The textile arts had been a part of the enlightened schools movement from its very beginnings in Milwaukee just after the dawn of the 20th century, and this connection has been woven into the very history of Milwaukee Recreation.
The Alice Bertschy Kadish (ABK) Memorial Weaving Center, established in 2000 at the Gaenslen School in Riverwest, is the latest iteration of this connection.
Although the numbers dropped in the pandemic year of 2020, in 2019, 433 people enrolled in the center’s courses. Last year the number rose to 249 and so far in 2022 196 have signed up, more than in all of 2020.
The center has 129 looms, most of which are floor looms, but there are also tapestry looms, ink looms and a few small table looms.
“ABK Weaving Center is special because it provides an incredible opportunity for the general public to learn to weave and develop their weaving skills at an affordable cost and at a time when weaving is taking its place as a form of contemporary art,” says Carole Grandaw, director of the ABK weaving centre.
“While ABK’s primary mission is to make weaving accessible to people of all ages, the Center also offers classes in other fiber arts disciplines, including knitting for children and adults, dyeing, basketry, bobbin lace and spinning.”
Thanks to its location within an active and operational Milwaukee public school, children can also use the center, says Grandaw.
“The center provides weaving lessons for Grade 8 MPS students who attend Gaenslen on Friday mornings when school is in session,” she says.
“This effort is organized by another retired teacher with a group of volunteer weavers. Alice Bertschy Kadish believed that weaving was a beneficial skill for children to learn, and ABK has proudly exposed young people to the art of weaving for over 20 years.
Weaving classes in schools predate the establishment of the Milwaukee Recreation Department in 1911.
“In 1908 the Women’s Club of Wisconsin started a movement to open and fund a vacation school ‘at Sixth District School (now Golda Meir School),'” George Wilson wrote in a department history.
Later that year, Carroll G. Pearse, the Superintendent of Schools, recommended flooding some school grounds for ice skating.
“When $2,500.00 was appropriated by the school board…evening school activities increased to include choir, orchestra, games, weaving, knitting, reading room and gymnastics.”
These classes continued, and by the early 1930s there were scattered programs in schools around the city.
“These centers eventually coalesced to form one weaving studio for the entire city,” noted a story of the weaving center.
“The studio looms were created by workers from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and were operated by Milwaukee Recreation. Arts and crafts flourished during these years, and the Weaving Studio was the largest in the Midwest with 64 working looms.
The first citywide weaving studio was established at the Lapham Park social center in March 1934.
“The Lapham Park Social Center Weaving Workshop, where for some months women have been familiarizing themselves with the looms and working more or less informally, will inaugurate its first formal course on the fundamentals of weaving on Tuesday July 24” , writes the Milwaukee. Diary that summer.
“Harry Lichter, a graduate of Milwaukee State Teachers College School of Art and winner of the top prize for weaving at the recent Applied Arts Association and Art School exhibition, will lead the class,”
The two-hour course was divided into one hour of “lecture and demonstration” – including discussion of “parts of the loom, warping, setting up patterns and types of weaving” – and one hour of “practical work”.
In addition, the studio was open to the public every day except Saturday from 1:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
During her years at the Lapham Park social center, the work of the weaving center was often recognized in local newspapers. One of the most interesting reports came in 1935, in an article with the title, “Voice Returns While at Loom”.
A woman who had barely been able to speak a word after a car accident started taking a class at the center.
“She could barely utter a word when she first arrived and took her place at the loom,” the Sentinel wrote. “It was the car accident. Since then, the pressure of making an intelligible sound had been so great that no one thought she would speak normally again.
The idea was that if the woman “could learn to weave, maybe she wouldn’t worry about not being able to talk”.
“She learned to weave; moreover, she learned to speak. As his hands became easier to shuttle the chain through, his tongue and vocal chords also relaxed. Today, she discusses with the best of them. They have a lot to say, the 89 women who take turns on the 36 looms of Lapham Park throughout the week… if the crackle method is better than the colonial overrun for a radio bench cover, if a piece of cellophane could be used for advantage in designing this handbag, what next for a Christmas present.
Although this was the most incredible achievement, it was not the only one. Some only came to the center to unleash hidden talents.
Take Mrs. Fred Long from Bay View.
“Two months ago the loom and (she) were strangers,” the newspaper wrote. ” It’s no longer the case now. A member of a weaving class at the Lapham Park social centre, Ms Long has previously made rugs, mattress toppers, scarves, handbags and ties in near-wholesale quantities. She is one of 89 women registered for classes throughout the week.
The weaving center attracted mostly women, but a very diverse group, many of whom brought their own ethnic textile traditions to the center, including from Italy, Sweden, Switzerland and other countries.
A number of women ran the center in its early years, but in 1945 when the center moved to Auer Avenue School, Hazel Kolloge took over and remained at the helm for decades.
Born Hazel Taft in 1889, in 1917 she married Herman Kolloge, owner of a hardware store. In the late 1930s, Kolloge was working for Milwaukee Recreation as a supervisor.
In 1945 the new studio on Avenue Auer had 40 looms, in 1951 – a year in which we can see a video of Kolloge demonstrating a loom thanks to WTMJ-TV and the UWM archives – there were 50.
At this time, there was also a weaving center at the Parklawn Social Center.
Auer’s looms buzzed every weeknight on Auer Avenue and there were also daytime classes on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
In 1952, the All-City Weaving Studio moved to Room 33 at Clarke Street School and was open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.
In 1957 Kolloge got another 10 looms for a total of 60 and the center was getting too big for his classroom.
In January 1958 it moved again, this time to Wisconsin Avenue School, occupying its largest space yet and adding four more looms.
Again, due to space constraints – this time it was the school that needed an extra room – the weaving workshop was moved to the new Gaenslen School building, 1250 E Burleigh St., in Riverwest in the late 1980s.
It was later named for Alice Bertschy Kadish, a philanthropist – and weaver – who gave to a number of causes. Riverwest is also home to a park named in his honor.
“ABK exists because of Alice Bertschy Kadish’s passion for weaving and her desire to share the craft with others,” says Grandaw, who was appointed director this year alone. “Alice, who was a retired MPS teacher, loved weaving and she wanted the craft to stay alive in the Milwaukee area.”
Kadish and her husband Halbert endowed the center through their foundation to help secure its future.
“ABK Weaving Center is unique in that it works in conjunction with MPS, Milwaukee Recreation and Wisconsin Handweavers,” says Grandaw.
The majority of users are women and of all ages, although 30-49 and 60-79 are the most represented. But all are welcome and the center staff encourage everyone to participate.
“ABK invests in the community in which it exists. For 10 years, ABK has collaborated with the Riverwest Artists’ Association and hosted Warped Milwaukee, an exhibition of fiber art, at the Riverwest Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts.
“More recently, ABK had representation at Riverwest 24 by staffing one of the rest areas and offering a weaving-related activity that cyclists and community members can participate in. ABK was also scheduled to participate in Doors Open Milwaukee in 2020, but due to the pandemic, participation was canceled.
You’ll be able to take a peek inside this year’s Doors Open Milwaukee in September.
But why wait? If you sign up for a class now, you can hone your weaving skills in this quietly historic Milwaukee treasure.
(NOTE: This article was written for the Milwaukee Recreation Institutional History Project. Although the subject matter was provided by Milwaukee Recreation, the content was not.)