A Revelation

Using a crosscut saw

Using a crosscut saw

I had a revelation last Sunday. Nope, didn’t see Elvis in the Laundromat. Instead, I saw kids at Ruckle Park Farm Day. I saw, in two hours, what we need to do to pass on our heritage to our kids and grandkids.

When I was editor of Logberg-Heimskringla, I constantly heard the refrain, “We’ve got to do something to get our kids involved in their Icelandic heritage.” It is not a new refrain. In 1960, when I was a university student, I sat in meetings discussing the same topic. That was 53 years ago.

For me, over the years, that Icelandic heritage has been most apparent at Islendingadagurinn, the annual Icelandic Festival, in Gimli, Manitoba.

Although there have long been foot races at the Gimli community park and, in later years, a family sand castle event on the beach, and the Monday parade, there isn’t much to connect children to their Icelandic heritage.

Part of the problem is that no one has ever defined our Icelandic heritage.

Viking heritage 764-1066

Icelandic heritage 1067-1890

North American Icelandic heritage 1870 to the present

Which is it that we celebrate?

Is it just a Viking heritage? Has so little of value been accomplished in Iceland since 1066 that there is no heritage worth celebrating from that time on? If we are really only going to want to transfer on to our children and grandchildren knowledge of Viking culture, then we need to do more than buy them a plastic sword and helmet. The Vikings had a culture with many historic accomplishments beyond their being pirates.

However, it seems to me, that there are a host of cultural facts and accomplishments from 1066 to the time when our great grandparents came to New Iceland that are worth celebrating and passing on.
I think there are a lot of cultural facts and accomplishments to celebrate from the time our people left Iceland and came to Canada.

At Ruckle Park Farm Day I saw children actively involved in crafts and historic tasks. I thought, we could do similar things. Not just at Islendingadagurinn but at the Arborg Historic Village and the Icelandic Riverton Heritage project.

Learning to spin.

Learning to spin.

What did I see that made me so enthused? Well, first of all, I saw adults showing children how to card wool, how to tease it, how to spin it. Over the centuries, Icelandic wool and the products made from it provided a barter currency that allowed our ancestors to obtain the goods they needed to survive. It also provided them with clothes in a hostile climate. These skills I saw being passed on were critical for Iceland’s survival. Surely, we, too, could celebrate this aspect of our ancestors’ culture by having displays and demonstrations and opportunities for young people to try out the various aspects of preparing and spinning wool.

Learning to weave.

Learning to weave.

I also saw a young girl being shown how to weave. Our ancestors clothed themselves in a coarse cloth called wadmal. It was warm, hardy, valuable, so valuable that it was used in place of currency. Value of something such as a horse, or even a farm, could be determined by the ells of wadmal it was worth. I think these skills are worth demonstrating and teaching. I think the critical role they played is worth teaching.

I saw logs had been set up ready for sawing with a two man cross cut saw. Cross cut saws were of major importance in the clearing of land and the harvesting of timber in BC. I saw kids cutting logs. I saw parents cutting logs with their kids. When the Icelandic settlers first came to Winnipeg, wood was still being used to heat buildings. Vast amounts of it were cut and shipped to the city. Icelandic men went from door to door offering to cut wood. It was even called the cordwood economy. Surely, this is worth demonstrating, teaching about, providing an opportunity to see what it was like to saw cordwood, although the saws used would likely have been the bucksaw or the Swede saw.

There were displays of equipment with people to explain what tools were called and how they were used. How many people nowadays know what a shake maker looks like? Or how to use it? Or a butter churn? Shake makers weren’t used in Iceland but Icelanders operated on a butter economy. Butter, like wadmal, was used as a currency.

There were blacksmiths at work. At one time, every Icelandic farm had a blacksmith. There were all those horses that had to have shoes. There were all those metal items that had to be made by hand. In New Iceland, the situation was similar but because people settled in villages and towns, there was a blacksmith for each town. These blacksmiths were critical for the function of daily life.

Every farm in Iceland had a blacksmith. Every village in Canada.

Every farm in Iceland had a blacksmith. Every village in Canada.

There were no displays of fishing equipment or its use since Ruckle Park Farm is just that, a farm producing fruit, grain, vegetables and meat. However, fishing was critical to survival in Iceland.

Fishing also was critical to survival in New Iceland. Yet, there is little evidence of our involving our young people in our ability as fisher folk, either in Iceland or New Iceland. There is the Gimli museum, of course, and it does an excellent job but that’s not the same as getting kids involved outdoors in historic tasks. We could set up displays of fishing nets, etc. with an opportunity for kids to try tying on a cork or crimping a lead. That is, if anyone remembers how.

We have a heritage we can be proud of. Our ancestors, both in Iceland and Canada, survived under the most difficult of circumstances. How they did that is a big part of our heritage.

It is obvious that the Riverton Heritage project might be the best place to provide a day devoted to our New Iceland ancestors. It’s in the country, there’s a farm, there’s space for demonstrations, Icelandic sheep and horses could more easily be displayed, but some of these possibilities and others, should also be explored in Gimli and Arborg. Each, Arborg, Gimli, Riverton, is and should remain distinct.

I think what I observed on Salt Spring Island was the importance of having historic activities in which young people can participate, not just observe. Historic activities that are explained.

If we don’t do something, a generation from now, our Icelandic Canadian heritage will be summed up by a kid with a plastic helmet with horns and a plastic sword eating a kleiner. Maybe that’s too optimistic. Maybe the kleiner will be gone and he’ll be eating a TimBit.

Of course, it is easy to say this. Each demonstration, each display, requires a lot of work and, in some cases, money. Volunteers are often already stretched to the limit. However, time is running out. We still have a chance, maybe the last chance, to affect our ethnic future.

Ruckle Park Farm Day


On Sunday, I slipped away from a lot of hard physical labour, to spend an hour or so at Ruckle Heritage Farm Day. Sure glad I did. Because I couldn’t stay for more of the day, I missed some interesting events. However, beggars can’t be choosers as my Irish grandmother used to say and since I was beggared for time, I packed in as much visiting and seeing as possible.


Ruckle Farm was started by Henry Ruckle in 1872. Eventually, 1000 acres were donated to the province to create a provincial park. I’ve been to the park and it is a great place to spend a day or to camp. However, 200 acres were kept so the farm could continue. It is the oldest working farm in BC still owned by the original family, the farm’s website says.

The day is made up of entertainment and demonstrations.

There were spinning and weaving demonstrations but what intrigued me the most was watching older weavers showing young people how to spin and weave.


There also were logs set up so children could use a two person cross cut saw.

The flock of wild turkeys was a show stopper. This flock wanders about the property but its eggs get collected and used.

There was a demonstration of blacksmithing. Anyone who has read about Iceland’s history up until the modern age knows that every farm had to have a blacksmith. Blacksmiths were important members of every community. Horses had to be shod and implements made. The same was true in Canada.

There are apple, pear and nut trees on the property and some of these are around 100 years old. They’re still producing. Gives me hope for myself, although I’m not sure whether I’m an apple, pear or nut tree.

It was as fine a day as anyone could wish. A clear blue sky, not too hot, not too cold, just right.

A lot of families brought picnic lunches and had their picnic under the trees. There were a lot of children. In the Icelandic community, we often lament the lack of young children coming to events.

What I saw at Ruckle park was a successful attempt at having events in which children could participate. For centuries, Iceland depended upon sheep, wool, knitted goods, weaving, to survive. Perhaps we could look at the tasks that were required for our ancestors, in Iceland and in New Iceland, to survive, and set up events where younger people try their hand at these tasks.

However, of all the events, the one that touched my heart the most was one that reminded me of fond memories of childhood in Gimli. When we had a local fair in the community hall, there was always a fish pond. It seemed quite magical to throw my hook and line over a screen and feel something being tugged on it and then to reel in my catch. There were two fish ponds at Ruckle Park. One for kids and one for really little kids. The difference was in the height of the screen over which a line had to be cast.


It was the perfect day. Not just the weather or the beauty of the place, but because of the people. There were a lot of families with parents doing things with their kids. Having a million million dollars wouldn’t have made the day one bit better than what it was.

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.