom.

“You don’t have to take up a whole room just to do (carpet-weaving). It’s pretty self-contained and you can do it at your leisure,” she said.

For VanNostrand, using the alpaca’s fibers make her final, finished rugs all the more meaningful.

“I can see each animal in the rug. Each color is a different animal,” she said.

VanNostrand said she has a different perspective on woven products because she knows how much work, knowledge and time goes into making something like a rug, assuming it wasn’t made by a manufacturer.

“How fast through the generations things can be lost,” she said, adding that handmade doilies are a lost art.

Sarah Kelley of Linn County is another one of Grabau’s many students. She owns her own loom, uses wool from the sheep she owns and had been doing carpet-weaving for about a year before coming across Grabau’s classes.

“I just liked the fact that it’s something that you can use, that you can take something that is maybe not useful and make it into something that you can use and enjoy,” she said.

The work of Amana carpet-weavers can be spotted inside the Amana Heritage Museum.

Elise Heitmann, executive director at the Amana Colonies Convention and Visitors Bureau, grew up in Amana. Her family is close to Berger’s, who gifted Heitmann a handwoven rug for her graduation.

She had never considered doing carpet-weaving until her mom wanted to take one of Grabau’s classes in 2020, she said.

When Heitmann learned about the grant, she decided that she would take a loom, practice and carry this art forward.

“It’s a craft that never died, and so me keeping on doing it, that just feels normal,” she said.

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