The Oldest Weaving Guild in Canada: A History of the Victoria Handweavers’ and Spinners’ Guild

19 June 2024
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Craft guilds have played a vital role in their communities since the Middle Ages—providing support, resources, and instruction to members who might at best otherwise only be able to access basic skills passed down through family members. Ninety years ago, Victoria, British Columbia, became home to a community of weavers and spinners who came together to learn and share their knowledge—and they’ve served their community ever since.

The origins of the Victoria Handweavers’ and Spinners’ Guild stretch back to 1934 when ten women met at the local Women’s Institute to learn weaving. The charter members of the weaving guild were Mrs. Violet White, Mrs. Ruth Anstey, Mrs. E. F. Arnold, Mrs. F. I. Bell, Mrs. S. Carmichael, Mrs. L. Clowes, Mrs. M. Findlay, Mrs. W. Peden, Mrs. Sexton, and Mrs. E. Simmonds. 

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Mrs. Violet White, charter member and President, 1934-1945. Photo courtesy of the VHWSG.

Violet White was named the first President, and she held that position for eleven years. Meetings were held in members’ homes, and by the second annual meeting, membership had grown from ten to more than thirty, many of whom were history-making Canadians.

Marjorie (Esther) Hill, the second female architect to practice in Canada, joined the group in 1936, and according to the Women Building Alberta blog, she became known as a master hand-weaver: “…a perfectionist with superb technique who makes no mistakes and pays almost fanatical attention to edges.”

Not all the guild’s early members were women. Frank Berton, retired Yukon mining recorder and father of author Pierre Berton, was also an enthusiastic weaver, as recounted by Pierre in his 2009 memoir: He began with a small loom but soon graduated to more complicated devices. Nothing would satisfy him but that he design and build his own loom, inventing and adding refinements… He became, of course, an active member of the Weavers’ Guild for he never entered upon any enterprise without going into it fully.” (Pierre Berton, Drifting Home: A family’s voyage of discovery down the wild Yukon River [Douglas & McIntyre, 2009], 230).

In 1940, the guild withdrew from the Women’s Institute and called themselves The Victoria Handweavers Guild. In 1944, they became affiliated with the Society of Canadian Handicrafts.

An intriguing early project embraced by the guild was a study of handspun and handwoven flax. In the 1930s, the BC Department of Agriculture encouraged the cultivation of flax for weaving fishing nets, but the outbreak of WWII and the ensuing shortage of labour brought the industry to an end before it had a chance to really get going. In 1944, the guild acquired sixty pounds of flax grown in the Fraser Valley. Members processed, spun, and wove the material, creating hand towels that remain in the guild’s permanent collection to this day. Some current members of the guild continue the flax tradition in their work with the Victoria Flax to Linen Project.

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Detail of a hand towel hand spun and woven by Marjorie Hill. The flax was grown in British Columbia. Photo courtesy of the VHWSG.

By the late 1940s, the guild had acquired a rental space to house their looms and hold meetings and courses. They had also adopted an elected Standards Committee to set quality standards for articles included in their exhibitions and sales. Active membership was open to any handweaver who owned a harness loom in active use, and the prospective member had to be sponsored in writing by two members in good standing. In later years, this requirement was dropped, and the guild now welcomes anyone with a keen interest in the textile arts and a desire to learn.

In 1955, the guild began awarding Life Membership status in special recognition of long and valued service; the first recipient was charter member and president Violet White. Since then, eighteen life memberships have been awarded, including one in 2004, to Janet Keir, member since 1950, who—at age 100—was recognized at the guild’s seventieth anniversary luncheon for her contributions to the organization.

Finding space to hold meetings and house looms and equipment remained a challenge and guild history records show just how often they had to weather the challenges of moving! Despite this, membership increased rapidly. By 1961, there were seventy-three members.

In 1973, the guild changed its name to the Victoria Handweavers’ and Spinners’ Guild, officially recognizing spinning as an independent craft. Small interest groups began meeting in members’ homes; these groups include the Friday Spinners, the Just 4’s weaving group, and a basketry group today.

By 1981, guild membership reached its peak at 320 members. They had a rented space—described as a “little cottage”—that housed all the guild equipment, the library of more than 300 books along with periodicals and sample collections, and the archive. They also had access to good meeting and workshop rooms at St. Luke’s Church Hall next door. Unfortunately, that space would not be available for much longer, and after a few more moves, in June 1991, they decided to sell the large looms and some equipment, relinquishing the dream of a permanent space due to rising costs.

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Since 1991, the guild has continued to move regularly, finding space for meetings and to house the library, often resorting to renting storage units to house guild and display equipment and mannequins for guild sales. In 2020, the guild lost its final library space and decided to cull the library as so much information is now freely available online.

Education has always been a strong part of the VHWSG mandate. From its origins in weaving lessons, they have continued to embrace a diverse array of topics. Starting in the 1960s, Florence Daniels, formerly the Instructor of Weaving at Hull House in Chicago, taught weaving classes, and many current members learned from her. Beginner weaving and spinning classes are now offered annually. Workshops are also important, with such diverse subjects as finger weaving for voyageur sashes, embellishing fabric surfaces, spinning alpaca, Saori weaving, dyeing with mushrooms, and more. Scholarships are available for guild members to take classes and workshops around the world.

Community service and education have always been an important mandate for the VHWSG. In the 1960s, the Social Service Committee offered therapeutic weaving lessons for disabled people, and in 1964, they presented table looms to the Cerebral Palsy Clinic and the Arbutus Craft Centre in honour of the guild’s thirtieth anniversary. Guild members have knitted bears for children in refugee camps, and provided handmade items to victims of wildfires and to disadvantaged community members. The guild provides judges to the Saanich Fair to judge the spinning and weaving entries in the Needle Arts category.

The guild has offered sales throughout its history, bringing high-quality and beautiful textiles to the Victoria community. Most recently, in 2019 they held the Texere Exhibition and Sale, with over 1,000 items entered in the show and sale. Unfortunately, the pandemic caused the cancellation of the planned 2021 show.

In recent years, the guild has participated in the Victoria Highland Games, weaving a tartan and demonstrating spinning to hundreds of participants and spectators; they also participate in sheep-to-shawl competitions whenever they are offered.

In 2006, guild members drop-spindled from an overpass on the Galloping Goose Trail to help celebrate the municipality of Saanich’s 100th birthday. And, in 2009, the first annual Spindle Walk was held in August, with members drop spindling around the Signs of Lekwungen spindle sculptures in Victoria, with participants walking from the spindle installation at Laurel Point around the harbour, stopping at other spindle sites along the way.

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Guild members on the 2016 Spindle Walk at the Fort Victoria spindle sculpture. Photo credit: Sarah Thornton.

The guild always has a vibrant booth at the Fibrations Festival in August, demonstrating and teaching spinning and weaving; many guild members are vendors. Since 2005, they have offered an annual Spin In (or Spin Out, during the pandemic) for both members and non-members, bringing together 100 spinners for a day of spinning, visiting, and shopping.

Beyond the Victoria area, the guild is closely connected to the broader textile community. In 1965 and 1982, the guild produced the Bulletins for the Guild of Canadian Weavers, writing the articles and producing the woven samples. In the 1970s, they initiated a newsletter exchange amongst BC guilds. In 1984, for their fiftieth anniversary, the guild organized the Fibres Gold ’84 conference, featuring workshops by instructors from across Canada. They have played a leadership role among the fibre arts groups on Vancouver Island, and have taken turns hosting the Island Retreat, the first of which was held in Parksville in 1990.

The VHWSG hosted the Association of Northwest Weavers Guilds (ANWG) biennial conference in 1977, 1997, and 2017, offering workshops, seminars, exhibitions of fibre work, a vendor hall, and a fashion show to hundreds of participants from western Canada and the U.S. Pacific Northwest. When the Handweavers Guild of America conference, Convergence 2002—Textile Tides, was hosted by the Greater Vancouver Weavers’ and Spinners Guild, the Victoria guild offered a day trip they called “Island Tides,” with a juried show at the Fran Willis Gallery and a downtown walking tour.

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VHWSG members Helen Thomas (left) and Jennifer Verrall (right) at the 90th Anniversary Fashion Show, May 2024. Jennifer is holding her double cloth jacket, winner of the Award for Best Outerwear. Photo credit: Sarah Thornton.

Over its long history, the guild has changed with the times. In recent years, they have embraced technology, perhaps earlier than other similar groups, and this foresight has helped them to attract a diverse membership. They set up their first website in 1999 and began communicating with members and other guilds via email in 2000. By 2003, they had their own domain name (vhwsg.ca) and moved to email distribution of newsletters in 2005. The library was also modernized, with the adoption of circulation software in 2002 and bar codes in 2008.

Membership had been decreasing through the early 2000s, with a low of about 110 members in 2006. It rebounded to 134 in time for the seventy-fifth anniversary celebrations in 2009 and has remained around that level, even through the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In March 2020, all in-person meetings were cancelled. The guild quickly pivoted to hosting online meetings and offering the guild Zoom account to the special interest groups as well. Strangely, the pandemic restrictions opened up other opportunities, and the guild offered presentations from skilled fibre artists in England, Mongolia, Seattle and Italy.

In May 2022, the guild resumed in-person meetings, but recognizing the value of remote access for associate members who live farther afield and for members who are ill or dislike driving at night, they invested in the technology necessary to offer hybrid meetings and recordings. They also offer monthly in-person and online drop-in meetings to foster community connections. The membership is diverse, with older and younger members, both single and partnered, of all genders and orientations, and many different skill levels and craft interests.

This year, the guild celebrated its ninetieth birthday—it is the oldest weaving guild in Canada. They held the annual Spin In after a three-year hiatus, had a special Christmas Tea, and presented a retrospective art show, 90 Years of Fibre Arts: the Victoria Handweavers’ and Spinners’ Guild 1934–2024 at a local gallery. Throughout the year, members participated in a Garment Challenge which concluded at a celebratory fashion show and tea party for over 100 people, including eleven life members. Garments from the show can be seen in this photo gallery.

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President Bobbie Williams (left), past president Jean Betts (centre), and past president Lee Valentine (right) at the 90th Anniversary Fashion Show, May 2024. Photo credit: Sarah Thornton.

Author’s note: I am not an unbiased author. The VHWSG holds a space in my heart. Their early adoption of web technology allowed me to easily find them as a newcomer to Victoria in 2007. I was welcomed warmly, and I joined right away. I had found my fibre people! This article could not have been written without the work of Christine Purse, past president of VHWSG, who recently fully updated the Victoria Handweavers’ and Spinners’ Guild history webpage.

Copyright © Sarah Thornton except as indicated.
Sarah Thornton head shot

About Sarah Thornton

Sarah Thornton is a connector - she loves bringing people and ideas together, especially over local fibres and foods. When not teaching college Biology labs, she knits, spins, designs, teaches, and occasionally weaves in her new studio space on Vancouver Island. She's also a cyclist, skier, hiker, and gardener! Find her patterns and classes at sarahthornton.ca and @sarsbarknits on Instagram.

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