Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Treasured Threads: One weaver passes her legacy to another

Nelly Smith

When you walk into Weft Wabi-Sabi Weaving on a brisk day, you’re enveloped in the radiant warmth of a fired-up Irish wood stove.

During summer’s sticky string of months, sheep’s wool insulation cools the shed-turned-small business to a comfortable equilibrium. Above you, natural light rains in from skylights—beneath your soles, a cushiony cork floor.

Womb-like is how one weaver described the feeling upon entry.

“Womb-like,” owner Nelly Smith echoed, mulling it over. “I don’t think I could put Weft to words better than that if I tried.”

Though, if she did try, she’d equate it to “a little slice of heaven”—an ambiance reminiscent of a Japanese tea room, which, to her, a lover of tea and artistry, is as close to heaven as can be experienced on earth.

At Weft, Smith facilitates a weaving experience that’s about much more than just putting thread onto loom. Rooted in “Wabi-Sabi,” an ancient Japanese aesthetic philosophy in which beauty is found in imperfection, weavers are encouraged to explore this concept through their creations.

Shelved on the walls and bundled together in baskets on the floor are threads of nearly every color and texture imaginable. With bountiful fibers within reach, weavers are at liberty to intermix hues of reds and yellows, purples and blues—whatever their hearts desire.

“There are no rules,” Smith said.

When people enter, she wants them to feel free to be the truest version of themselves and to express that through the loom as they rhythmically move the needle over and under the warp thread. She simply instructs: “Pick a color and start weaving.” The rest is up to them.

“When they leave after weaving for a few hours, I hope they feel a little more ‘something’—whatever that ‘something’ is that they needed most,” she said. “I want them to feel like they can handle the world a little bit better.”


A Legacy

Smith believes the loom can help people find—or rediscover—themselves because it happened to her several years ago.

As a stay-at-home mom who home-schools her three young children, she’s experienced joy in teaching them to exercise their creativity and explore their curiosities. But while nurturing her children, she grew increasingly aware of the stuck spots in her life, including her long battle with dyslexia and accompanying feelings of imperfection. Looking for a cathartic outlet, she stumbled upon Kite Tales SAORI Weaving Arts Studio.

Kite Tales, located in downtown Mechanicsburg at the time, just down the street from her house, was offering classes, and Smith began weaving there every Wednesday. There, she became close to owner Tara Kiley-Rothwell.

“Tara started to reteach me how to live. Her love for her students and passion for weaving was the medicine I had been searching for my whole life,” Smith said. “I learned to trust myself and honor myself. I often say I started weaving, then I started crying, and then I started healing.”

Last June, Kiley-Rothwell passed away after a battle with cancer, and the studio closed. She left behind a parting request for Smith.

“On her deathbed, Tara told her husband that she wanted me to continue the studio,” Smith said.

Wanting to fulfill her dear friend’s wish, she combined her degrees in art and social work to open Weft, located down a small alley in downtown Mechanicsburg. Having purchased the authentic Japanese looms and remaining thread that Kiley-Rothwell left behind, Smith is now giving them a second life.

“Nelly continuing Tara’s legacy is a beautiful tribute to our dear friend,” said April Bilbrey, who befriended Smith at Kite Tails and now helps teach classes at Weft. “It’s an amazing art form that formed bonds between us that will last beyond this lifetime.”

These treasured threads from the past are not just being shaped into potholders, table runners, scarves and wall hangings. They’re interweaving Kiley-Rothwell into the core of Weft—the person who inspired the people and the place.

Once students and now teachers, Smith and Bilbrey are sharing the lessons they learned through weaving, encouraging people to see beauty in all things, whether an artistic creation or themselves. And Smith is cherishing every little “magical” moment.

“I am blown away by the students I have had in the short time Weft has been open,” Smith said. “Their ideas give me goosebumps; their joy in weaving is infectious. I feel like I have so much to learn from all of them. It is such a joy to be part of their weaving journey.”

Weft Wabi-Sabi Weaving is located on E. Stouffer Alley (rear of 310 E. Main St.), Mechanicsburg. For more information, visit


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