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Lessons in the Humble Art of Broom-Making

By Deborah Needleman

Brooms, from top left: John Holzwart, plantbasedservices.com; Spire Woodshop, spirewoodshop.com; Berea College Broomcraft, bereacrafts.com; Janelle Higdon, Haydenville Broomworks, haydenvillebroomworks.com (2); Shaker Workshops, shakerworkshops.com; Spire Woodshop, spirewoodshop.com; Janelle Higdon, Haydenville Broomworks, haydenvillebroomworks.com (2)
Photograph by Kyoko Hamada/ Styled by Theresa Rivera
Brooms, from top left: John Holzwart, plantbasedservices.com; Spire Woodshop, spirewoodshop.com; Berea College Broomcraft, bereacrafts.com; Janelle Higdon, Haydenville Broomworks, haydenvillebroomworks.com (2); Shaker Workshops, shakerworkshops.com; Spire Woodshop, spirewoodshop.com; Janelle Higdon, Haydenville Broomworks, haydenvillebroomworks.com (2)

I never imagined a scenario where I’d be sitting in an Appalachian folk school with a half a dozen strangers handcrafting brooms for a week. Consider how often you think about brooms (probably never), subtract a bit, and that is how often I had thought about brooms before a crisp week in February last year that turned out to be one of the most satisfying of my life.

I had been struck hard by the desire to make things. Not just any things, but simple, useful things fashioned from the materials of nature. I wanted to trade scattershot multitasking for a way into engaging with the physical world. But brooms? Negligible items, best handled by someone other than me. Unlike pottery or basketry, a broom never struck me as a particularly beautiful utilitarian object. A weeklong course, however, was on offer at a place called the John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina. So I went.

Each morning, the mist rising over the mountains, I walked from my cabin to the studio where my cohorts and I spent the day. Sometimes talking easily and intimately, other times working in contented silence, we sorted and soaked broom corn (a species of sorghum), sanded branches for handles and attached the grass stems, one sheath at a time, to the handle. With string released from a manual treadle at our feet, we bound the grass at the point where the tasseled part meets the stem, by pulling the string taut and rotating the broom toward ourselves to secure each piece before adding the next. We sewed the finished heads flat, and plaited the stems in a motion that, like building the broom up, felt awkward and compelling.

Berea College Archives and Special Collection, Berea, KYThe broom workshop at Berea College in Kentucky in the early 20th century.
The broom workshop at Berea College in Kentucky in the early 20th century.

Most of my mind was focused on working in concert with my body, but the part that wasn’t felt oddly free, like the neurones were having a holiday from their familiar, rutted pathways. Plus, I found the brooms beautiful — the simplicity of their form (stick and grass bound together for a purpose) was alluring in a way that a decorative object could never be. This was partly thanks to the pride I discovered in making the broom. But it was also that, in doing so, I was able to see — and appreciate — something which was previously closed off to me.

For thousands of years and still today in many parts of the world, brooms were fashioned at home as needed from whatever brushy stuff was on hand: reeds, sticks or grasses, lashed together, often with a stick pushed into them. The British turned these round-bottom besoms, as they were called, into a trade with besom squires hawking their wares, but Americans created the broom as we know it today. Given this country’s puritanical legacy and its conflation of godliness and cleanliness, it’s not surprising that America’s singular contribution to world handicraft would be the enhanced collection of dust from inaccessible corners.

At the end of the 18th century, the story goes, a Massachusetts farmer decided to fashion a broom for his wife from the long seed tassels of Sorghum vulgare, a corn look-alike cultivated as animal feed. This so-called “broom corn” captured dirt rather than just pushing it around, making it better suited to sweeping than any bundle of brush that preceded it. Today, it is still used in manufactured brooms around the world.

But the transformation of brooms from round to flat — their Copernican Revolution — was the brainchild of the efficiency-seeking Shakers. Soon after the widespread adoption of broom corn in the early 1800s, one of their brethren clamped the wayward bristles down with a vise and stitched them flat. This new, slender profile increased control and range, covering a greater area more quickly.

Though nearly all brooms today are unremarkable objects mass-produced in Mexico, there are a small number of people in North America devoted to hand-crafting them. The makers run the gamut from Americana buffs to hippie holdouts, and the brooms are mostly minimalist Shaker or backwoods Appalachian in style (wonkily bent, bark-clad branches as handles and decorative braiding). While these brooms don’t possess the delicacy of their Japanese counterparts, crafted with a sense of the poetry found in humility and imperfection, they do reflect American culture in the upright pragmatism of their aesthetic.

Caroline GoddardChris Robbins, the broom supervisor, in Berea’s workshop today.
Chris Robbins, the broom supervisor, in Berea’s workshop today.

The longest continuously running broom workshop in the country, and perhaps the most interesting, is on the campus of Berea College, a Kentucky liberal arts institution. Founded in the 19th century to provide free education to impoverished Appalachian mountain people, it today schools some 1,600 academically high-achieving students from the lowest rung of the income ladder (the median household income is $29,000) for free. In exchange, the students put in 10 hours a week of labor at campus sites like the school’s historic hotel, its farm or one of its four traditional craft workshops — all of which operate as social enterprises supporting tuition.

Berea’s broom workshop, where students make a variety of items, from whisks to hearth sweepers to cobwebbers, began in the ’20s as a way for the male students to occupy their time during the winter; by the 1950s, women were included. Chris Robbins, the workshop supervisor, is an enthusiastic, fast-talking local who at 14, when other boys “were interested in girls and video games,” pestered a broom maker at a craft fair until he agreed to give him two hours of instruction. In his senior year of high school, the now-32-year-old Robbins convinced the principal to let him spend half of each day in a work-study program — with himself. (His father signed off on his hours.) He has continued to find the experience as empowering as he did as a child, “that I can make something with my hands that strangers want to buy.”

Robbins’s students spend about two hours a day at small tables attaching broom corn, plaiting stalks or stitching and trimming. Watching them work, I was seduced again by the way a repetitive motion syncs one’s body and mind in a liberating way. “Repetition is never boring when you are making something by hand,” Robbins told me, “because each person does it slightly differently, has their own signature.” As all the students are studying liberal arts, not craft, most will likely go on to do something else with their lives. But for now, they are learning to make things with their hands and carrying forward a nearly extinct regional tradition. All while receiving an education they otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to pursue. It all makes for a pretty virtuous cycle. And a really nice broom.

John Polak/Haydenville BroomworksFrom left: a traditional broom, and turkey wing whisks from Haydenville Broomworks in Middlebury, Vt.
From left: a traditional broom, and turkey wing whisks from Haydenville Broomworks in Middlebury, Vt.

How to Try and Where to Buy

While most of us rarely give our brooms a second thought, there are about a hundred people in America devoted to handcrafting them using techniques last improved upon two centuries ago. Here, a handful of makers around the country currently creating brooms.

Berea College

At the broom workshop at Berea College in Kentucky’s Appalachian foothills, some students make brooms — in return for free tuition — that are sold in the school’s shop or online store. In addition to full-size brooms, Berea’s students make a range of items including fireplace brooms, cobwebbers (for those high and hard to reach corners) and whisk brooms (for tight spots, to brush off upholstery or countertops, or to delint clothing). There are also student-made products for sale from their woodworking, ceramics and weaving studios.

The John C. Campbell Folk School

Should you be interested in trying your own hand at broom-making, the John C. Campbell Folk School in the tiny town of Brasstown, North Carolina (a 2-hour drive from Asheville or Atlanta) is a wonderful American institution devoted to teaching handcrafts in an open, noncompetitive way. In other words, you don’t have to worry about not being good! My teacher was the very affable and knowledgeable Georgia-based folk artist Mark Hendry. Despite its name, the Folk School was founded in 1925 by two women who researched the traditional folk schools of Europe in order to provide creative skills and a sense of community to the impoverished mountain people of Appalachia. Each day starts off with Morning Song, a Danish folkloric custom of singing and camaraderie (get ready, jaded urbanites!) and usually one evening is reserved for clogging (a kind of mountain dance that predates tap), where even the local kids join in.

Haydenville Broomworks

The trio behind Haydenville Broomworks, lead by Janelle Higdon, 36, create some of the finest looking brooms around. About five years ago, the three young professionals were looking for an alternative to office life. Though they had never thought about brooms before, they bought the business from a Middlebury, Vermont, tree farmer and maple syrup producer who wanted to give up his 30-year side business in broom-making. (They apprenticed with him for a year; he in turn had learned from a Shaker.) While they use historical materials and techniques, they have found enough space for their own ruggedly elegant, modern sensibility to come through. Not even their ‘traditional broom,’ with its foraged bark-clad sassafras handle and natural jute stitching, feels ye olde.

Spire Woodshop

The Massachusetts-based furniture makers Alyssa Pitman, 37, and Winston Daddario, 28, also make a few small-scale brooms at Spire Woodshop, inspired by the weaving techniques of Asian countries and the Shaker flat brooms first made in New England, which are cut from wood they mill themselves. In addition to their whisks and dusters, because they are woodworkers, they also make a hand-carved dustpan, salvaged from local cherry.

Plant Based Services

The Sheboygan, Wisconsin-based naturalist and educator John Holzwart, 43, known as Little John, forages all of his broom handles from the woods near his home: buckthorn, box elder, ash — whatever he can collect during the winter. He leaves the bark on most of these pieces, to retain both the structural integrity and appearance of the broom, but he also offers a model with decorative plaiting all the way up the handle. Some of the broom corn he uses is grown for him by a local Amish farmer. (Broom corn is easy to cultivate, but is land and labor intensive, and so not a cost-efficient crop for American farmers. A single broom requires about 50 stalks.) Holzwart has been a full-time broom-maker for over a decade, having turned his hobby into his job when the factory where he worked closed. And each of his brooms comes with a little love note “to counteract some of the hatred in the world.”