Craft Store Run By Town Matriarch Keeps Art of Weaving Alive
Apr. 09, 1995
AVA, Ill. (AP) _ Don't pop into Helen Killion's store expecting to pick up a rug stitched by a machine or one labeled ``Made in Taiwan.'' And definitely avoid the place if you don't like shooting the breeze.
For more than 30 of her 83 years, Killion has been weaving rugs on 19th-century maple-wood looms. Probably the only thing she loves better than weaving is talking to people.
``I like to be able to produce something and be out where the people are,'' said Killion, who with four other women bought a millstone building in 1962 for $500.
Thus was born the Ava Craft Center, which has become an institution in this tiny Jackson County town.
About 20 people _ mostly middle-aged women _ use the center's 10 looms, but visitors mostly notice Killion. The energetic great-grandmother doesn't hesitate to greet strangers, and if they linger a while, she'll whip out some faded black-and-white photos of relatives who helped settle Southern Illinois more than 100 years ago.
``I was always told my line had a little Indian in it, a little Cherokee,'' chuckles Killion, the town's postmistress until retiring 18 years ago. ``That's OK, I don't mind.''
Brightly-colored rugs are piled high on tables in the long, crowded store. Most of the merchandise is made from recycled material, such as denim or linen, which is shredded and fed into a loom operated by hand.
Besides rugs, the center sells place mats, hand bags, quilts and even necklaces made from seeds. Business is good: the store sells about $1,000 worth of rugs monthly, and another $1,000 comes from special orders, with some requests coming from as far as Texas and California.
Thrifty customers can bring in their own material and get a discount. But don't try to call: the store doesn't have a telephone.
``If they want us, they know where we are,'' Killion said.
Weaving still is going strong in many parts of the country, harking back to pioneer days when few department stores could be found on the range. Frugal wives would reuse scraps of torn clothes to make rugs.
Today, Killion, the last of the business' five founders, still offers to train anyone who wants to learn.
``I'll tell you what's rare about it,'' said Joan Lintault, a Southern Illinois University art professor who occasionally brings students to Killion's shop. ``What's rare about it is her, and what's rare is she has single-handedly kept this up for 30 years and has encouraged this in other people.''
Hellen Louise Smith, a 69-year-old retired school bus driver from Ava, learned to weave at the center 10 years ago. She, like Killion, does it to stay busy and earn a little extra money.
``Most of the young people don't want to fool with it,'' Smith said. ``They think it's too dirty, there's too much lint. They'd rather be in an automobile.''
Doesn't threading a loom and then pushing a creaky, heavy wood arm back and forth to weave the material get boring?
``About the time you get kind of blue or tired of something you're doing, why somebody different will come in and perk you up,'' said Killion's daughter-in-law, Frances Killion, a 52-year-old housewife. ``It's a job, but it's something that you enjoy doing.''
Helen Killion, whose husband died in 1977, isn't as agile as she once was: she has had cataracts taken out of both eyes, and she must get by on an artificial hip. But her spirit seems to have remained as young as ever.
``It's interesting,'' she said. ``I've got nothing to do, so I get busy and do something.''