Reflection on Being in Residence

Folks! Once again, I had the opportunity to publish an article in the Guild of Canadian Weavers Bulletin. It's out in the world in print form now, but for those of you who are not members but are interested in reading... Read on.

This autumn, I had the opportunity to be the inaugural Artist in Residence at Custom Woolen Mills Ltd (CWM), near Carstairs, Alberta. A month long residency provided me an amazing opportunity to get to know the local community, the staff that run the operation and the family behind it, who are as involved in the day to day operations as the staff. I also had the opportunity to observe the inner workings of this heritage wool mill and it’s fibre processing, meet the neighbours, friends of the mill and a few of the fibre farmers.

While I stayed at CWM I achieved further plant dye sampling and wove two traditional coverlets. I dyed with plants from the mills garden, dyestuff that I foraged from within walking distance, as well as dyestuff from my own garden and plant extracts. I came home with about 60 new colours. The mill stay was a great venue to focus, learn and to expand my colour recipe book.

Custom Woolen Mills is a special place. A working museum, much of their equipment dates back to 1886, the newest piece hails from 1927. The people of CWM work hard to produce heirloom quality woollen products. The mill has a supportive family feel, and cares deeply about their community, their environmental choices, the farmers they work with, the products they put out into the world as well as the consumer at the end of the line. This shows. They make socks, wool duvets, felting batts, roping (roving), log home insulation and of course, beautiful yarns. Not only this, they support their local fibre artists - felters, hand weavers, dyers, spinners, pattern writers -  selling their hand knitted goods in their showroom, showcasing knitting patterns, etc. A very inspiring environment indeed.

Custom Woolen Mill produces my favourite wool yarn. I knit with it, dye it and weave with it. It’s a beautiful product with a fully transparent process from farmer to finished cone of yarn, I feel good using it. In this world of fast fashion, fast production, fast life, many mills go through thousands of pounds of wool a day and process it into worsted, and commonly super washed yarn. CWM goes through a couple hundred pounds a day and manages to stay away from many of the toxic chemicals that are so ubiquitous in the textile industry. They have also planted an organic dye garden with the intention of moving away from acid dyes in the future and in the process, becoming a true fibre shed. From sorting, washing, carding and intended final use of the fibre, there are hands and eyes on the wool every step of the way. Their yarns are a z twist, woolen spun, fine craft of their own.

Spending a month at the mill allowed me to further explore queries, doubts and thoughts I have about the textile industry. This opportunity also enabled me to ask questions and engage people who have been involved in the Canadian wool world since the 70’s, regarding some of the things I had been considering. 

Does the ethics of a textile mill matter to me as a textiles artist? 

Yes. Absolutely, yes. As a very small player in the textile world, I still think it matters to make educated choices as to where my equipment, tools and medium comes from. Also to demand unconcealed operations from suppliers. That is, using my modest efforts to grow the world up, one weave at a time, by making informed choices throughout my own decision making and creative process.

Sourcing out transparency and personal connection to the makers of tools, yarns, etc, is very important to my textile practice. Ultimately, I feel that I have an intimate relationship with the work, which I’m able to pass on to the final owner of the piece. Maybe choosing from such a small selection of producers leaves me vulnerable - they might run out of their products quicker, there can be a noticeable difference from batch to batch in the dyes and therefore I may not ever be able to reproduce a specific piece. But isn’t that what cloth and craft and art is all about?! Relationship, connection, expression, challenge, intimacy and sometimes, vulnerability. 

Attending an artist in residence program at a wool mill has undoubtedly deepened my textiles practice. I’ve always had an interest in the production of ‘string’. Getting to experience the hard work and hand work that goes into something often taken for granted really exhibits how precious the common thread is. The threads with which we weave our cloth, like the ones we spin our lives with, are no simple thing. Monetarily inexpensive but so crucial to our everyday shelter systems, social structure, expression and simple comfort, are in fact, highly valuable. Having the skill and intense desire to create textiles coupled with a fully considered process, lives deep within me. I feel very lucky to be able to spend time each day in pursuit of cloth. 

If you’re a wool enthusiast, please check out Custom Woolen Mills at www.customwoolenmills.com. If you’re in Southern Alberta drop in and view the mill in full operation.