Linda Morton-Keithley’s handwoven rugs and saddle blankets evoked the word “perfection” the first time I saw them. I’ve been taking a revolving selection of Linda’s rugs and blankets to arts events for the last few years, and several times I’ve witnessed looks of similar admiration on other people’s faces. Frequently, but not always, these admirers are people who themselves weave or practice another textile art form.
My idea of perfection in handweaving has something to do with technique and something to do with design. Beauty is the result. With Linda’s work, the designs are straightforward and often geometric—very appropriate to the medium of weaving in which one set of threads cross another, generally at right angles. But the “simple” stripes in Linda’s rugs somehow seem just the right width and the colors exactly the right choice.
This rug/wall hanging, new on Linda’s page on the HandcraftedArtTraditions.com site, demonstrates one such success.
Linda’s patterns look simple, but expertise is definitely required. Her block weaves involve a rather complex loom-controlled interlacing of weft yarns which results in a thick fabric with differing color blocks on each side.
Hand weavers often admire Linda’s selvedge edges, where colorful weft yarns fold smoothly around the mostly invisible warp. Linda admits that she “obsesses over selvedges.” However, I am more in awe of the precision with which Linda braids the warp ends on her woven rugs. The selvedge edges and the braided ends together create a woven frame—probably one reason why some people choose to hang Linda’s rugs on the wall.
As I learned about Linda’s background, I began to see a pattern of precision and care that extended beyond her weaving practice. During her graduate study in historic costume design at Colorado State University, Linda worked with the university’s costume collection. Beginning with that job, collections management (work involving detailed planning and implementation) became Linda’s career focus.
Linda has worked in the history field as a curator, museum director, and archivist in Colorado, Texas, Idaho, and Oregon. Linda’s last full-time job was at the Idaho State Historical Society, where she worked for 21 years. She first served as oral historian and later became administrator of the Public Archives and Research Library.
Linda now works for different historical organizations as a collections consultant. Currently, she is helping the curatorial staff at the Basque Museum and Cultural Center in Boise, where her work involves cataloging their collection, preparing a disaster plan, and beginning to publish information about collection items on the internet. For precision-minded Linda, that job is “lots of fun.”
Linda said that textiles were “the thread that remained” no matter where she lived and what job she had. Linda took her first (and only) weaving class in the occupational therapy department at Western Michigan University. The loom she acquired around that time moved with Linda from place to place, but Linda did not weave again until she moved to Idaho.
After she married Gary Keithley, a renowned maker of custom saddles and riding gear from an Idaho ranch family, Linda undertook the challenge of weaving saddle blankets. She acquired a four-harness Harrisville floor loom and later an upright tapestry loom so that she could weave the widths necessary for a functional saddle blanket.
When using the tapestry loom, Linda can see her woven design grow and compare it to her graphed plan.
With Gary as a critic, Linda worked hard to produce blankets that would be long-lasting as well as good for the horse. She knew that it was critical to make the blankets from wool, a fiber that would wick the moisture away from the horse’s body. That way, a working cowboy like her husband could use the blanket for the 15 hours that he stayed on the horse each day. Linda knows that her blankets wear well because some of her friends are still using them after 15 years.
When in 2010 Linda left her full-time work at the Idaho State Historical Society, Linda started working on her weaving “more methodically.” She also formalized the business that she and Gary operate and developed its website MK Custom Idaho Cowboy Gear.
The homepage gives the overview of how Gary’s and Linda’s work function together: “MK Custom Idaho specializes in creating quality cowboy gear, including bits, spurs, conchos, spur straps, saddles, saddle blankets, and rugs. All items are handcrafted of the highest quality materials in our studios in Melba, Idaho and are intended to withstand years of hard use in the field.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t show an example of Gary Keithley’s work, which in the example pictured is a silver concho used decoratively on a set of spur straps.
A year or so after launching the website, Linda realized that it was not just working cowboys* who wanted to collect her western-style weavings and that many of her blankets ended up on people’s walls or floors. Linda then began using the same materials and similar designs to weave narrower pieces intended specifically for rugs or wall hangings.
For both rugs and saddle blankets, Linda uses wool produced mainly by small enterprises located in the American West. Linda likes to support other regional craftspeople and agricultural operations, and she also finds that these yarns “have more personality and character. . . . They just lie in the shed and behave as they [should].”
Much of Linda’s rug and blanket material comes from Navajo-Churro sheep, a rare breed with a fascinating history outlined by the Navajo Churro Sheep Association. Linda explains that Navajo-Churro wool is “well suited for rugs” with its course texture and that Weaving Southwest, a family-run fiber supply enterprise in New Mexico, provides a color palette of the wool that she loves.
With weaving as more of a focus in her life, Linda has taken advantage of opportunities to learn new techniques. In 2014, she took a workshop in 4-shaft block weaving from Jason Collingwood, a renowned British rug weaver.
Along with expanding the variety of her saddle blankets and rugs/wall hangings, Linda has developed a line of lighter weight household textiles. Her precision and keen design sense carry over from her rugs to these smaller items, which she sells exclusively at Capital City Public Market in Boise. For those of us not in Idaho, Linda publishes photos of her kitchen towels and scarves on the MK Custom Idaho Cowboy Gear website as well as on her facebook page.
It’s great fun to watch for new colors and patterns. This stack shows a selection of the kitchen towels Linda wove for the 2016 fall/winter season.
Besides being a collections manager and weaver, Linda is also a published author. While working at the Idaho State Historical Society, Linda used Gary’s and family friends’ work as the inspiration for her book Sitting Tall: Saddles and Saddlemaking in Idaho. Linda also has co-authored a chapter for a book to be published soon by Oxford University press. Its title: The Land Speaks.
From her home in Melba, Idaho, Linda is sure to find inspiration to continue using her knowledge and creativity in more ways than we currently know.
(Thank you, LInda, for the snow shot you took looking out your front door.)