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When Francine McCabe moved to Vancouver Island from Ontario in 2008, she took up weaving.
“As soon as I tried it, I realized this is what I loved,” said McCabe, who has knitted and crocheted since she was a child.
Once weaving took hold, McCabe set out to find locally produced product.
“I always went to the fleece and fibre fairs on (Vancouver Island) because I liked to see what we had here, what was being produced here, and then I wanted to use only Island fibre in my weavings,” said McCabe from her home in Chemainus. “I didn’t want to buy commercial fibre.”
Lucky for her and others who love the fibre arts, the West Coast is a big woolly wonderland.
Realizing the depth of the cottage industry, McCabe, who mostly creates decorative wall hangings and some garments, decided to weave her background in creative writing and publishing together with her love of fibre arts and write Fleece & Fibre: Textile Producers of Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.
The visually stunning book is part fibre source guide, part call to action and part coffee-table book.
“I wanted it to be something people could enjoy in multiple different ways,” said McCabe, who also took all the photographs for the book.
With plenty of great information about local producers of both animal and plant-based fibres and textiles, the book also shines on a visual level as McCabe’s photos of the farms and their animals are both stunning and smile-inducing.
There’s nothing but joy in looking at Alpacas with teeth that belong in The Simpsons’ cartoon book Big Book of British Smiles. Shots of lounging alpaca goats scream ‘Aren’t we fabulous!’ and a Romeldale ram with a stare that would make Winston Churchill nervous demands you take him seriously.
“When he actually came stomping towards me, I was like, ‘Oooh, I’m nervous.’ But (his owner) said he was super-friendly, and he didn’t charge at me or anything. He just came up for some scratches,” said McCabe, adding that was the only ram she went into a pen with.
While McCabe was able to avoid charging rams, she wasn’t able to dodge the heartstring-tugging attraction to other, much less fierce animals.
“I have two Angora rabbits that I acquired through the process of writing the book,” said McCabe, laughing.
She adopted them from a woman who was downsizing. And now she combs and trims the rabbits, named Dandelion and Thistle, and mixes their fur fibre into her art. She says her kids adore the rabbits and the adorable Angoras have cemented in McCabe the hope for a larger property to expand her fibre-producing family.
Animal products aside, the West Coast is also producing plant-based fibre from some flora that we have a fraught relationship with.
“We have a lot of invasive species that can be utilized into making basketry or some kind of art. It’s pretty wild,” said McCabe, referring to things like Himalayan blackberry, Scotch Broom and various other ivy and nettles.
McCabe visited 50 farms for the book but says that is only about half of the number of fibre producers.
“Since this book came out, I have had multiple people connect with me and ask about a second book, so there might be a second book of more extended resources,” said McCabe.
And that means more encouragement for knitters, weavers and others to discover and help support local fibre-producing businesses.
“I hope people who are makers or anybody who is a consumer of textiles, I hope they think about their next purchase a little bit more and maybe think about connecting with some of the producers in the book to purchase some of their fibre for their next project. Or purchase a sweater for their next gift,” said McCabe. “I want to make more connections for the producers and the makers.”
This one’s for the makers
Another way to connect to the fibre arts is offered up in the new book Sharp Notions: Essays from the Stitching Life.
Edited by Victoria’s Marita Dachsel and Vancouver’s Nancy Lee, the collection of 27 personal essays is a great example of the silver-linings phenomenon that presented itself during the dark times of COVID-19.
“Nancy and I have been friends forever and we are both knitters. She also does embroidery and a lot of different things. During the pandemic, we had more time to do our fibre crafts,” said Dachsel, who teaches at the University of Victoria. “It was really a lifeline to our sanity. And we were wondering, ‘Do other people feel like this?’ ”
The duo realized they were “definitely not alone” in their shared hobbies.
“The more we talked to other crafters, the more we realized how wide and beautiful people’s stories are and so we wanted to put this book together,” said Dachsel.
When they first had the idea, they put out a very brief and basic tweet asking if there were any other writers who also work in the fibre arts.
“It was very, very vague. And we had hundreds of people answer that tweet,” said Dachsel. “So, after that initial response, we knew we wouldn’t only have an anthology of five people. We knew that there were tons of people out there who do both.”
Once Arsenal Pulp Press came on-board, another social-media call went out and over 130 essays from all around North America were submitted. The anthology includes eight essays from B.C. writers.
“We (could) have easily done two or three or four anthologies just based on those 130 that came in,” said Dachsel.
With no topic guidelines, the stories are as varied as people’s creativity.
“A lot of people wrote about their grandmothers and their families. But we were really taken by how wide-ranging it was. We accepted essays about grief, illness, the environment — and second-tier British football,” said Dachsel. “There’s a huge, huge range of themes.”
The stories, centred around all fibre art disciplines, come from lifelong crafters and people who have just turned to it.
“We think of it as a gift book on multiple levels,” said Dachsel. “It was a gift to Nancy and I to create this opportunity to do something that we love together. So many of our contributors told us, time and again, how our call for submissions prompted them to reflect on what they thought about their practice. The stepping back and thinking about, ‘Why do I love this? What am I getting out of it?’
“We see this also as a gift to anyone who has ever stitched through good times and difficult times.”
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