In his Cloquet home’s basement, Rich Gilbertson walks past shelving units holding a couple dozen boxes full of recycled fabrics and other weaving materials before entering the room where he’s loomed more than 1,000 rugs and place mats over the last 10 years.
“It’s a dying art,” Gilbertson said. “There aren’t very many (loomers) out there, but I found there are some people that still want to learn how to do it.”
Gilbertson found his way to his looming business, Gilby’s Acre, through his wife, Carolyn Gilbertson. She was acquainted with another Cloquet woman who made rugs on a Union 36 loom to sell at the Scanlon farmers market.
“She had these beautiful rugs all the time made out of denim and she sold them for a little bit of nothing. This was 20 years ago. And then one day she brought out some black and white place mats. They were gorgeous,” Carolyn said. “Then I started getting interested and thinking, ‘I might like to try to do it.’”
When the woman retired from looming, she sold her loom to Carolyn. It was delivered to the Gilbertsons in pieces because it’s difficult to relocate a floor loom without taking it apart. For a couple years, it sat in pieces in the basement until Rich took it upon himself to get the loom back together and figure out how it worked.
Meanwhile, the Gilbertsons were selling Carolyn’s baked goods around the area at craft sales and markets, where Rich noticed loomers from Superior who had mastered the craft he wanted to learn more about. After bugging them for a while, Rich said he got them to stop by to answer his questions and offer critiques.
“Before they came, he put it together and he was making rugs,” Carolyn said. “They came and tweaked him and told him what he was doing wrong. They told him he was a natural.”
Carolyn believes Rich’s 20 years of experience working on a dairy farm and fixing machines with bailing wire or twine seasoned him with the sort of mechanical intuition needed to figure out how all the pieces of the loom move together.
Just setting the loom up for a project can take a few days, as the threads that extend across the loom, called the warp, need to pass through the eyes of two rows of needles. After that, making a rug can take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, depending on its length.
To avoid the tedious process of rethreading the needles every time he wants to make a rug or place mat, Rich will make one long piece on the loom of up to six rugs with scrap material separating each one.
Most of the material used to make the rugs and place mats is either a fuzzy material called afghan selvage that they order from a company in Ohio, or recycled fabrics like towels, bed sheets, jeans, tablecloths and curtains.
They shop for much of their material at rummage sales, but people have also started donating their fabrics to the Gilbertsons, hence the dozens of boxes of fabric in the basement.
“This is a lot of recycling,” Carolyn said of the process of using the loom to repurpose fabric. “It's trying to make your environment happy without throwing it in the landfill. When I get done with my jeans, he'll put them in a rug.”
Rich said he gets a handful of customers who buy the rugs to throw over furniture at their beach houses or summer cabins. When the kids come in after swimming, they have a place to sit without ruining the furniture.
An average-sized rug for Gilby’s Acre, which is 2 feet by 3 or 4 feet, can range in price from $32 to $50, depending on the size and material used, though the Gilbertsons sell larger and smaller rugs as well.
Since rug making has evolved into another business for the couple, the Gilbertsons have acquired two more looms. Rich uses one loom for rug projects, another for place mats and the third will be for Carolyn to make place mats and runners, which she’s still learning how to do.
One thing she's always done is finish off the rugs and place mats once they come off the loom.
The couple’s next project is to make something out of a small pile of fleece blankets that reminds them of their dog who recently died.
“That’s for us,” Carolyn said.
Placed throughout the floors of the house are 36 of their homemade rugs.
The couple sells Rich's rugs and Carolyn's baked goods at the Moose Lake Area Farmers Market as well as the Downtown Farmers Market and the Lincoln Park Farmers Market, both in Duluth. The couple will also start selling at the Carlton County Farmers Market in Cloquet the second week in August.
In the winter, they sell at craft shows around the area.