Two women sat in front of wooden looms, working away in the quiet of a second-floor studio in an Alexandria town house.

One of them, Alexandria resident Sara Matzelevich, readied her loom by pulling hundreds of fine white linen threads through the heddles, thin metal strips with needle-size holes that separate and control the movement of the threads during weaving. "This will be a table scarf, if I ever get it finished," she said.

Matzelevich is one of about 400 people a year who come to the two-story house in Old Town, called the Springwater Fiber Workshop, to learn the ancient art of weaving. An increasing number of students at the nonprofit textile workshop see weaving as a way to relieve the stress of daily life.

"We have all sorts of professionals who after a long day at work come here, sit down at a loom and just weave, said workshop director Cindy Lowther, a local artist who specializes in woven tapestry. "It's actually good therapy."

Lowther began teaching weaving in Alexandria in 1983 and says local interest in the craft has risen steadily. "We began with about 40 students that first year and we just keep growing."

"I'd say about 99 percent of the students are career people, like doctors and lawyers, and they come here in the evenings just for an out, a release," said workshop staff member Tory Vest.

Navy employee Karen Krewer, who has taken classes at Springwater since 1986 and teaches a knitting class there on Saturday mornings, is one such person.

"I like doing it because of the touch of the material and I enjoy trying to be innovative. It's an additional creative outlet that helps me with problem solving at work," she said.

Weaving, a craft that uses yarns such as linen, cotton and wool, is the interlacing of lengthwise fibers, called the warp, and cross fibers, called the weft. Patterns are created by changing the numbers and the placement of the threads that are woven.

Weaving is performed on a loom, which can vary in complexity from a simple frame loom, to create blankets and rugs, to large tapestry looms capable of weaving hundreds of colors into intricate images. A large floor loom, like the one Matzelevich uses, is capable of accommodating wide yardage and can take several days to set up before weaving can begin. On a simple hand loom, a small weaving can be finished in about a day.

"Many people don't understand what weaving actually is and the many ways in which it can be done," Lowther said. "One person can create anything, from their own table linens to clothing for themselves. There is always some new process or new material or new color," said the artist, who uses such ontraditional materials as copper to create woven sculpture.

Rahul Jain, a native of India who works as an economist in the District, has taken two courses at the workshop. "Although it is very labor-intensive, it is quite relaxing," he said. "The thing I like about it is that you picture what you are making one way and it comes out looking different."

The workshop began as a series of weaving classes taught by Lowther in the Torpedo Factory Art Center in 1983. The back room of a knitting shop in Old Town became their first permanent home, and when the shop went out of business Lowther's group, with the help of a Virginia Commission for the Arts grant, rapidly overtook the space and opened the Springwater Fiber Workshop in 1987.

The workshop moved to a larger town house on Duke Street last January. The new workshop houses two classrooms, a larger dye center to dye raw wool and yarns, and a design studio. Aside from holding classes, the workshop staff also demonstrates its craft in area schools and retirement homes.

"We are the only place that does this in the entire metropolitan area," Lowther said. "The Textile Museum {in Washington} has even come to us for help. We've had docents from the museum who want to learn how to actually do what they are showing visitors."

Weaving is not the only craft taught at Springwater. Classes in basket making, tapestry, pattern designing, knitting and spinning also are offered.

"The great thing about this craft is that you can do it until you're 95," Lowther said, "and the workshop is sort of a physical watering hole for all those people who are interested in textiles . . . . "