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Wagon wheel weaving in Alaska

Posted: Wednesday, September 04, 2002

Even though the three "R's" of environmentalists, Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle, came about at the turn of the last century, re-cycling is a concept well rooted in American history.

As demonstrated by Will Hightower of Sterling at the Ninilchik State Fair, the art of round rug weaving was a recycling technique practiced by early American settlers. "The round rug was one of the many crafts practiced by the settlers as they moved westward. Old clothes could be recycled and an old broken wagon wheel could be used as a frame," Hightower told interested visitors to the Fair.

Hightower, the resident round weaving expert on the Kenai Peninsula, came by his expertise as a spin-off of a typical "honey do" project. "My passion is for blacksmithing, so when my wife asked if I could make her a couple of wagon wheel rims, I just asked what size she wanted. Later I found out that the local weavers and spinners wanted to demonstrate pioneer round rug weaving at the Fair and needed a frame," explains Hightower in a handout on the art of round weaving.

"Then I made a common husbandly mistake in asking for more details and was handed a one page, badly photocopied article from a ten-year-old craft magazine. When the people who were to demonstrate the rug weaving didn't appear at the Fair last year, I was asked to help wrap the rims. One thing blended into the next and after demonstrating round weaving for three days at the Fair I was the resident expert," said Hightower.

In talking with "old timers" Hightower discovered there were several ways of using the wagon wheel in making rugs. Some utilized the metal rim or tire wrapped with cloth, others cut out the spokes and hub of the old wagon wheel leaving the outer wood to which cloth could be tacked. The most highly prized were the buggy wheels, because they were lighter and a large diameter.

In America's Midwest there is still a good supply of old wagon wheels and discarded rims. However, in Alaska, where there are more dog sleds than wagon wheels, the supply of such wheels is quite limited. "This makes it necessary for us to roll our own rims," says Hightower. "I used a quarter inch by two inch mild steel purchased from a local steel supplier, who can also be very helpful in figuring out how long a piece is needed for different diameter rims," added Hightower.

This years round rug will end up in his granddaughter's room, Hightower only makes one a year for demonstration of pioneer crafts at the Fair, "They talked about auctioning them off, but that never happened, so we use them same as the pioneers did," said Hightower



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