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Fine Line class teaches weaving for the blind or visually impaired

ST. CHARLES TOWNSHIP – Five women weavers pulled their shuttles through the space – known as the shed – pulling through threads of colors such as peacock blue, silver gray and poppy red.

After the threads are pulled through, there was a thump, as the loom beated in the new row. This is how weavers create scarves, place mats, wall hangings, shawls and purses.

But these weavers consult patterns and find colors marked in Braille as they are all either blind or visually impaired.

This past week is the sixth year they have gathered for their Weaving for the Blind and Visually Impaired class at the Fine Line Creative Arts Center in St. Charles Township. Usually, it’s six women, but one was out sick this year. All are teachers or retired teachers.

The inspiration for the class, taught by Heather Winslow of Sugar Grove, was Linn Sorge, 62, of DeKalb. 

Blind since birth, Sorge already was very accomplished as a full-time teacher at the Hadley School for the Blind, teaching adaptive technology and music courses online to people all over the world.

But Sorge said she always wanted to weave.

“And not just back and forth with a treadle and shuttle,” Sorge said. “I wanted to do everything – start to finish. I wanted to take a big cone of yarn and turn it into fabric every step of the way.”

And so it began, first with Sorge taking weaving lessons from Denise Kavanagh, founder of Fine Line, who died of cancer in 2002. Then Winslow took on the weaving classes, including teaching Sorge.

“It was wonderful working with her,” Sorge said of Winslow. “After we had been doing this a while, my friends were envious about this. I asked her if she would be willing to try to teach them a couple things in a summer class. She said, ‘If you will be there, I will.’ ”

And so it continued.

“That was probably the hardest thing for me to do,” Winslow said. “I have no training in working with visually impaired or blind people. And so what I found the most difficult is to figure out was ways of verbalizing concepts or skills that they had to do. How do you teach somebody to tie a square knot if they can’t see what you are doing?”

Winslow adapted the class, verbalizing the instructions she could not demonstrate.

“I had to come up with ways for them to see with their fingers. They see with touch as a sense for seeing, and I had to come up with ways they can use that sense to understand what I am trying to get across,” Winslow said.

Winslow found that her blind and visually impaired students have exquisite memory skills for verbal instructions.

“They are very sharp,” Winslow said. “And since the majority are blind from birth, they are used to listening – and actually listening – as to a sighted person who is not listening, as well. They concentrate on listening.”

For the weavers, who are blind since birth or not long after, a color class explaining what colors go together, and which are complimentary, took the mystery out of how to choose colors.

“I have no clue of colors,” Sorge said. “I will never know what blue really is. But ... I can understand that blue goes with this and not with that.”

The class includes sighted assistants that help out with tangles and other problems. But other than that, the students do everything themselves.

Sorge’s friend Kathy Hudziak, 65, of Janesville, Wisconsin, also blind since birth, said looms were fascinating to her. When she visited Sorge, she was taken with the scarves and wall hangings her friend had made.

“I love the texture of the woven cloth,” Hudziak said, and she asked her friend if she could learn to weave, too. Since then, Hudziak has made dish towels and place mats, scarves and two handbags.

Another student, Sue Melrose, 64, of Modesto, California, praised Winslow for accommodating their special needs.

“You could not find a better teacher,” said Melrose, blind from cancer of the retina at the age of 2. “They watch what you do and figure out how to make it easier.”

Karen Heesen, 64, of Janesville, Wisconsin, also blind since birth, embraced the weaving class with gusto, making several sets of place mats, scarves and dish towels.

Vicki Mullis, 55, of Jacksonville, is legally blind from congenital cataracts and still has some vision.

“This is my fourth year,” Mullis said of the weaving class. “I’ve made two scarves and a shawl, and the third year I made table runners and gave a couple as Christmas gifts. This year, I’m making a wall hanging, and I’m very very excited about it.”

Another student, Selinda Chasteen, who missed part of the class this year because of a bad cold, became legally blind in 2005 as the result of a stroke.

Chasteen, 67, of DeKalb, said she wanted to learn weaving because she used to do embroidery and crochet, but once she became visually impaired, “suddenly I had nothing to do with my hands.”

“It drove my husband crazy. He said, ‘Let’s try weaving,’ and he called Fine Line,” Chasteen said. “Heather taught me how to see with my fingers instead of my eyes.”

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