Spreading The Ancient Art Of Fiber Work

By Terrah Baker

Have you ever stopped and wondered how each shirt and pair of pants in your overstuffed closet was made? What if, like all generations before the industrial revolution, you had to make each, individual item? It would make sense then why people in the 1800s and early 1900s on average had only one pair of pants, a shirt and maybe a Sunday outfit.

The answer is weaving — an art almost as old as human civilization. When animal skins were replaced by fibers, the handweaver was born. Without it, we would not have the clothes we do today, although computers and machines now take the place of human hands and wooden looms. With such a long, and important history, handweaving is a craft that shouldn’t be forgotten, said women of the Northwest Arkansas Handweavers Guild that meets monthly, often in Springdale.

“It’s important for the kids to know that number one, (handweaving) is a living craft. It’s not something only done in the 1800s. Also … it’s where their clothes come from now. We make that point that the jeans you have on are woven, just like the clothe we’re weaving on this loom,” said Laura Redford, member of the Guild since 1985.

This knowledge is as important as knowing that milk comes from cows, they said. The women don’t know how long the average T-shirt of today would take to handweave — mainly because the task is daunting and shirts are so easily accessible in department stores — but Guild President Linda Long said making a vest took her several weeks of a couple hours of work per day.

“I have wondered about that a lot,” said Long to the question of how long it would have taken handweavers to make a garment back when machines and cheap labor in foreign countries weren’t available to do the work. “And they would’ve had to weave their sheets, pillow slips and clothes and everything. That’s probably why they only had one pair of pants and did without sheets.”

She and other NWA handweavers meet each month to discuss their finished and ongoing projects, with an overall mission to promote interest and greater skill in fiber arts, primarily weaving. But the Guild was around long before they started their monthly meetings back in the 1970s. It has a history in NWA dating back to the 1940s when a Rug Weavers Guild started primarily to offer women a way to make extra money.

Following the success and high interest in the organization, the original group started a weaving workshop in 1954 in a little place called War Eagle. Since then, the Fall Craft Fair at War Eagle Mill has become a main attraction for crafters and shoppers around the state and beyond. In it’s humble beginnings, it was a place where weavers gathered to share their craft.

“Then it grew to arts and crafts and other skills. In the 1960’s the fair got so big the Weavers Guild could not handle it on its own,” Redford explained.

The group faded away as groups do, but was revived in the 1970s and has been going ever since. They gain new members from word of mouth, but also from outreach projects like a yearly Weavers Workshop held in July, now in its 21st year; and like the event from Nov. 29 – Dec. 1 hosted by the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association at The Pauline Whitaker Animal Science Arena (for more info., visit www.alpacasintheozarks-regionalshow.com). They reach out to children through projects at the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History where over 8,000 students get a 45-minute tour including sheep sheering, fiber spinning and then a weaving workshop each year.

“By the end, all (the students) have a handful of wool that they won’t let go of,” said Long.

The workshop at the UofA will host fiber workers from around NWA along with the Handweavers Guild. To learn more about the Handweavers Guild, how to join or get started, visit www.nwahandweaversguild.com.

Upcoming Handweavers Guild Events:

Nov. 14 – Dec. 30, 2013 — Irene Rosenzweig 2013 Biennial Exhibition, Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas, 701 Main Street, Pine Bluff.

Dec. 5 – 7 — Arkansas Fiber Extravaganza, Hot Springs

Dec. 14 — Guild Meeting. Study Groups Get Together, Challenge Share & Show, FINAL March Workshop Registration & Deposit, Christmas Potluck.

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