Saying Goodbye to The Mannings

To many weavers, Tom Knisely and The Mannings are intrinsically linked. For the past 40 years, Tom has called The Mannings his weaving home away from home. Today, though, as The Mannings prepares to close its doors, Tom gives tribute to the school where he learned to spin and weave, where he bought his first loom, and where he taught weaving to eager weavers from around the globe. Fear not for Tom, though. The Mannings may be closing, but Tom is far from done with weaving. You can find him in the most recent issue of Handwoven and has already made plans for his teaching future. ~Christina

Christmas 1971 was a wonderful Christmas. My father gave me a two-volume set of the Foxfire books. I am sure a number of you remember these books. The author, Elliot Wiggington as I remember, was a high school history teacher who assigned to his class this project: to document and record the history of the rural southern Appalachian people by going out into their community and interviewing the older people who lived there. The students’ work was compiled into several books with chapters on log house building, farming and preserving food, and folk medicine. One of my favorite chapters was on raising sheep, spinning, and weaving. I had no idea at the time what an influence those books would have in my future, but I am forever grateful. I read the spinning and weaving chapters over and over. I can remember it like it was yesterday, laying across my bed listening to Judy Collins, and going back and forth between my Whole Earth Catalog and those Foxfire books. I dreamt of buying a few acres, building a log cabin, and spinning and weaving myself a life. I was 13 years old.

The Mannings Handweaving School and Supply Center

The Mannings Handweaving School and Supply Center

The following spring, I found a spinning wheel in an antique shop. The owner of the shop told me that it was very old but in working condition and if I wanted to spin I should go to East Berlin, Pennsylvania and look up The Mannings. They would have books and wool and be able to teach me how to spin on this wheel. I was 14 now, and so my father had to drive me to the shop to satisfy my curiosity. My father and I drove down the steep county road and over the bridge to our destination. An old brick house and barn and several cement-block outbuildings made up The Mannings Handweaving School and Supply Center.

Harry and Kathrine Manning welcomed us into the shop and showed us around. It smelled of flax and fleece and natural dyestuffs. Oh, if only the people at Yankee Candle could reproduce that scent! In one corner of the room were rolls of jute and Maxicord for the creative macramé artist and an assortment of wooden and marbled plastic beads. This first building that we were in was originally the weaving studio of Osma Gallinger, Harry Manning told us. She was very influential in the handweaving world and wrote several books on weaving including, The Joy of Handweaving. At the time I didn’t have a clue who Osma Gallinger was, but I had the feeling that we were surrounded by the walls of someone great. “Now out the back door there is a sidewalk that will lead you to the next building where the weaving studio is. Go look around and have fun,” Harry told me. As I turned the knob on the door and entered the next building, I knew how Alice felt when she went down the rabbit hole. Wow.

As I looked around and took it all in, I knew right then and there that my life was changed and it would never be the same. You could hear students weaving, and the rhythmical sound of the looms awakened my curiosity so I popped my head into the studio area to see what was going on. The instructor was a bohemian-looking woman with a heavy German accent named Marianna. Like a hen protecting her chicks, Marianna showed me around the studio and explained how a loom works but wouldn’t allow me to watch over the shoulder of her students for fear that I might disrupt her class with questions. Any questions should be directed to her. She was accomplished and stern in her methods of teaching. I didn’t know it at the time but I would eventually spend nearly 20 years working side by side with Marianna learning many tricks from this master weaver.

That day I purchased some unwashed fleece, a pair of hand carders and a copy of the book, Your Handspinning, by Elsie Davenport. And so this is where my story really begins.

The Mannings sign

The Mannings sign

For the next four years I would regularly shop at The Mannings. I always made it back into the studio area to look at the looms and drool. After I graduated from high school, Mr. Manning sold me my first loom. It was an old barn frame loom from Maine. I could now weave up all that handspun yarn that I had made. In the summer of 1977 I would join the staff to work and do whatever needed to done that day and at that moment. It could have been anything from packing orders to be shipped, waiting on customers, or threading looms. Occasionally I would be called upon to take the mower to the repair shop or Mrs. Manning to the hair dresser. It didn’t matter what the task was, I worked at The Mannings. Alas, Mr. and Mrs. Manning were getting on in their years and they decided it was time to retire.

On December 2nd of 1985, The Mannings Studio was sold to Carol and Ron Woolcock. The Woolcock’s arrived with their lively preteen Kim, and the atmosphere of the studio changed immediately. Changes are hard sometimes and adjustments are inevitable. There is a saying that goes, “A new broom sweeps clean.” Literally and figuratively speaking, that is exactly what happened. We all dug in to give the place a new look. It made the studio look alive and well and moving in a fresh and new direction. I think what helped was that Carol and Ron and myself were closer in age, and Carol and I were on the same page to move the business into the future with the energy that comes from a younger mindset. We added more classes, went to trade shows, and increased the inventory with more selections of yarns, threads, and equipment.

Carol’s love of knitting brought an explosion of new and exciting yarns and knitting needles to The Mannings. We now laugh when we walk through rows of shelving with all the books and magazines. When Carol and Ron bought the business, there were just three knitting books offered for sale on the shelf. Now there are hundreds of titles. The patterns alone needed special thought and attention. The spin around racks holds more than 1,200 selections. It soon became obvious that we needed to expand the size of the building. In 2001, we started new construction to join the two existing buildings and added more than several thousand feet to help with our growth in the business.

For thirty years Carol and Ron have worked hard to make The Mannings a place where people want to come and enjoy learning about all aspects of fiber arts. But like all of us, they have a dream to retire. They want to retire in their motorhome to Hilton Head, South Carolina, and when the mood strikes, drive away to another part of the country and take in the sights.

In May of 2015 they made the decision to close the studio forever, with the last day of business being the 30th of December. The last several weeks have been bittersweet. I am so happy for Carol and Ron and I wish them every happiness in their retirement, but saying goodbye to this institution that I have known for more than 40 years is hard, to say the least.

It’s much like Dickens’s Christmas Carol. The ghosts of Mannings past, present, and future are all about me each day. In the farmhouse where Carol and Ron live and host students is a kitchen with a large picture window. I have stood there and watched many a high water come up from the creek and fill the yard. My girls would sometimes play under the kitchen table on snow days when they were off school. There were many Barbie days under that table. We sat at that same table and watch the twin towers fall on September 11th and grieved with the rest of the country. We have had wonderful times and have met and made countless friends through the studio. Some of the students have gotten to know us, sometimes intimately. Some of the old-timers have seen us get married and then later bring our children into the studio. You know you have been there a long time when your daughters have daughters and they now come and play under the looms. I know it’s time to say goodbye, but not without saying a heartfelt thank you to everyone who passed through our doors over the years. In the evening of December 30th, Carol and Ron will lock the front door for the last time and then make their way through the buildings shutting off the lights and saying good night. Here they come, Hilton Head!

The ghost of Mannings future has given me the opportunity to continue the work I love under the new name of Red Stone Glen Fiber Arts Studio. My daughter Sara and I welcome you all to the new location opening in the Spring of 2016.

Happy Weaving,

–Tom

One Comment

  1. Elmtree C at 6:41 pm March 27, 2017

    What a wonderful & creative life you have had. I too have a complete set of Fox Fire books. I have learned how to clean , process, spin & weave alpaca fibers that i found locally. I am still searching for my first spinning wheel. I do very well on my handmade spindle. I think its good to share with anyone that wants to learn what we have lived in our creative world. Thank you sincerly.

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