Through Arts Such as Weaving, Older Vermonters Reflect on Their Lives and Losses | This Old State | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Through Arts Such as Weaving, Older Vermonters Reflect on Their Lives and Losses


Published May 1, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.

Helen Calvelli - COURTESY
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  • Helen Calvelli

On Wednesday mornings in Shelburne, five women gather to weave fibers symbolizing the tapestries of their lives. During a recent session, Nancy Rissler, 67, finished weaving a series of letters at the base of her loom, representing the first initials of her mother's 11 siblings.

"Putting in the yarn, taking out the yarn, deciding what colors — it sort of reflects how we do life," Rissler said. "[It's] empowering that you can reflect."

This is Weaving Your Story, a free weekly course at Shelburne Craft School for people over the age of 60 and clients of Age Well, a nonprofit resource center serving northwestern Vermont. Participants create a work of fiber art that represents the people, memories or milestones of their lives.

The course is part of a larger effort to help seniors stay active and connected. The Vermont Arts Council awarded $5,150 to support the class, one of 17 "creative aging" projects it's funding this year for a total of $72,100.

Across the state, older adults participate in activities designed specifically for their age group, from a songwriting and singing residency in Canaan to a weekly memoir writing group in Middlebury. The goal is to address many older adults' feelings of isolation by providing social engagement through the arts, according to the arts council.

Lin Warren, 71, is another weaving student. As a senior living in South Burlington, she said, "There's just a million things you can do." She's pursued other opportunities organized by Age Well, such as tai chi. "I've been loving it."

Bradie Hansen, a psychotherapist by day, conceived of the weaving class, which she teaches. She discovered the meditative benefits of fiber arts after spinning wool before bed helped cure her insomnia. She took a course called Weaving a Life, which focuses on the therapeutic aspects of weaving, with Maine-based artist Susan Barrett Merrill. Inspired by Merrill's work, Hansen started integrating weaving into her private therapy practice in 2018. Last spring, she started teaching Weaving Your Story in Shelburne.

Weaving Your Story class - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Weaving Your Story class

Weaving "helps your nervous system metabolize whatever it is that you're going through," Hansen said. "You can use it in all kinds of ways to explore: How am I relating to the world, to myself, to other people, to the things that are coming my way?"

While weaving can be meditative for people of any age, the class is ideal for seniors because they have a wealth of life experience to draw upon, said Hansen, who is 50. The medium can also be a way to process grief, she added. Students often integrate a late loved one's article of clothing, such as a sock or necktie, into the tapestry.

"Sometimes people are like, 'What do I do with all these things? I don't want to get rid of them, because that's so hard,'" Hansen said. "But when they can have something else to do with it, that then also becomes really precious. It's really transformative."

A tapestry can also represent stories passed down through generations. For example, at a dance decades ago, women tossed one of their shoes into a collective heap. The men each selected a shoe and searched for the woman with the corresponding footwear, who would become their dance partner for the night. Rissler's father selected her mother's red shoe. The two were married three months later.

"Isn't that amazing?" Rissler asked. "Now it's all [through] the internet."

To memorialize the meet-cute, she wove an image of a red shoe into her tapestry.

Shari Mullen, 60, created a tapestry depicting Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains, which she said represents her emotional connection to Vermont's landscape. Beyond the calming effects of weaving, she said, the class has helped her connect with other women her age.

"We're all kind of transitioning and trying to find our space in this time when kids don't need us anymore," she said. "It's kind of hard to be both needed and not needed."

A student weaving - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • A student weaving

Hansen said the therapeutic aspect of the course arises from weaving in a communal space. During the two-hour class, the women immersed themselves in their weaving projects but also kept the conversation flowing.

"I wanted it to be more free-form, and I just totally trust weaving to let us do that," Hansen said. "The process of interlocking fibers with each other is, in and of itself, meaningful."

Weaving is rich with metaphors for life, Hansen explained. The loom, which provides structure for the tapestry, must be stable enough to hold all the yarn — just as individuals need a strong foundation to navigate life's hardships, Hansen said.

Warren has always drawn strength from nature, so she's creating trees with branches representing different periods of her life. She's also going to weave in an item from her childhood collection of ribbons.

"I'm old, so I have to make a lot of branches," Warren joked.

The class reminds her to keep living life to the fullest as she ages. She said she plans to invite the weaving group to socialize at her house after the course ends.

"There's a big world out there," she said, "and if you're a senior, don't let it go by."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Late Loomers | Through arts such as weaving, older Vermonters reflect on their lives and losses"

The next session of Weaving Your Story runs Wednesdays, May 8 through June 26, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., at Shelburne Craft School. Free.

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