Fred Parnell weaves rugs, tales

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 10, 2012

TYRO — Fred Parnell weaves a good tale — and a good rug.
You could credit the rag rugs he makes on the looms behind his garage for saving his life.
More on that later.
Parnell, the merry weaver of Tyro, inherited a dry wit and sparkle from his mother. Everybody in Davidson County knew her as “Aunt Sallie.”
Sallie Parnell died in 1994 at age 107, and it’s said she weaved rugs on her looms at least through her 105th birthday.
“I’m an old man now,” Fred Parnell says, bringing out his driver’s license as proof. Sure enough, the birthdate says Jan. 5, 1922, but the 90-year-old Parnell has the mind and spunk of a man much younger.
On his own looms, Parnell finds peace, joy and exercise in the task of weaving. He falls into a rhythm as he pulls fabric (the weft) through the warp and his feet push on the pedals moving the heddles up and down.
Parnell also delights in taking his handmade rugs to markets and craft shows, where he talks up the people stopping by his spot. “I know I talk too much most of the time, but that’s the way I am,” he says.
Parnell eats regularly at the Tar Heel Q on U.S. 64 and claims to have whittled his life away, carving things like pretty wooden flowers.
But he also built the third loom in his shop on which his sister Carolyn weaves placemats.
Combine his contentment with his liberal telling lots of lies, Parnell says, and you have the secret to a long life.
“That’s the greatest thing on earth, being happy,” he adds, “and I’m the happiest man in Tyro.”
Walk through a door in the back of his garage, and you enter Fred Parnell’s workshop.
It’s disheveled, for lack of a better description, with piles and boxes of cloth, things hanging from the ceilings or tacked to the walls, stacks of rugs and a battered woodstove that gets plenty of use in the winter.
It’s the dead of summer now, and Parnell relies on a tiny metal fan for air-conditioning.
The main pieces of furniture in Parnell’s shop are the three looms — the small one Parnell made himself and two other monstrous frames of pine that Parnell says are at least 200 years old, judging from their pegged construction.
He sits down at one he bought at a sale years ago in Horseshoe Neck.
“It’s as stout as it was when it was made,” he says.
Setting up the loom with the warp — the taut, vertical threads running from his seat to the back cylinder — and preparing all the material used for the rag rugs are the hard parts to the process, Parnell says.
He generally can weave a rug, complete with fringe, in about an hour and makes about 50 rugs per warp setup. One loom has white warp; the other multi-colored warp.
The “rags” for his rugs are old jeans, shirts, socks and bright pieces of fabric he buys as seconds from a cloth depot in Burlington. It’s the ultimate in recycling, and it produces a rug that never wears out.
Parnell claims to have “the fastest pair of scissors in the world.” They are spring-loaded and slice like a razor through rolls of fabric as he cuts the strips he needs.
Parnell can make two to three rugs a morning and seven to eight a day, when he’s in high-production mode.
His rugs, which are 28 inches by 48 inches, sell for $20 each.
“I know that’s too cheap, but I don’t depend on this for a living,” he says.
Sometimes on Wednesdays, he hauls a stack of his rugs and his sister Carolyn’s placemats, which sell for $5 each, to the Salisbury Farmers Market.
Otherwise, he takes them to the market in Winston-Salem on Saturday mornings and some craft shows in the fall, including the Roy’s Folks Crafts Fair at the Oak Hollow Mall in November.
“I’m one of his boys,” Fred says of local television personality Roy Ackland.
Sallie and George Parnell raised their family in a two-story farmhouse whose oldest section dated back to 1865.
They had five children — sons Terry, Frank and Fred (who also answers to his middle name of Douglas) and daughters Carolyn and Sarah.
Fred and his two sisters survive.
Learning from her mother, Sallie Parnell weaved her entire life and taught the skill to each of her children. The full floor covers, runners and rag rugs she made provided important income for the family during the Depression.
Terry Parnell was killed in the Philippines during World War II. In the beginning of the war, young Fred kept getting draft deferments because he was the only son left on the farm.
His draft call finally came in 1943, and he later found himself in Europe’s Battle of the Bulge, marching through Belgium.
In World War II, Parnell saw things that still haunt him, such as the freeing of naked, emaciated men from German prison camps. He brought back from the war black-and-white photographs that tell a horrific story of others who didn’t make it — skeletal bodies piled on top of each other like cordwood.
Parnell’s right leg was “shot up” when a German shell landed in the hole he was sharing with five other U.S. soldiers.
“There wasn’t room in there for all of us,” he says.
Only Parnell and one other guy made it out of that hole.
Parnell was sent to an English hospital to recuperate before being sent back to the front. He ended the war in Czechoslovakia.
Parnell sometimes is asked to give talks about World War II at local schools. Once, a teacher asked Parnell where he had gotten the Nazi flag he had with him.
“Lady, I stole that flag,” he said, before thinking better of his answer. “No, I didn’t steal it, I confiscated it.”
Parnell grabbed it from the window of a house. The fellow who owned it, he says, “was in a hurry to leave because he was getting shot at.”
He had many of the guys in his unit sign the flag. Parnell belonged to the 36th Armored Infantry Regiment, attached to the Third Armored Division.
Not long after the war, Parnell married and, with an uncle’s help, built his house on N.C. 150 not far from the family homeplace. He paid off the note on the house with the proceeds from a good yield of sweet potatoes.
Parnell worked in construction for most of his career, serving as foreman for Daniel Construction at Fiber, Buck Steam Station and Republic Foil in Rowan County.
During those years, Parnell might weave once in awhile on a loom he kept in the basement. (Aunt Sallie had given all of her children looms.)
But he spent more time in his woodworking shop, making things such as benches and stools, or weaving seats for chairs out of strips of poplar — something he still does occasionally.
The wood shop burned down a couple of years ago.
A visitor asks Parnell how he lost the end of his left index finger. One of Parnell’s friends, Bobby Cox, starts laughing, because he knows the answer that’s coming.
“I stuck it up my nose and a booger bit it off,” Parnell says, pleased with himself.
He actually lost the finger tip in a joiner.
The shop where he weaves has several wooden baskets hanging from the rafters.
“This one here is an antique,” he says. “I know it’s antique because I made it.”
Close by, he unwraps a slingshot — “the gun that won the war,” he says.
A buddy from home sent the slingshot to him while he was in the war, because they used to shoot rabbits with slingshots on the farm.
After the fighting was over and soldiers were acting as policemen more than anything, Parnell was assigned one day to stand guard near a traffic light.
With nothing to defend, he killed rats for four hours with this same slingshot. A grandson will inherit it when he’s gone, Parnell says.
Parnell’s wife of 56 years died in 2004. The couple had two daughters, both of whom know how to weave, of course.
One day coming back from the Winston-Salem market, Parnell fell asleep at the wheel of his truck. It went off the road and rolled over three times. Parnell came out of the hospital with only a scratch — a Band-aid on his elbow.
The woven rugs he had piled on the passenger seat and in the space behind him all had come falling foward as the truck began to roll. They ended up cushioning Parnell’s body as the truck was turning over.
At his latest medical checkup, Parnell, in all seriousness, says his doctor told him he would have to take a certain pill once a day for the rest of his life.
Parnell filled the prescription on his way home, but he says he immediately became concerned. The bottle held only four pills.
“And that was three days ago,” he says.
Parnell stands up. He and Cox are laughing as the joke settles in.
“Ain’t I the craziest old man you’ve ever seen?” he asks.
No, just the happiest.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or