Karin Gerstel Interview
Today’s date is Oct. 6, 2021. This is Jean McMillen. I am interviewing Karin Gerstel who is going to talk about Undermountain Weavers that her parents started. Then she is going to talk about being the Democratic town registrar, and then we are going to talk about her business at Undermountain Weavers which has come full circle. This is file #38, cycle 4.
JM:Hi there. How are you Karin?
JM:What is your full name?
KG:Karin Joan Gerstel I used the J, but I never use the Joan.
KG:April 24, 1955, a native Connecticut
KG:I was born in New York City, but never lived there until much later.
JM:Your parents’ names
KG:Liese Lottie Gerstel and Eric Gerstel. He was originally Hans Eric: then he became Eric Hans.
JM:Now if I remember correctly your father wound up in Scotland as a young boy where he learned textile design and weaving.
JM:Then he came to the United States.
JM:Where he met your mother.
JM:And she had come from Dresden, Germany.
JM:What did he do in New York City?
KG:He was in textile design. He first came to Connecticut and set up his two looms he brought from Scotland where he had gone to trade textile college. Then he set up the looms on the chicken farm he first lived on, his father and uncle’s farm in Tariffville near Simsbury, Ct. They delivered eggs to
Hartford. Then he got into textile design in New York City. He traveled to woolen mills in Japan, Germany, and England. He eventually traveled to Thailand and India. They sold to places like Brooks Brothers and other places. I remember walking down the street with him one time and we stopped at a store window and said, “Hey, that’s one of mine!”
JM:Oh that is impressive.
KG:Isn’t that impressive?
JM:When did he actually come to Salisbury?
KG:I think they finally closed on the house at the end of 1969, maybe January 1970.
JM:Is it the house you are still in?
KG:No we are across the street. I have come a long way! It is family property but the house was across the street.
JM:So it would be on the right side going north to Sheffield?
KG:Going north it was the Joyceville Tack Shop on the left side of the street heading north. We are now on the right side just beyond Hammertown Road.
JM:So he had the house. Did he set up his business shortly after getting the house?
KG:They did. They had actually a 6 car garage that they bought from Connie Lovejoy. They converted that into the weaving studio.
JM:That is what I remember. How many looms did he bring here?
KG:4 looms, they had been in storage for 30 years. They decided to first just get a barn in the area, on the way to skiing. Then the barn became a barn with a studio. Then it became a barn and a house, and then they moved up here.
JM:What kind of looms did he bring?
KG:They were fly shuttles looms that had been initially build in the 1730s. Some of the looms are a couple of hundred plus years. Math is not my forte. Of course you need some of it to fix the weaving.
JM:Oh yes you do! What were the items they created?
KG:They mostly wove tweed for selling the material. Then they got into also making scarves shawls, and skirts. Some of them were sown by Gudrun Duntz (See her interview) and Barbara Riva. They also sold the material to be made into sports jackets. The company was called British American Textiles. I think that was the name of the company which made the material into sports jackets.
JM:Did your parents teach people to weave?3.
KGYeah, they did. They did formal classes with a bag lunch. We do the same once a year or so.
JM:I am going to ask specifically: your dad did what in the business? And your mother did what in the business? I think your mother had the harder job!
KG:For me it would have been, yes. He wove and designed the fabric. They worked with wool, and lamb’s wool and cashmere. When the material came off the loom, mom would weave or sew any mis-woven threads or broken threads to correct it because it could be very visible on something you were wearing.
JM:If it doesn’t match, it doesn’t match.
JM:That is really hard. It would drive me up the wall.
KG:`Yes it is. She would go through maybe 15 yards of navy twill and correct any mistakes.
JM:When did they sell the business?
KG:They sold in the mid -1980s (to the Pinkstons of West Stockbridge, Mass, Ed.)
JM:Did they retire?
KG:They did. It was the next retirement phase as dad called it.
JM:Is there anything you would like to add about your father’s business before we move on to other things?
KG:I think they liked it: they enjoyed doing it. They enjoyed the time: they enjoyed the people they would connect with.
JM:I met your father, I know and that was the impression that I got that it was something that he really loved!
JM:That comes out even with a casual meeting. I did buy some of his tweed and it was gorgeous.
KG: Yes he did. He went back to the basics, without all the travel and all that.
JM:That is what he really wanted to do was to design and weave.
JM:Now your mother did all sorted of things with community service.
KG:They both did actually.4.
JM:Well I am going to start with your mother first. Tell me about her work with the daycare.
KG:Yes she loved working with the kids. That was under the era of Joan Palmer (See her interview). That was when it was in the parish rooms of the Lakeville Methodist Church. Before that she had worked in Westchester with Head Start when we were off at school. It was good she had the daycare because she doesn’t have grandchildren. There were plenty of kids in her life.
JM:That’s enough, particularly when you can send them home. She did something with OWLS Kitchen (now called the Northwest Corner Food Pantry Ed.)
KG:She did. She coordinated volunteers for a while, before the Internet. She worked at OWLS Kitchen as well. Actually the OWLS Kitchen phone line was our house for quite a while.
JM:The ambulance service calls used to be at the White Hart Inn. Then she also worked at the polls.
KG:She always worked the polls since before we could vote, I remember. She had not been able to vote from where she came from so it was very important to them.
JM:Did they both become naturalized American citizens?
KG:Yes, they both were naturalized and they both voted. It was very important to them.
JM:It would be. Now tell me about your dad, what activities did he perform?
KG:Dad was on the Land Trust. (See George Massey’s interview) We have a plaque that he got for helping make Route 41 a scenic route and stopping too much traffic in the area. That was nicely done by Elaine and Lou Hecht, for creating traffic jams in Salisbury. It was a tongue –in-cheek plaque that we have. That was important to him. He also helped with OWLS Kitchen at one point when they gave firewood to people. He was part of that too.
JM:They were real assets to the community. It is important.
KG:It was important to them.
JM:You worked at the Salisbury Pharmacy when it was the Whitbeck’s. What did you do?
KG:I was the local soda jerk, as they say. With the big mirrors so I could see what was going on behind me while I was getting soda and ice cream.
JM:Did you work with other local girls or boys?
KG:I worked with Susan Gomez Vreeland (See her interview) and of course Gordon Whitbeck. Well Gordon was younger but Karen Whitbeck, and Anna. (See Ward Whitbeck’s interview)
JM:What type of creations did you prepare?
KG:Everything from egg cream with no eggs to black cows? I can’t remember.5.
JM:Black and white sodas.
KG: Yes black and white sodas, ice cream sodas and hot fudge ice cream. Anna let me have a little hot fudge at the end of every day that I was there. That did not cure me from having ice cream every day.
JM:What is an egg cream?
KG:It is a syrup and soda and milk: you have to keep stirring it while you are adding the other ingredients.
JM:Did you do ice cream sodas?
JM:Did you do frappes and cabinets?
KG:It depends on where you come from?
JM:Oh that is clever of you! You knew that!! Later in life you got involved with the Salisbury Artisan Group.
KG:That came out of the Creative Hands which was started by Linda McLaren and Heidi Lindy. Chrissy Tellalian has Joie Maison the store just beyond Janet Andre’s house.
JM:It is on East Main Street, then.
KG:OK, I never know where the cut off is yet. That sounds about right. It is across from Chaiwalla. Yes, that is Heidi Lindy’s daughter. Heidi is an artist.
JM:What is Heidi Lindy’s daughter’s name?
JM:When did Creative Hands start?
KG:It started with Mary Arnold, Linda McLaren and Heidi Lindy to have a venue for artisans in the area, crafts people. I would say in the 1990s?
JM:All kinds of crafts?
KG:Yep it was created as a not-for-profit and really did well. It grew to be 150 artisans or more from the tri-state area.
JM;When did you join?
KG:When I moved to the area, they let me work there for a few days a week. Actually I was in Falls Village then so it would be 2001, I believe.
JM:Where is the Salisbury Artisans located now?
KG:Everywhere, it is a fluctuating group of about 100 people on our e-mail list. When Creative Hands was no longer, we sort of had a little group who called ourselves “Renegade Artisans”, briefly. Then we became the Salisbury Artisans Group. That is how we got started. We started at the White Hart Inn the first year or two. We did holiday shows. Now we do, Covid kind of interrupted things, it at the firehouse, and the Fall Festival. We started on the town green and have been there for the past 15 years.
JM:You are going to be at the town green this weekend (Oct. 9th, 2021).
KG:Yep. We will be in front of the White Hart on the lawn and Chaiwalla. Mary has let us do it first and we have spread out.
JM:What kind of artisans other than fiber artisans?
KG:We have pottery, paintings, and basket makers. I was going through the list last night. We have the Hardys, and other people you would know. There will be about 22 of us this time.
JM:You moved back to Falls Village in 2001 from the West Coast.
JM:How did you become Registrar in Falls Village?
KG:Mary Lou Sinclair was ready to retire, but I wasn’t ready to quite take it. So I was her deputy. Mary Palmer told me it was a good way to get to know people in town again.
JM:She was right. I have asked Mary Palmer many times about things I did not know about Falls Village. So did you work over there as registrar in Falls Village for a while?
KG:I did from about 2005 or 6 until we moved to Salisbury in 2013 to the family property. Then I filled in first as Moderator between both towns, and filled in occasionally in the office for Margie Vail (See her interview). Then in 2016 Margie said, “The job is yours!”
JM:Are you elected or appointed?
KG:Elected. I started appointed and became elected. It is an elected position.
JM:What is your term of office?7.
KG:4 years now: it was 2 now it is 4.
JM:They upped it on you.
KG:Yeah, thank you ,Margie.
JM:I am sure she had a lot to do with it. Who is your deputy now?
KG:Kathy Mera, no sorry: it is now Chany Wells. (See both ladies’ interviews) Kathy is assistant registrar.
JM:Training, you have to have training don’t you?
KG:You do. So you have to annual training, 8 hours of classes. Then moderator training is additional. It used to be every 2 years: I believe they made it every 4 years now. The trainings are legislative changes, updates, and computer and all that good stuff.
JM:What do you actually do?
KG:We register voters, we provide lists to people who need them as elections come closer: both parties want various lists of registered voters, of which party in order to turn out the vote, lists for doing mailings.
JM:You also coordinate with the various private schools and public schools.
KG:We do voter registration sessions and then we do absentee ballots for those who want to…
JM:Either out of the country or Noble or something like that.
KG:Exactly and those away at school sometimes too.
JM:Who is your coordinator from the high school?
KG:What we do in the region we have a rotation schedule. It is always two towns go to the high school and work with the social studies department. Our year was last year. Covid made the time kind of weird. So the two towns rotate one new and one from last year. We share that.
JM:At Hotchkiss is Keith Moon and at Salisbury School?
KG:That is kind of evolved a little bit, although Curtis did a lot of that. Curtis Rand helps with that.
JM:It was Rita Delgado?
KG:Partly, Lisa Shebly
JM:You can also register to vote at the DMV?
KG:You can now. Motor voter registration8.
JM:This something new, isn’t it?
KG:Pretty new, but not all that new. It has been across the country advocating for that. It has advantages and disadvantages. We spend a lot more time on the computer to see whether they really are a new voter or was it just their birthday. We just had a couple of those today where DMV asked “do you want to register to vote?” and they don’t know that they are already registered. So then we have to make sure we don’t create a duplicate voter.
JM:I see. You have to check records.
KG:We have. We spent a lot of time today doing that because we had a couple moved out of town, we had supposedly 5 new voter registrations, but it turned out 2 of them were actually already registered. Then we have changes of addresses also every week. All those come in every week from the computer and then some by mail. Then we prepare for elections.
JM:We have a local election this year
KG: Yes, coming up, we have a municipal election so we will have 2 voter registration sessions next week we will remind the Lakeville Journal to put one in the paper. That is our job too, to let them know. Then we have a couple of all day sessions before a Primary or an election and poll worker training. That is in 2 weeks.
JM:We have a pandemic.
KG;I heard about that.
JM: Yes! There were changes in voting because of the pandemic.
KG:There were changes, but some of it has gone back. Hopefully people know that; but some may not.
JM:What were the changes to voting during the pandemic?
KG:One of the changes was around absentee ballots. In Connecticut you can only get an absentee ballot for 3 reasons. You have to apply every year. Last year the Secretary of State sent out all the absentee ballots for anyone wanting to apply. Covid was enough of a reason, fearing Covid, having Covid or anything along those lines. It made it easier to get an absentee ballot. This year the Secretary of State is not sending out absentee applications. You can still use Covid as a reason for not coming to the polls but voting absentee.
JM:But in order to get an absentee ballot you have to go to the town clerk.
KG:You have to submit your absentee application to the town clerk or put it into the drop box outside town hall.
JM:How do you get an application?9.
KG:You can get one on line or you can get one in person from town hall.
JM:I think you said that because of the pandemic you did not expect too many people to show up, and they did.
KG:Yes, well not only that but we had already had 1200 absentee ballots for voting absentee which is about half the town. We still had another 1300 coming in to vote. We had fewer numbers permitted in the building and voting at the same time.
JM:So you had long lines.
KG:We had a line all day. We heard about it, not from the voters. The voters were great. It was actually the Lakeville Journal that said maybe Salisbury needs to rethink its system. The voters were wonderful. They had a 40 to 45 minute wait a lot of the time. A lot of them were from the city and that was nothing for them. The local people had a social time.
JM:Oh sure, going to the grocery store I saw the line and everybody was chatting away.
KG:Everybody was wonderful. We were worried, but everybody was great.
JM:What do you like about your job?
KG:The people, that’s the best part.
JM:That is what I like about this. Is there anything that you would like to add to the registrar’s portion before we move on?
KG:I would be happy to work with whoever would like to take it on next.
JM:You are looking for a replacement.
KG:That would be great.
JM:So am I, but I don’t think I am going to get one. Now we are going to talk about your Undermountain Weaving business. We have come full circle.
KG:A full circle
JM:You moved back to the family property. Did you own the business or did you have to buy the business back?
KG:We had our own little business which we called Falls Village Design. Then out of the blue as we were coming back onto family property, the people who had bought the business from my parents asked if we might be interested in getting it back. They said, “We haven’t done much in the last few years so if you would like to buy a little bit or otherwise we will give you the business.” That was lovely.
Not only that but they asked if we would like the sign back that had been on our property. They presented the sign back to dad which was nice of them.
JM:Oh how wonderful.
KG:Yes, it meant a lot to him.
JM:It would. That is wonderful. Your husband is also a trained weaver?
KG:He was trained by my father. In his 50s he learned to weave when dad was 90. I stayed out of the way. They were swell together.
JM:That is the best thing.
JM:What do YOU make as far as your business is concerned?
KG:I also weave but on a smaller loom about a 36 to 38 inch floor loom. I weave scarves and shawls and napkins and the like. So does Joe on the bigger loom, but he ends up with more yardage because his look is 70 inches wide.
JM:Who does the blankets and rugs?
KG:Joe does the blankets. Actually I do the rugs on mine because we don’t do a lot of rugs. We did those whene3ver Sam Waterson wants us to. They produce the wool.
JM:How many looms do you operate?
KG:Good question! We have 2 fly shuttle looms, and right now we have 4, one on permanent loan I think, floor looms that are 4 or 8 harness. Then we have 4 or 5 table looms that we either take to shows, but we also teach on them. That is what we teach on. They are 24 inches wide. Also they are for sale because dad designed them.
JM:Do you have a tape loom?
KG:A ridged heddle loom? That we have yeah, which I take to shows. It is easy to travel with to show kids about weaving.
JM:Whom do you sell these things to?
KG:Sam Waterson does not charge us for the wool so …
JM:You get the wool from him?
KG:Yeah, we get some of the wool from him. We get wool from these places: Sam Waterson cheap, (whoever sells it; they absorb the costs with the sale and the income). Then we get some from Clatter Ridge Farm in Farmington, which is connected to the Hillstead Museum. We weave for them and then they sell it. We may have one piece of theirs which we might sell this weekend.
JM:Do you sell locally?
KG:We sell things at the Salisbury General Store. With Sam we have things. We have things at 100 Main in Falls Village: we have a couple of blankets. We have things at Yellow Submarine in Amenia which is mostly a book store with some crafts.
JM:Do you give tours?
KG:We do. We give tours to small and medium sized groups. Not big groups because the space is pretty small.
JM:Do you teach?
KG:We teach one class a year, although due to Covid we did not.
JM:How big would your class be?
KG:2 to 4 people, it is hard to keep track of what everyone is doing otherwise.
JM:Yeah, and I remember you said that you used to have them doing different patterns.
KG:We did. We used to give a choice and then we learned.
JM:Is there anything that you would like to add to your business portion that we have not covered?
KG:There is nothing I can think of right now.
JM:Before we close, is there anything that you would like to add in general?
KG:It is nice to be back in our community and be a part of it.