Driving north out of Courtenay on an October day, one really notices the changing seasons. The wet leaves and grasses mingle with the mist hanging in the air, creating a palette of muted greys and browns mixed with deep reds, oranges, and yellows. Passing the farms, one sees that the animals, too, are changing: the cows seem to relax and breathe more deeply in the cooler air; the sheep, no longer freshly shorn and clean, have a distinctly bundled look to them as they shrug off the chill with their fluffy wool sweaters.
In some ways, the weekly Black Creek Spinners meeting echoes the seasonal images passed along the way. The muted tones of natural-wood spinning wheels and bags of un-dyed wool contrast with the electric purples and pinks being spun by pale fingers sporting glittery and equally electric nails.
The Black Creek Spinners meet weekly in the large, warm, and naturally lit main room at the Black Creek Community Centre. Members casually arrive, toting their spinning wheels and wool in large plastic tubs. There are no expectations, no must-meet requirements for what they accomplish while there, but this certainly doesn’t make for an idle gathering. These ladies are here to work.
For Dianna Merritt (who doesn’t miss a beat, keeping her eyes and hands on her wheel as we talk), the actual construction of a garment via knitting is but the final step of a multi-month process. “I’ve had my hands in this wool from the very beginning. I help to birth the lambs, I look after them, some are bottle raised. I shear them, they are butchered, and now I’m spinning their wool to knit it into a sweater.” My joke about wearing the sweater to birth next year’s lambs is not appreciated. “This is something very personal.”
“This really is a whole community,” says founding member Sandy Germyn. “The ladies who don’t have their own sheep like to get local wool to spin. We help each other, we support each other, and we learn while we have some fun.”
This is punctuated by a call across the room: “Attention, please. Fashion show time.” Two beaming women stand in the middle of the group, modelling their newly finished shawls. Both used the same pattern, but you’d never guess, since the colours, the drape, and even the stitches are unique to each. Ooooohs and ahhhhhs fill the room and pens are taken out to furiously write down the pattern name and designer.
“There is no judgement,” Sandy continues. “Every time, you learn something new; you challenge yourself; you take inspiration.”
The only disagreement during my visit is on the topic of art vs. craft. Dianna is steadfast that she does art, while someone across the room scoffs at the idea: “I’m following a pattern!” she laughs.
Yet even those who are not quite as involved in the process as Dianna feel a strong artistic connection to the process, as well as the finished pieces. Janet Field gives her creations away as gifts, but “only to those that appreciate it.” This is understandable, since the time from on-sheep to on-human can take months. Wool that is being spun on this late-October day was on a sheep in March.
Once the sheep is shorn, the wool is washed to remove hay and other barnyard detritus, then dried, graded, and sorted. This is an important step, since even a single sheep can produce wool with several quality (and itch!) levels. No wool is wasted: something too uncomfortable to wear can be woven into a rug, while the finest wool is easily soft enough for a baby garment.
The wool is further cleaned, untangled, and brushed out via carding before being spun into yarn and finally knit, woven, felted, or crocheted into its finished form.
When Noreen Queen finishes a piece and gives it to someone, she says, “Take this and think of me.” Knowing the creativity, effort, and love that go into every step of the process, it would be impossible for the recipient not to.
The Black Creek Spinners meet weekly at the Black Creek Community Centre. You can find them Tuesdays between 10:30 am and 2:30 pm. All are welcome. Contact Jery Lowe at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.