Spinning, Weaving, 40 years on Salt Spring

This past weekend, I attended The 40th Anniversary of the founding of the  Weaver‘s and Spinner‘s Guild Exhibit and Sale at the Art Spring Gallery on Salt Spring Island.   They have done the exhibit and sale on a yearly basis for the past three years. There were two galleries. One gallery held the regular show and sale of fine textiles, clothing, and yarns.

The second held an art show. When I entered the gallery that held the Eye For Colour show, my viking genes caused me to immediately go to this paired piece by Valrie Short (weaver) and Karen Dakin (potter).  Val‘s  weaving is based on traditional viking/celtic design and colours and Karen Dakin‘s Viking rabbit in a helmet with horns made me smile. It was the kind of piece I‘d love to see at the Icelandic National League convention in Seattle this coming spring.


The Eye for Colour show was first held in 2006. This is its third time and the first time they have expanded the invitation to include artists other than painters. What a good decision that was. The marrying of the different arts with weaving was often surprising, always beautiful.

Mary E. Paddon, Yarns by Deerhaven

In the past the work of guild members was only paired with paintings. This year it was paired with artists from other guilds and featured pottery, basket weaving, painting and glasswork. For each piece of fabric there was a complimentary piece of art shown with it. One pairing was a painting of Christmas roses (white hellebores) by Victoria Olchowechi with a touch of pink matched with a white sweater spun and knitted by Susan Asatill. Part of the power of art is that it can, through association, stir both memory and imagination. These two pieces, classy, sophisticated, made an image of my mother spring up, for the moment I saw them, I knew that these were the two pieces that would have caught her attention, drawn her to stand in front of them and call my father to come and look.

There was a happy personal quality about this show that can be captured, perhaps, by some written comments by the artists attached to their products. For example, one note by Susan Astill said, “Fleece was Salt Spring fleece, produced by a sheep named Joan, a Cheviot.“ Donna Vanderwekken had a note on an exquisite blanket saying that her goal was, “To use only yarns I had dyed last summer. Indigo for different shades of blue. Dahlia petals for yellow, Bronze Fennel for lime green. Apple bark for rust.“ It is this personal quality, the connection between the producers of the art, the art and the viewer that was delightful.

Many of the local artists were present and available. There was both a spinning and a weaving demonstration.

Spinning, knitting and weaving in Canada are considered women’s arts and from my observation of the visitors to the show, it is still mostly women who are interested. During the time I was at the show, there were only two other men. However, my Icelandic background, and my interest in Icelandic history and culture brought me to the show. For those with little or no knowledge of Iceland, the connection between a spinning, knitting and weaving show on Salt Spring Island and Iceland will be quite obscure. Icelanders, living through centuries in a hostile climate that allowed no crop except grass, survived because of their sheep. The sheep provided meat, milk and wool. The other domestic animal was the milk cow but sheep are much more economical and provide a better return in a climate where there was no guarantee that even grass would grow well when icebergs filled the bays and the ground froze in summer. It was sheep that provided wool for warm clothes.

In the 1800’s a number of British travellers went to Iceland. One of those was Richard Burton. He wrote a book called Ultima Thule (1874) in which he said, “The principal occupation of the women is spinning yarn during the summer, and knitting and weaving in winter. A rude loom fixed and upstanding, not a little like that of ancient Egypt and of modern Central Africa, and worked…by both sexes, stands in every farm. A good hand can weave three yards a day. The Vaðmal…much resembles the tweeled cloth or frieze worn by the Leith fishermen.

“There is only one kind of Wadmal generally worn, but in most parts of the island, and especially in the east, there are finer qualities used for “store-clothes” and woman’s attire. The Ormadúkr is worked like a drill, the Einskepta like twill. It is sold by the ell,or two Danish feet (=2 3/8 English feet).

“The usual colours are grey, black, light-blue, and muret….It is excellent stuff, durable, and, after a fashion, waterproof.“

Knitting was so critical to survival that it started early with some accounts describing children being taught to knit at age four and, by age eight, required to knit two sets of fishermen‘s mittens a week.

According to Consul Crowe‘s report of 1870-71, in 1869, there were 76,816 pairs of stockings produced and 55,601 one fingered mittens.

Nowadays, in the Icelandic North American community, many homes proudly display spindles and spinning wheels but these, once necessities, are now sentimental family treasures.

It was with this background that I came to the Weaver‘s and Spinner‘s Guild show, with a mind filled with images of fishermen‘s mittens, stockings, fine and coarse wadmal, with images of  my great aunt sitting at her spinning wheel in her Icelandic costume. I brought with me a range of patterns and colours in my memory, a way of thinking about these arts.

Of course, the weavers of today don‘t labour in turf and lava huts with tiny windows covered with animal membranes. Today, the process has been made somewhat easier than it was in Iceland simply because it is done in well-lit, warm, comfortable surroundings. The knitter, spinner, weaver still must know about a great deal more than these processes. She has to know about sheep, about the characteristics of their wool, how to prepare it, and the use of dyes. For example, a weaver, buying wool “right from the sheep“ will have to wash and card or comb it for spinning and, in so doing, may lose up to fifty percent in weight in dirt and grease.

In Iceland, there is just one breed of sheep. But in North America the weaver or knitter can choose wool from many different sheep and they all  have different characteristics. For example, wool from a Romney will have less grease than Merinos and Corriedales. With a Romney, a spinner may only lose 30%. It was obvious in talking to Mary E. Paddon that weaving isn’t just a job or a task but a passion for she was able to tell me all about dying, spinning, weaving, wool, sheep, and the history of it all. Along with demonstrating spinning, she also had a piece in the Eye For Colour show.

The pieces on display vied with each other for my attention. One pairing, a painting of peaches (Libby Jutras) with a handwoven blanket (Donna Vanderwekken) reflecting the colours in the painting brought me back three times to look at it.

Pat Davidson didn‘t have anything in the Eye For Colour show, but she had pieces in the regular show. My favorite piece of the moment of hers is a tea towel that a friend of mine bought a few days ago and now adorns a family cedar chest. I found this tea towel quite extraordinary because it made me realize something that I once knew but had forgotten. That is that even the humblest items in our homes can be things of beauty.

Photo by J.O.M. Pat’s hand woven tea towel.

Icelanders plucked wool (Icelandic sheep naturally shed their wool and when it was loose, it could be pulled off)  to trade for necessities, they knitted and wove such long hours that it is said they used little sticks called wake picks to  hold open their eyelids. They wove wadmal they could trade for nails, for horseshoes, for rice, for grain to make bread. The goal was not beauty but quantity, utility, durability. They knitted and wove so they  might eat and be clothed. However, the need for beauty always exists and from all this knitting the traditional Icelandic patterns developed, the Lopapeysa was created and stylish Icelandic designs appeared. I wondered, as I stood and admired the weaving and the knitting at this Salt Spring show, what all those Icelanders would have thought of the beautiful items on display.

The 40th Anniversary of The Weaver’s and Spinners Guild Exhibit and Sale is about the talented people who belong to the guild, the people who raise the sheep, who prepare the wool. But it is also a tribute to all those who have come before, before the creation of the Spinning Jenny, the creation of artificial fabrics, all those like my great great grandmother and her mother and her mother before her.

Spun and woven and knit, wool clothed the world. In recent times, artificial fabrics replaced wool and made clothing more affordable. Lost, though, was the community connection, the relationship between the producer of the wool, the spinner, the knitter, the weaver and the people who bought the yarn or cloth and made the clothes. We no longer can say this fine blanket came from a sheep called Jenny, was spun by Mary, was woven by Susan.

The Weavers in the Eye For Colour show have taken what was a common, humble task and from it, created beauty and, in so doing, have paid tribute to all those weavers of the past.