A Love for Potholders Built a Connection to the World

When words deserted Gene Morris, creative weaving gave him a sense of purpose

Lucy Morris Apr 17, 2024 - 8 min read

A Love for Potholders Built a Connection to the World Primary Image

While aphasia has taken much from Gene, his ability to weave and follow patterns remains. Here he is surrounded by just some of his pieces. Photos by Lucy Morris

Creativity is the best medicine, and sometimes it’s the only medicine. Gene Morris, a gentleman who always kept his family, friends, and coworkers entertained with his quick wit and spot-on humor, is at a loss for words. In January 2021, he was told he did not have Alzheimer’s as previously diagnosed but instead a rare form of dementia called primary progressive aphasia (PPA). Among other things, this degenerative disease robs a person of language and, eventually, the ability to speak. There is no treatment for PPA.

In Gene’s case, both words and their meaning are lost. Isolation increases as human connection decreases. Unfortunately, while words depart, feelings of embarrassment and anxiety hold strong. Books, stories, movies, conversations with friends—all the usual comforts are language-dependent. Even dance lessons are difficult. “Step lightly, pivot, and spin” is too many words. And while music is generally soothing, music with lyrics agitates. I was constantly trying to think of something engaging that would distract Gene from what was happening and give him a sense of purpose.

Comfort on the porch: pillows and an ottoman

Prior to Thanksgiving, months after Gene’s diagnosis was revised, I received a gift basket. In it was a 5-inch-square pot holder. As I held it in my hand, examining it with nostalgia, suddenly I felt my hand go all tingly as an idea came to me.

I had tried for some time to interest Gene in my floor loom, but I suspect it was threatening. Puzzles he deemed purposeless; drawing he found too difficult. Even simple activities posed too many decisions. Gene, however, still possessed basic math skills, and I’d observed in him a growing fascination with patterns. He was always pointing out reflections, shadows, and light strewn across the hardwood floors. He was drawn to pattern repetition found on foliage, bark, and the surface of water. He noticed the symmetry of windows on the facades of homes and buildings. My observations and the tingling in my hand sent me off to buy a large pot-holder loom and a lot of loops. First, I sat weaving pot holders; Gene watched from his seat at the table. After a while, I slid the loom over to him and said, “Wanna try it?” He did not refuse. He tentatively accepted the long wire hook and began to weave.

As with a medicine that requires time to reveal its full strength, the value of Gene’s weaving wasn’t fully realized until later that week. As the family arrived the night before Thanksgiving, Gene greeted and hugged everyone and then sat silent as discussions of cranberry sauce, pies, and stuffing got underway. I watched his face tense as he tried to keep up the ruse of understanding. When the conversation segued to prior years of hunting for the perfect Christmas tree, Gene caught my arm, tears in his eyes, and whispered, “What is a Christmas tree?” He was desperate for an escape.

That’s when I grabbed the loom and a pile of red and green loops and announced that Gene had work to do! He gratefully took the loom, and with the colors and pattern chosen for him, he settled down to weave. Within a short time, his facial muscles relaxed, and his posture softened; he was thoroughly engrossed in a way not possible before. What transpired for Gene that evening—and continues to happen a thousand-plus pot holders later—is a mental state of flow where everything falls away—worry, embarrassment, even primary progressive aphasia.

Neuroscience has not completely figured it out yet, but researchers have recognized that flow is a distinct mental state that arises only when the task and a person’s skill level are in balance. For Gene, weaving pot holders is the perfect match for his skill level. With clear patterns and color choices made for him, Gene can succeed. He feels a sense of purpose. He is creating, and with creating, he is connected to others and to the world.

Left: Summer kitchen display. Right: Twelve-block wall hanging

Gene has gifted and donated hundreds of pot holders to friends, family, churches, and secular nonprofits. At our daughter’s wedding, he may not have been able to make a toast, but his beautiful creations were bound in copper ribbons and mounded high in baskets for guests to take home. It didn’t go unnoticed by Gene when guests rooted through the baskets for various patterns or asked if they could take extras. Now when people come to the house, he often takes them to view his latest pot holders awaiting delivery to their final destinations.

Gene weaves twills, summer and winter, and even more intricate patterns. He loves to point out the different designs on each side of a single pot holder. People are always amazed, and while Gene deflects all the credit to me, he’s the one creating and bringing into existence that which did not exist before. Totally invested in the result, he, in his own way, takes ownership of the design. He shakes his head when he thinks my color choice does not provide enough contrast, and there is a labyrinth design he just can’t abide because the opening of the labyrinth interrupts the solid border. While he often comes to this pattern anew, not remembering that he’s woven it before, he always takes creative license and closes the opening to maintain the strong border that he prefers. I’ve lost count of the total number of pot holders Gene has woven. I use them to make runners, wall hangings, large trivets, and, most recently, to upholster an ottoman. Each unconventional use of Gene’s pot holders pleases him immensely—it validates and elevates his woven treasures and sustains a connection with us all.

Thank you to all those who have been so encouraging and supportive—to my friends at Hartford Artisans Weaving Center, especially Jill, Myra, and Pam (alphabetical order), to Necker’s Toyland, to Harrisville Designs/Friendly Loom for the loops, and to all the generous people who post their beautiful patterns online. Piglet’s Portfolio of Priceless Potholder Patterns is exquisite, and Piglet will never know how the portfolio’s patterns have delighted our eyes and changed a life. Thank you.


LUCY MORRIS lives in Canton, Connecticut. She has always been drawn to the arts. Currently she holds the position of Senior Manager of Project Potholder.

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A standard-sized loop potholder next to a mug rug woven on the same loom. Photo by Christina Garton