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Fabric of Her Life

Harvard’s Rita Hagenbruch credits handweaving with keeping her spirits up.

Rita Hagenbruch made two important purchases in 1976 when furnishing her first apartment out of college: a stereo and a loom. “No matter where I live or how old I get,” she reflected, “a loom will always be essential to the fabric of my life.”

That rang truest a decade ago when at 50, Hagenbruch literally wove her way through a challenging year of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation for early-stage breast cancer.

“If I had to interrupt my weaving to throw up,” she explained, “I’d have no trouble getting back to my work again. Because of the systematic dressing of the loom, I knew exactly where I had left off.”

Hagenbruch makes it clear that weaving didn’t save her life, but it provided welcome relief and grounding during an uncertain year.

Early Interest in Hand Weaving

Hagenbruch, a Harvard native, first became interested in weaving when she was a high school student. That was when her great aunt living in Sweden sent her a gift – a tablecloth made from a linen pattern weft on a cotton warp. She was mesmerized by the interaction of the woven threads in the tablecloth. This was not her first encounter with the art of weaving – she first worked with cloth when she was a 9-year-old member of the Dunham Township 4-H Club where she had tailored clothing and matched plaid.

For several years, she did nothing about this new fascination. But, in 1973, when she was a junior at Augustana College, she took a weaving class as an elective from the wife of her Swedish foreign language teacher. The instructor added value by teaching Hagenbruch in Swedish to help reinforce her language skills. During that summer, Hagenbruch took her first trip to Sweden and spent five weeks practicing her Swedish and visiting close relatives. She threw her first shuttle there, wove a few wefts in some curtains her aunt was making and has not stopped weaving for 40 years.

Award for “Tickled Pink”

In 2004, while recovering from breast cancer treatments, Hagenbruch saw a request for entries in the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival in West Friendship, Md., an event attended by tens of thousands of people every year. The family of Mamie Francis, who had died from cancer, was offering a prize for the best handwoven blanket. Hagenbruch had already begun weaving a pink wool lace plaid blanket. “I decided to finish the blanket and enter it in the festival,” she said. To her delight, she won the first Mamie Francis Grand Prize Award and Best Woven Item Award for her entry, which she dubbed, “Tickled Pink.”

Since 2004, she has consistently won awards at the Woodstock Weavers Guild Show, held annually at the Old Courthouse Arts Center in Woodstock, and has participated in many juried shows, including one in Osaka, Japan.

Funding Her Hobby

Hagenbruch admits that her hobby is an expensive one. “But my awards, my publishing payments, my sales from commissioned items and my teaching income justify the cost of the equipment and fibers,” she explained. The equipment includes two looms that “take up a lot of space” in her living room, she added.

One purchased in Delavan, Wis., for $95 – an exceptional bargain – is used for weaving blankets and tablecloths. She purchased the other one, on which she weaves shawls, scarves and ruanas (poncho or cape-like garments), in Merrill, Wis., for $1,500 – less than half of its value. “I believe that the success I’ve achieved and the quality of my work validate my hobby,” she said.

Because Hagenbruch is well-known in the McHenry County area for the excellence of her handwoven garments, she is frequently asked for donations, and supports local schools and organizations. She has contributed to Marian Central Catholic High School events and Harvard arts benefits, as well as to The Land Conservancy of McHenry County and Mozart Festival raffles. That exposure brings her commissions for one-of-a-kind work.

Recently, she attended an Illinois dental meeting downstate with her husband, Dr. Joseph Hagenbruch, where she donated a silk scarf to the organization’s silent auction. At the dinner, a man whose wife had been outbid whispered in Rita’s ear, “Please make my wife a similar one as a surprise.” Hagenbruch did. “People recognize the time that goes into these original pieces,” she said.

In September, she demonstrated the art of hand weaving at The Land Conservancy’s annual Art of the Land show at Starline Factory in Harvard. She also offered about a dozen items for sale, including scarves, shawls and hand-painted merino ruanas.

She often wears the garments she weaves. “Modeling my work is very good advertising,” she added.

Top Teacher

Teaching others to weave gives Hagenbruch great joy. She just conducted a loom-structured lace weaving workshop at Sievers School of Fiber Arts on Washington Island, Door County, Wis. She regularly instructs at The Fold in Marengo. “Rita provides a lot of hours of instruction for a modest price,” The Fold owner, Toni Neil, said. “I think it’s her farm background. She knows that people don’t have a lot of money. For generous one-on-one instruction, she is the best bargain in the industry.”

Neil also emphasizes how calm and pleasant Hagenbruch, is with the students. “If they make an error, Rita always assures them that there is a way to fix their mistake,” Neil said.

It is no surprise, therefore, that in 2011, Hagenbruch, was named one of Handwoven magazine’s top 10 teachers of the year.

On Cancer Detection

Though her cancer “is history,” Hagenbruch leaves little to chance and continues with regular checkups and monitors her own health. She recommends regular self-exams and vehemently supports mammograms, without which she would not have discovered her cancer. “The surgery in 2003 was the solution to my cancer; the radiation and chemotherapy were preventatives for future cancers,” she emphasized.

Rita Hagenbruch can be reached through The Fold in Marengo. For more, call 815-568-5730 or visit thefoldatmc.net.

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