Taking a break from the loom, weaver Patricia Lustaloto, 60, was proud to tell her supervisor she’s completed a new scarf.
“I finished it,” she said. “I made a scarf today. It’s a gray one.”
Lustaloto, a woman with developmental disabilities, one of 10 such adults working at the Woodmont Weavers store and workshop at the Ballston Commons Mall. Her face is glowing with a sense of accomplishment, evident in her wide smile and beaming eyes. Her day’s work is done.
That feeling of pride is the secret behind the success of the Woodmont Weavers, a program supported by the county’s Department of Human Services. In the Ballston Store, Lustaloto and her friends work on complex looms and spindles to make scarves, tablecloths and other fabric items for sale. The proceeds go to the county’s general fund and the weavers, all selected for the program by social workers, get a county paycheck for each item they create.
“Weaving has a lot to offer them,” said program director Sally Lloyd, one of the program’s founding organizers. “There’s the tactile sense they like. There’s color, texture and the idea that they’re making something, finishing something.”
FOUNDED IN AN OLD schoolhouse in the Woodmont neighborhood almost 17 years ago, the program began as an activity group, but Lloyd and her colleagues quickly saw the value in encouraging people with developmental disabilities to learn weaving as a trade.
“They’d been weaving as an activity,” said Lloyd. “We saw it as a way for them to do work.”
Weaving on a loom is far more difficult that most would imagine. It requires patience, meticulous and careful threading and attention to detail. Yet the weavers know the process by heart, their hands moving almost subconsciously to put each row of thread in place. The program is also a creative one for the weavers, who hand pick the wool, cotton and fiber blend fabrics and the colors they’ll use on each piece. The weavers do special orders too, an aspect of the program that gives them the chance to better their social skills by interacting with customers.
“They get very excited at having the chance to build a relationship with our customers,” said Lloyd. “And, that helps us stress the importance of doing a good job because so often people come in looking to buy a gift.”
THE WOODMONT WEAVERS remained in the old schoolhouse until 2003, when the program’s notoriety won them their new store. Being in the mall has its advantages for the group, according to supervisor Diane Osterhouse. The weavers can walk around, go to the food court, talk with neighboring shopkeepers and visit the nearby movie theater.
And in their new Ballston workshop, the weavers have thrived. One has even gained a degree of celebrity status. Wes Koehne, 37, who took to weaving quickly and now produces self-designed tapestry, has been diagnosed with autism, is blind in one eye and nonverbal. But Koehne is a prodigy of the weavers program.
“He has a really unique ability to work with yarns,” said Lloyd. “He has such an intense interest in weaving and speed at which he learns is remarkable. We’ll show him a new technique once and he’s got it.”
His work was prominently featured during an art show in Richmond.
“He knows exactly where he is on the warp [the bundle of yarn fed into the loom],” said Osterhouse. “It’s an uncommon talent for any weaver.”
Most of the weavers live in group homes or county facilities. Lustaloto said she comes to work every single day, that she loves weaving.
“I like meeting the customers,” said Lustaloto. “They’re all nice.”