Artist Spotlight: traditional Appalachian brooms

Brenda Harmon uses a clamp-like tool invented by her husband, Woody, to hold the sweep in place as she sews. a fingerless, padded glove allows Harmon to push her needle through the sweep without having to worry about injuring her hand. C.D. Moore photos
Brenda Harmon uses a clamp-like tool invented
by her husband, Woody, to hold the sweep in place as she sews. A fingerless, padded glove allows Harmon to push her needle through the sweep without having to worry about injuring her hand. C.D. Moore photos

Cailey Moore
Staff Writer

When it comes to brooms, our minds instantly go to a string of common links: dirty floors in need of sweeping; black cats perched behind witches as they fly in the night; and grandmothers chasing children around a table in an attempt to usher them outside. However, in the hands of Brenda Harmon, the broom is no longer just a tool, it becomes, instead, an unconventional form of art.

A variety of brooms and brushes – small, large and for all uses – hang from an ironforged rack in the center of the floor at the 4th Avenue Gallery, and each broom has been handcrafted and tied in traditional Appalachian fashion.

A ccording to Harmon, the brooms of today look very different from what the first brooms looked like. A variety of rough, fibrous materials – such as grass, hay and twigs– were used to create the sweep, and they were bound to a tree branch. As one might suspect, brooms made before the 1700s were not known for their quality, and it was only a matter of time before the broom fell apart.

However, it wasn’t until 1797 that Levi Dickenson introduced the use of sorghum to broom-making, and the quality of brooms changed.

“Brooms used to be round, but when the Shakers came along in the 1820s, the shape changed,” Harmon explained. “They started sewing them flat and introduced the wire-tied brooms, as well. My brooms are a replica of Dickenson’s broom and are all hand-tied.”

Harmon’s first step in creating her brooms is gathering her supplies – particularly, the handles. Alongside her husband, Woody, Harmon takes to hiking and venturing out on trail rides in search of unique-looking branches and weed trees to harvest.

When looking for branches and trees, Harmon prefers to concentrate on sturdier hardwoods and those with character. Buck rubs add an interesting detail, and honeysuckle vines leave indentations and scarring as its host tree continues to grow.

“For my witches’ broomsticks, I like to find some really unique handles that maybe – when you look at it – you see something in it that looks more like Halloween than anything else,” Harmon said.

Harmon is a self-taught broom-maker, but has since refined her craft through classes at the John C. Campbell Folk school. a variety of Harmon's brooms and brushes are available at the Pocahontas County artisan Co-op, and each brush is made with a specific task in mind – be it a cake tester or mushroom brush.
Harmon is a self-taught broom-maker, but has since refined her craft through classes at the John C. Campbell Folk school. A variety of Harmon’s brooms and brushes are available at the Pocahontas County Artisan Co-op, and each brush is
made with a specific task in mind – be it a cake tester or mushroom brush.

Once her handles have been gathered, Harmon begins the extensive prep that goes into creating each sweep. The stalk of the sorghum plant is wetted in order to render the stalk pliable, and it is then plaited – or woven – onto the broom handle.

Constant tension is a necessary part of making brooms, and to assist when threading her twine through the sweep, Harmon’s husband crafted a tool similar to a clamp to hold the broomcorn in place. A fingerless, padded glove adorns Harmon’s right hand, which allows her to push her needle through the stalks of the sweep without having to worry about puncturing the skin.

“It’s mostly just having that secure piece of equipment that my husband made for me to keep my twine tight while I’m making my brooms,” Harmon added. “And a chair! A good chair that supports my back.”

Two different types of twine are used in Harmon’s brooms. The first is a rot-resistant nylon twine known for its strength. In the old days, the original cordage used in broom-making was made up of flax and hemp – two fibers that would easily break.

One example of the traditional cordage’s inferiority stems from the old saying, “Flying off the handle.” According to Harmon, grandmothers would use their brooms to “swish” their reluctant grandchildren out the door when the weather was poor, and more often than not, the sweep would fall off of the handle.

The second type of twine Harmon uses is a wax linen twine. The wax twine is more refined, and because it is a waxed material, it has a catch to it that helps Harmon keep her sewing tight and clean.

The time it takes Harmon to complete a broom can fluctuate, depending on the size of the broom, but for the most part, plaiting a sweep onto the handle takes Harmon typically 20 minutes to half an hour. Sewing the sweep onto the handle of the broom takes about the same amount of time, as well.

Harmon first began making brooms at the request of her husband. At one point, Woody offered hand-forged fireplace tool sets, and to complete the set, Woody needed a broom. It was to Harmon that he turned for help, and through some reverse engineering, she was able to figure out the steps to creating a broom.

Following their move to Pocahontas County, Harmon took up broom-making once again and has been making brooms as a business for 10 to 11 years.

“I want to continue to improve my handles,” Harmon said. “I want to get into carving – not necessarily something distinctive, but something that’s more suggestive that, when you look at the handle, you can see something familiar. I want to continue to improve as an artist. I’m looking to make them even more artistic.”

The Pocahontas County Artisan Co-op operates out of the 4th Avenue Gallery – located at 721 Fourth Avenue in Marlinton. During the summer, the gallery is open Wednesday through Monday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and can be reached at 304-799-2550.

Artist Spotlight is a weekly series highlighting artists in the county.

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