In our Bulky issue’s Guilded feature, we introduced you to the fiber artists of the Etobicoke Handweavers and Spinners guild in Ontario, Canada. Today, one of their members, Sarah Jean Harrison, is here to share with us more details on their 50th anniversary project: The 50-Mile Coat. Happy anniversary, EHS guild members! Take it away, Sarah…
We only had three weeks.
Three weeks to card, spin, ply, weave, full, cut, sew, felt and dye. (Don’t forget the buttons! We also made those.)
Three weeks to make an entire coat from scratch.
Was this a dare? Nope. It was a celebration.
This spring my guild, the Etobicoke Handweavers and Spinners, celebrated our 50th anniversary. To mark the occasion we decided that in addition to the alumni tea party, the juried art competition and our own gallery show, we would give ourselves a little challenge: craft a coat in three weeks using only materials found within 50 miles of us.
Because anything else would just be too easy, right?
From April 25th to May 15th we worked non-stop, slowly transforming the main gallery of Neilson Park Creative Centre into a working textile studio. We began with a Spin-In, welcoming spinners from across Ontario to help us get started on the warp yarns. For two days fibre filled the air as the picker, drum carders and wheels worked away.
For the warp yarns we spun up two luxurious gray fleeces from Brandy, a Gotland ewe, donated by Dover Farm. The weft was a fine, white Rambouillet fleece from Sleepy, donated by the Shepherdess at Linc Farm. The alpaca and llama (used on the inkle loom to create decorative bands) were donated by Alpaca Avenue and our local High Park Zoo.
The project called for a minimum of 4000 yards of spun yarn, much of it plied, so even after the Spin-In our wheels were never at rest. We simply added more tools to the gallery: two LeClerc floor looms, a warping mill, many sets of combs, swifts, a table for wet felting, piles of wool dyed with flowers from our on-site dye garden, bins of wool, alpaca and llama, not to mention the ironing boards, dress-maker’s Judy and sewing supplies. Visitors walking into the gallery often gasped at the door, eyes widening, as they took in all the tools, artisans and fibre.
The energy was clearly infectious. People wanted to know, to touch and to try. They were asking questions faster than we could answer them:
What is that? (A spinning wheel);
What are those fierce looking tine-y things? (Wool combs);
Why do you beat the cloth? (To full it);
What the heck is fulling? (Have a seat and I’ll explain).
Needless to say, amongst all of the actual work needed to transform fleece into cloth, there was a lot of education occurring. Thankfully our guild includes some very talented educators who deftly steered visitors through the space, highlighting the significance of local resources, underscoring the talent and skill contained within the guild itself and encouraging folks to try out the drop spindles or rigid heddle loom. Visitors left the gallery with looks of fascination and admiration. They had just experienced a small fraction of the numerous skills and work hours that were needed to craft a garment and their awe was palatable.
The three weeks we worked on the coat were full of unexpected problems, moments of jubilation when those problems were solved and over 800 hours of work donated by 25+ artisans. In the end we did indeed have a beautiful, locally crafted and locally sourced coat. But as it turned out, our coat celebrated a lot more than just our 50th anniversary as a guild.
On May 15th 2016, The 50 Mile Coat was revealed to the world. Guild members mingled with the crowd, hearing impressions, listening to stories and answering questions. It quickly became clear to us that while the coat marked our 50th anniversary, to many it was a much larger celebration of relationships: with grandmothers remembered at their spinning wheels and looms, with all of the shepherds and farmers in our community, with all the skilled artisans that worked on the coat, and with all the knowledge, history and tradition that has been passed down through the centuries into our hands.
And relationships are the best reason to celebrate.
Read more about The 50 Mile Coat in Ply Summer 2016.
A full record of The 50 Mile Coat can be found at www.etobicokehandweaversandspinnersguild.com/blog.
The 50-Mile Coat in Pictures
Click on the images below to view the gallery in a larger size and follow along with the journey of this spectacular project.