Making useful items from fiber is an ancient skill employed by both men and women throughout history.
In early America, hand-weaving was a male occupation but women took it up in the eighteenth century, and continued until the 1820s, when consumer preference turned to machine-woven products.
Yet on the tiny island of Isle La Motte exceptional hand-crafted fiber arts were rescued through the efforts of Elizabeth Hubbell Fisk. Influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century, Fisk brought a fine-arts aesthetic to the Vermont textiles once produced on Isle La Motte and in nearby St. Albans.
Elizabeth was second daughter of eleven children born to Margaret and John Hubbell of Chazy, New York, a town on the shores of Lake Champlain across from Isle La Motte. Nelson Fisk was the son of a quarry owner on the island, which at the time was important in water travel and trade.
After the Fisks married, they spent some time in New York City where Elizabeth studied at Pratt Institute. Back on the island, she asked some of the older women to teach her the basics of making rag rugs to sell as a fundraiser for the Methodist church and the town library.
Rag rugs, also called hooked rugs, are crafted by making loops with a hand implement on a fabric base fixed to a frame or loom. And so began “Elizabeth Fisk Looms” with St. Albans and Isle La Motte women working in what became a thriving cottage industry.
Fisk soon teamed up with St. Albans’s Anna Bailey Smith, wife of Vermont’s governor at the time. Smith introduced Fisk to vegetable dyes, acids, astringents, powders, and liquids - inspiring Fisk to experiment with colors in the designs she painted as guides for the women to use in their weaving. Fisk herself became so adept at creating tapestries, that instead of leaving threads hanging on the back of the work, she incorporated them into a mirror image on the reverse side.
In 1895, most women couldn’t wait to put away their looms and buy factory made cloth products, but not Elizabeth Hubbell Fisk. She scoured sheds and attics for old looms and frames, and produced textiles that are still highly sought after for collections like that of UVM’s Fleming Museum.
Fisk died in 1927, but the cottage industry she founded continued to thrive, until it finally closed in 1935.
Editor's Note: Historic Fisk Farm on Isle La Motte welcomes visitors for special events and Sunday Tea in July and August.