Two Liebes Looms

Susan Brown

Two of Dorothy Liebes’s personal looms are preserved in museum collections—at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and at the New-York Historical Society—which is a testament to the designer’s stature in her field and recognition of her local and national influence. Her small, lacquer-red Forsythe loom is in the permanent collection of the New-York Historical Society . The four-harness loom was the first that Liebes bought for herself, in about 1920. It was made by Nina Beckwith Forsythe, a Bay Area craftswoman who taught at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts). Liebes had the loom shipped to New York when she attended Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1926. In her unpublished memoir, she credits her retrieval of the loom from the Brooklyn wharf with providing her first view of New York’s skyline as she sat beside a Teamster on a horse-drawn dray. “Soon we were crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. The skyline of the city rose ahead. It was a spectacular sight, the mass and grace of the buildings hurling themselves against the sky . . . Certainly I was enchanted, utterly under the spell of New York. Its wonders seemed inexhaustible.” [1] 

While studying at Columbia, Liebes used the loom to weave the baby blankets that were her first commercial textile venture—she sold them through Saks Fifth Avenue. Later, she used it for the sample weaving that was such a critical part of her design practice. The loom’s brilliant color and hand-carved and painted castle beam made it pop in photographs. It was even used as a prop in a DuPont advertisement for Dacron polyester (Fig. 1). 

Liebes’s distinctive “Ram’s Head” loom, now in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, was a gift from Liebes’s first husband, Leon Liebes. Made for the designer from mahogany, it featured a ram’s head carved into each of the castle uprights and stylized carved ram’s horn motifs on the base. The figures were carved by San Francisco–based Italian sculptor Beniamano Bufano, who was well-known for his sculptures of animals. “The loom, of course, became a great conversation piece. It was one of the most beautiful pieces of furniture in the apartment,” Liebes wrote. [2] 

Later, when Liebes had opened her studio and the loom was moved there, it was equally attention-getting. The San Francisco studio attracted distinguished photographers like Louise Dahl-Wolfe and George Platt Lynes, whose black-and-white images dramatized the sculptural qualities of the loom, which featured in many portrait photographs of Liebes (Fig. 2). The loom also appeared in an advertisement in the New Yorker for scarves designed by Dorothy Liebes for Carol Stanley (Fig. 3). A model, dressed in black capri pants with a woven shawl wrapped around her shoulders, is seated on a Liebes floor cushion. She rests her back against Liebes’s Ram’s Head loom, which is draped with other scarves from the collection.  



[1] Dorothy Liebes, autobiography (unpublished ms.), pp. 110–111. Series 4, Box 4, Folder 10, Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

[2] Ibid., 151. 



Fig. 1 A model in a black suit with a close-fitting belted jacket and full skirt stands with her gloved hand resting on a red loom. Behind her is a wall of white bins filled with colorful yarns.

Fig. 1 Advertisement for DuPont Dacron, ca. 1955; Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

Fig. 2 Dorothy Liebes, wearing a black dress and a gold necklace, sits with her elbow resting on the cloth beam of a loom. A ram’s head, carved into the loom’s upright, is prominent in the foreground.

Fig. 2 Dorothy Liebes with her Ram’s Head loom, ca. 1930; Dorothy Liebes Papers

Fig. 3 A model wearing black capri pants and ankle-strap flats is seated on a cushion on the floor with a large woven shawl with tassels wrapped around her shoulders. Behind her is a loom with a carved ram’s head.

Fig. 3 Model in the Dorothy Liebes Studio in front of Liebes’s Ram’s Head loom, seated on a Liebes cushion and wearing a Dorothy Liebes for Carol Stanley woven shawl, 1948; Dorothy Liebes Papers

Susan Brown

Susan Brown is Associate Curator and Acting Head of Textiles at Cooper Hewitt, where she has curated over a dozen exhibitions including Fashioning Felt (2009), Color Moves: Art and Fashion by Sonia Delaunay (2011), Scraps: Fashion, Textiles and Creative Reuse (2016), Suzie Zuzek for Lilly Pulitzer: The Prints that Made the Fashion Brand (2021) and A Dark, A Light, A Bright: The Designs of Dorothy Liebes (2023).