Since humans discovered how to use plants and animal hair to create items such as fabric and baskets, the fiber arts—including spinning, weaving, felting, knitting, crocheting, sewing and more—have long been the pastime of women. In ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt, representations of the fiber arts as practiced by women can be found on walls, pottery and even in the stories of their goddesses. In ancient Greece, for example, the Fates were thought to spin threads, each representing a person’s life, and then weave them into a large tapestry that determined the future of mankind. Though the Industrial Age and the advent of machines have, for the most part, reduced the need for hand-spun thread and handmade fabric, the fiber arts have seen resurgence in the past decade. Step into any bookstore and you can find a range of do-it-yourself books on weaving, dyeing, knitting and hundreds more fiber skills—“The Wheel of Fortune’s” Vanna White has co-authored at least two. There are dozens of monthly magazines devoted to individual fiber skills. There is even a biennial international fiber skills conference called Convergence that is sponsored by the Handweavers Guild of America.
Cheryl Dunworth at her loom.
But why practice skills that are unnecessary if not seemingly outdated? “It’s so soothing,” says Martha Ward. “I find I can work out and solve my problems while I’m spinning.”
“There is something intrinsically pleasing associated with the creation of utilitarian articles which carry a touch of color and design sparkle,” adds Cheryl Dunworth. “Mechanization has undoubtedly pre-empted the ‘need’ to learn these skills, but has left us with the option of becoming ‘recreational’ weavers and spinners. We have the luxury to … help keep alive a wonderful part of human culture.”
Scarves by Cheryl Dunworth
These women are a part of the New Orleans Weavers and Spinners Guild. This group, predominately composed of women, meets the third Saturday of each month at the Latter Library on St. Charles Avenue to learn new skills, practice others and take part in a group dynamic that has withstood the test of time. The Guild is “a caring and accepting group of women and their families who like to learn new things, teach others, eat good food and have a relaxing time,” says member Heather Gillis. Jane Chenuau-Sullivan, who found the Guild through her mother—a member for almost 20 years—says that the Guild is important to her because “it helps to stay focused on learning and improving skills. And the friendships … the encouragement and acceptance from the group is a constant.”
Some members sell their wares at festivals, on-line or through friends, but many choose to give their work away to friends and family or donate it to charities. Guild members have manned booths and given demonstrations at French Quarter Fest, Swamp Fest, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and numerous craft fairs across the state. It is during these demonstrations that many people learn of the Guild for the first time. “Spinning is a great ice breaker,” Ward says. “People will gather and ask how we do what we do, and occasionally you’ll see that spark of interest and hunger on someone’s face and you know that they’ll be back.”
Heather Gillis spinning
Today, practicing the fiber arts isn’t all old-fashioned tools and scratchy wools—though they do have their place. You might find members of the Guild spinning on spindles made of recycled CDs (“They’re the best!” says Ward) or spinning yarn from recycled Coke bottles. You might even see them demonstrating the beauty of Louisiana’s naturally colored cotton—it grows green and red.
The members of the Guild come from all walks of life—professors, social workers and homemakers—but they share a passion for learning new skills that are often very different from their “day jobs,” sharing their skills and supporting each other. “Anyone can learn to do anything with patience, practice and perseverance,” Gillis says. These qualities can translate beyond the fibers into their lives: “Just take the project one step, row, or stitch at a time” Chenuau-Sullivan says. “We will provide all the support and encouragement you need.”
Judith Steward wear New Orleans Weavers and Spinners Guild creations.
New Orleans Weavers and Spinners Guild: If you would like more information or would like to join the Guild, please contact Karen Pfeifer firstname.lastname@example.org or call 528-9229.