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Forsythe loom used by Dorothy Liebes

Object Name: Loom
Date: ca. 1920
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Medium: Wood, metal, cloth, string; cotton, synthetic fibers, Lurex
Dimensions: Overall (approx.): 60 × 36 × 42 in. (152.4 × 91.4 × 106.7 cm)
Description: Bright red painted counterbalance loom with four harnesses, four treadles, string heddles, and hanging beater with metal reed; hand-carved, polychrome castle beam set into the posts depicts two opposing angels holding a basket filled with fruit; metal plaque on castle side with text: “THE FORSYTHE LOOM/ SCHOOL OF TEXTILES/ AND HAND CRAFTS / PATENTED JUNE 1919”; partially woven work in progress has yellow cotton or cotton blend warp with cotton and synthetic weft (including Lurex) in yellows, green, and blue.
Credit Line: American Textile History Museum Collection, Gift of Douglas Todd
Object Number: 2017.62.1
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The American press dubbed Dorothy Liebes the “First Lady of the Loom.” However, her activities stretched far beyond handweaving. The California native began weaving on commission in 1930 and opened a studio in San Francisco in 1937. By 1940 she worked bi-coastally, opening a second studio in Manhattan at some point before permanently relocating in 1948.

Liebes emphasized the translation of her work on the handloom to industrial applications. During the 1930s she gained national recognition for incorporating then-unsual materials such as bamboo, grasses, cellophane, and synthetics. In the post-World War II era, Liebes was central to the emergence and popularity of Lurex in commercial textiles. In the 1950s, she parlayed her penchant for startling color combinations into a significant role as a consultant, trend predictor, and ambassador for such consumer brands as Dupont, Sears, and Jantzen, which relied on her power as a household name to market their fashions, textiles, and interior furnishings.

Liebes had a flair for publicity and owned at least three special looms with unconventional hand-carved details. This bold red loom appears in publicity photographs of Liebes and her studio from the late 1930s to the mid-1960s. She gifted the loom with its partially woven work-in-progress to her ten-year-old great-niece Michelle Todd in 1967. Todd never learned how to use it and instead kept it “as an art piece” in her bedroom.

Nina B. Forsythe, the loom’s inventor, was born in Boston, Massachusetts. She studied textiles there and in China, Japan, Paris, and London, including a stint with the arts and crafts designer William Morris in the summer of 1894. She went on to teach in various colleges around the United States until moving to Berkeley, California, where she opened her School of Textiles and Handcrafts in sometime before 1919.