In an industry run by machines, master weaver Sam Kasten stays true to his art, handcrafting pieces that speak from the soul.Deep in the Berkshires, in a Massachusetts town called Pittsfield, lies a red-brick schoolhouse. Inside, sunlight streams in through 6-foot-tall windows, illuminating worn maple floors and classrooms with slate chalkboards. Formerly a parochial school, today it remains a place of learning. Only the lessons here come not from grim-faced nuns wielding rulers but from wooden handlooms arranged in place of desks. Now a workshop for master handweaver Sam Kasten, the schoolhouse is a temple of silence and strain, home to days of Kasten hunched over a loom, repeating the awkward sweeping motion of throwing a shuttle and beating yarn into fabric. It’s a total anachronism, something you’d expect to see performed by historical re-enactors. And yet Kasten’s clients include icons in their respective fields, such as architect I.M. Pei and interior designer David Easton (if you’ve been to the Little Nell in Aspen, Colo., you’ve seen his work). This is because Kasten’s work possesses a quality fast disappearing from many things today: soul.
“There’s a little test I do, where I show two fabrics to a client: one that was made by hand and a second one, identical to the first in every way except it was made by a machine. Know what happens?” Kasten grins, infusing his rugged, lined face with a mischievousness that is completely at odds with his 62 years. “Not a single person ever selects the machined piece! There’s an intimacy to something that was made by hand. A difference you feel instead of see.” He crosses his arms over a concave chest, a hallmark of more than four decades spent at the loom. “I’ve spent my life in service to that.”
Kasten seems to wear success as easily as his de facto uniform of khakis and a knit sweater. When interior designer (and half sister to the president of France) Caroline Sarkozy searched far and wide for a particular shade of red linen to cover a pair of antique chairs and came up short, she turned to Kasten, in part due to his ability to understand that a client’s vision is a high-wire act, with esotericism directly proportional to the level of difficulty. And, just as he had done for clients who had sent in rocks and tree bark for inspiration — or, on one memorable occasion, a FedExed orange peel covered in mold (“Nailing that green shade was key,” he says) — he was able to deliver where others could not, supplying a vibrant crimson that brought out the unique structure of the chairs without detracting from the dining room in which they were eventually placed. The latter is the key to the second aspect of Kasten’s mastery, and why only a handful of weavers in the world can rightfully be called his peers: His work, for all its natural beauty and understanding of architectural concepts, is designed to fade into the background.
“Running a business like this is impractical in almost every respect,” Kasten says. “The cost of procuring supplies, be it cotton from Germany or silk from Japan, has grown astronomically in recent years, and the flood of cheap textiles coming out of India and China casts real doubt on the future. But the fact that the end product is something I can feel in my hands — a rug, a wall covering, a throw — and the knowledge that what I made will help improve the quality of someone’s life … it’s comforting.”