Saturday, November 23, 2013

Day 195 - Taking a Broom Making Class

I have never taken a broom making class. Admittedly, this is not an event that ever crossed my mind as something to do, and the reality is I wouldn’t have ever set aside time to attend such an event had it not been for my “I have never...” year. Brooms have simply never been an item I have looked at and said, “I wonder how that is made,” and I didn’t realize some of them were still made by hand before I came across a notice for a broom making class in the Madison area. Regardless, one of the underlying themes of my “I have never...” journey has been the effort to work more with my hands, which made me think attending a broom making class might be an experience worth having. Eventually, that thought led me to the conclusion I really had nothing to lose from attending such an event, which convinced me to make the broom making experience a part of my “I have never...” journey. As a result, I committed to attending the class this afternoon at the nearby Olbrich Gardens. I didn’t know what went into the process or what to expect from the experience, but I was going to give broom making a try and I intended to give it my all.


Upon arriving at the Olbrich Gardens, I promptly made my way to the meeting room in which our broom making class would take place. Entering the space, I looked over a small group of people sitting in a circle of chairs facing a tarp at the center of the room. Before each chair were a series of unfamiliar tools accompanied by a single log with two hatchets leaning against it. As I took my seat, I said hello to the group, which included a man roughly my same age wearing a felted hat, a worn flannel coat, and a long beard that had clearly seen some experience. Next to him a beautifully crafted wooden toolbox rested open, exposing variations of shears, thread, and massive needles. As I looked over the scene around him, the man shot me a smile and said, “Interesting stuff, huh?” I acknowledged his comment with a remark about my lack of familiarity with the broom making process to which he replied, “Well, I’ll help you get plenty of experience today. My name is John.” In response, I introduced myself and asked a few questions about the process, which caused John to redirect me to the forthcoming class. Understanding his desire to avoid explaining parts of the process more than once, I nodded my head and settled back into my chair in preparation for the class to begin.

Over the next few minutes I chatted with John and some of the other students as the remaining empty chairs in our circle began to fill with newcomers. In time, the seating around the workspace was nearly full, which prompted John to start the class. After a brief background on his experience with various forms of craftsmanship and sustainable practices, John provided us an overview of the broom making process and the basic techniques required to convert dried stalks of broom corn, wood, and thread into the recognizable form of a functioning broom. As he spoke, I found my interest and curiosity regarding the process building, which provided me an ample degree of enthusiasm as we moved into the preliminary steps of crafting a broom.

Sorting broom corn
Following John’s direction, each member of our group began the broom making process by selecting and sorting dried stalks of broom corn by length and appearance. With the objective of finding stalks more than a cubit in length, each of us separating broom corn of appropriate length into separate piles of straight, wispy stalks for the broom’s exterior and less attractive, intertwined stalks for the broom’s center. As we worked through the process, John explained the variations in cuts to the two piles of stalks based on their position in the broom, which he happily demonstrated with a few simple cuts and a swipe of a knife. Eventually, everyone in the class found themselves emulating his practice as we finalize our selection of broom corn material and prepared to begin the wrapping process for what would become our broom bristles.

Demonstrating the process...
As we moved into the second phase of the process, John introduced us to the first unfamiliar tool of the day, a small wooden rack with a run of twin wrapped around it. Explaining the twine would be fundamental in holding our brooms together, John walk us through the process of maintaining line tension by placing our feet on the wooden rack and sliding stalks of broom corn into place against our chosen wooden handles. To my surprise, the process was highly demanding, requiring a moderate degree of strength and delicate finger work to keep the slowly developing broom even and balanced. After only a few minutes, I found muscles in my legs and hands stiffening in response to their constant use, but the unexpected beauty of the developing project kept me pressing forward.

A series of loops with the twine ultimately led me to the next step in the process, which involved adding the external layer of broom corn over the internal structure of the broom. Although somewhat similar to the previous steps in the process, John walked the group through the intricacies of adding the final layer of the broom with a series of crisscrossing patterns of twine that tightly secured the bundle of bristles together. As a final complement to the developing design of wrapped twine and bristles, we continued with a balanced weave of twine through the base of each broom corn stalk, which made the project truly start to resemble a functional broom. For the first time since starting the experience I could see the final result coming together, which left me inspired to press forward to see the results of my effort.

In the final phases of the process, John walked us through a series of techniques for pressing and weaving the bristles together with twine to stiffen the broom into a useable form. As someone with no experience completing a weave within an object, the process was slow going and challenging for me, which left me relying on John’s assistance routinely during the process. Eventually, my inexperience and my focus on perfection left me falling behind the rest of the group as the class drew to a close; however, John was happy to let me work through the final phases of the process as he wrapped up his second example broom of the evening. With the room slowly emptying of students, I closed in on the last steps of my broom making experience as four hours of effort come together in the final, beautiful handcrafted form of hearth broom.

Nearing the end...

With the class complete, I stayed behind to help John cleanup the remaining shards of debris left on the floor of our workspace. The opportunity gave me a chance to thank John for an unexpected and insightful experience and afforded me the opportunity to put my newly crafted broom to the test. Surprisingly, the broom made short work of the cleanup over the carpeted space, which gave me confidence in the quality of my effort and drew some comments of approval from John. His remarks were simple, but they carried weight given his expertise in the unique craft he had taught me over the course of the afternoon.

...and the finished project,
a medium length hearth broom
Following our cleanup, I gave John a few more comments of gratitude before I headed for the door and made my way to my car. As I set my handmade broom in the backseat of my car, I took a moment to look at its finer details. “It’s almost to pretty to use,” I said to myself as I closed the back door of the car and climbed behind the wheel. Like my other experiences working with my hands during my “I have never...” journey, a feeling of accomplishment gripped me as I thought about the day’s event. I had taken on a task I knew nothing about and put my hands to work with an intended goal, and I walked away with an outcome better than I ever could have expected. That feeling is rare in the joy it brings, and I now have something to help me recall it anytime I choose... or anytime I find a dust bunny hiding around the house.

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