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Partners weave their way to success

Two women on the waterfront in Colonial Marblehead are proving that the ancient handcraft of weaving can be popular and commercially successful in this machine age.

In six years, with only four looms, JoAnn Blandino Leete and Jeannette Harvey Bart have built their shop, Marblehead Looms, from a modest little business into a substantial commercial success. Their work has been featured in Vogue, on the cover of Better Homes and Gardens, and in Gourmet magazine. They will also be opening a new shop in Boston this fall.

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The two partners met when they were working for a social-service agency. Ms. Leete as director of day care and Ms. Bart as fiscal administrator. They knew nothing of weaving. They had little knowledge of the market and limited capital. What they did have was a desire to expand their artistic talents and create beautiful designs.

"We've always considered the artist-craftsperson the ultimate entrepreneur," Ms. Bart says."to earn one's living designing the creations of your imagination is our idea of success. The idea of controlling the creative process, from the selection of fiber through design and finishing, appealed to us."

They are not alone in believing there is a big market for merchandise made with the loving care that only the human hand can provide. There are about 20, 000 handweavers in this country.

Both women are self-taught in their craft, although an adult education course in weaving was technically helpful. "We happened to chooe weaving because that's the medium we were interested in. This is what we were determined to do, " says Ms. Leete.

The secret of their success seems to be a combination of workmanship and splendid taste. "Jeannette has an uncanny sense of style," her partner says. This sense of style and JoAnn Leete's strong sense of color have meshed well.

Both women weave their creations on looms in the rear of the boutique.While they do all the weaving, they seek the expertise of others for patternmaking and finishing.

Marblehead Looms has a relaxed, casual atmosphere. A palette of watercolors -- mauve, plums, apricots, lime -- warms the boutique/studio.Hand-loomed mohair tassel-bordered throws in pastel plaids are draped over its furnishings. Wicker baskets are brimming with bright-colored yarn.

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Elegant shawls in shades of pink and lilac, lemon and lime; striking winter kimono coats with their bright-colored borders; exquisite dresses of mohair and silk -- all exhibit meticulous workmanship. "We design for the woman who is collecting quality pieces for her wardrobe," Ms. Bart says.

One sensational creation alone -- a stunning black mohair cape -- shows why these two women are among the top designers in the country. A dress that stands out is a midcalf "skimmer," a variation of a '20s style, with cap sleeves and a slit on one side to above the knee. It is woven in a mixtureof silk and chenille and finished elegantly with antique pearl buttons on the left shoulder.

Their designs in home furnishings include pillows of mohari and brushed wool woven into bright plaids or luscious pastels; handsome luxurious throws of blended cashmere, silk, and mahair; blankets of mohair and brushed wook in cranberry, turquoise, and shades of autumn colors.

How did their handiwork get from a small New Englnd town to such fashionable stores as Neiman-Marcus, I. Magnin, Bergdorf Goodman, and Henri Bendel?

"You make your own market," Ms. Leete says; "you go after it. We opened our shop and people discovered us. When you have a good product, people will find you. People tell other people about it. We didn't go into heavy advertising. We went to the buyers. If the liked what they saw, they bought it."

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