Watching the group of weavers who attended the recent annual "Weaving for the Visually Impaired" class at Fine Line Creative Arts Center in St. Charles, is an experience both impressive and poignant.
Each year, a group of women from all over the country come together to learn the art of weaving from Fine Line teacher Heather Winslow. Over the course of four days, they not only create beautiful shawls, table runners, kitchen towels, scarves and more, but also gain confidence and develop deeper feelings of pride in their abilities and accomplishments.
"When we were little, we used to make those woven potholder things (with loops and metal looms)," said Patti Jacobson, who came all the way from Colorado and made twill tablemats this year. "What I've been able to make here surpassed my expectations."
Jacobson, Karen Heesen, Kathy Hudziak, Sue Melrose and Linn Sorge are five students in the class who are totally blind, while the other students have varying degrees of vision loss.
Sorge, a Fine Line regular who provided the impetus for this class, said this is the only arts center in the country to offer this type of weaving class. It is, without question, a unique experience for the students.
And unlike weaving classes offered at schools for the blind, these students at Fine Line actually do everything from start to finish, including designing their projects, prepping the loom, working the loom, repairing any mistakes, and finishing off their work.
"I went to visit Linn and saw a woven wall hanging, and I asked if it would be possible for me to do this. I never imagined it would really happen," said Kathy Hudziak of Janesville, Wis., who made two Atwater Bronson lace scarves.
Hudziak, who has known Sorge since grade school, has also been attending this class since it began five summers ago.
Sorge, who has been blind since birth, has a bachelor of arts in music education, a master's degree in special education, and teaches Braille music and classes in adaptive technology at The Hadley School for the Blind. Her many skills come in handy for this weaving group. She also prepares weaving instructions in Braille for the other students who need them. Some of the students who are partially sighted are able to use directions provided in large print.
Volunteer assistants Sue Reinhardt and Beth Duncan are always on hand to help where and when needed. These two assistants check on each student, point out mistakes, help with corrections, and encourage and admire everyone's work.
"They're the ones who help us do it as independently as possible," said Sue Melrose.
"Basically, they have to measure all their threads, put all the colors in order, and they have to sley (thread) the reed," Winslow said. "The very first project, five years ago, used a heavy cotton yarn to enable them to see it better; they see with their fingers. Now they're able to 'see' better, and can use a finer thread."
Sorge was Winslow's student long before this class began. Both Sorge and Winslow credit each other with making this class come about, five years ago.
"I was so impressed by what Linn could do," said Winslow, who had to train herself to say everything she is doing while teaching. "I've learned so much and grown so much. But there's no way I could do it without assistants, and they have to be special assistants."
Sorge and Reinhardt have both been taking weaving classes at Fine Line since 1994.
"I think of colors as music. I do like blue, and I do like purple," Sorge said, describing how she relates colors to something she knows. "I tend to think of color combinations as different kinds of melodies."
She added that the textures, patterns and lines all add to her enjoyment in weaving.
Other regulars in this four-day class include Karen Heesen from Janesville, Wis., who made a set of twill dishtowels. Struck with a genetic eye disease when she was a toddler, Heesen teaches Braille and music, and has taught basketry for adults who have recently lost their sight.
Selinda Chasteen from DeKalb is a retired kindergarten teacher who has also been coming to this class for five years. Having lost her sight due to a stroke, she heard about this class at Fine Line and has learned to use her fingers to create wonderful woven pieces, and even more so, she found a new group of mentors and friends.
"This class gave me hope," Chasteen said. "The only bad thing about it ... is that it's over until next summer!"
More recent additions to the class include Vicki Mullis of Jacksonville, Ill., who made twill table runners, and Sue Melrose, who came all the way from Modesto, Calif., for her third year, and wove a set of frost crystal dishtowels.
"This is one of the most amazing weeks at Fine Line," said Sorge, who is frequently seen at a loom in the weaving studio, throughout the year. "This is the only place I've never experienced prejudice. As people get to know us, they bridge the gap of acceptance and working toward understanding between us and new visitors to the studio. It's a special gift to be in a place where we are people first, with our visual impairments or blindness coming second."
For information on the range of art classes and workshops offered at Fine Line, and to find out what is currently on exhibit in the center's Kavanagh Gallery, visit www.fineline.org or call (630) 584-9443.