Embrace sweater season with local wool, Joanne Seiff says

When I first moved to Manitoba, I felt awestruck when autumn rolled around. At every street corner, I was stunned by the artistry around me, wrapped around arms, straddling shoulders and rippling muscles underneath.

Time to display our knitting skills again, Manitoba

Get out the woollies, winter is coming! (Madeline Kotzer/CBC News)

It's that season again — sweater season.

When I first moved to Manitoba, I felt awestruck when autumn rolled around. At every street corner, I was stunned by the artistry around me, wrapped around arms, straddling shoulders and rippling muscles underneath. It was a massive display of knitting skills.

Knitting skills? What?

Cowichan sweaters, inspired by the Salish and Manitoba's own Mary Maxim, jostled with Icelandic wonders, Scandinavian ski sweaters and British Fair Isle masterpieces. Everyone sported a wool work of art. Blessed with cold weather that challenges us, Manitoba's knitters rise to the challenge.

Oh, I know what you are thinking. Many of you will stop right here, because you think this is silly stuff … and you're about to say how only grannies knit, extol the wonders of polar fleece, and point out it's easier to buy things at Walmart. 

Knitters: huge market share

There are lots of incorrect stereotypes surrounding needlecraft and knitting. Recent surveys indicate one in three women in North America knit or crochet. From a business standpoint alone, that's an enormous economic market. This statistic doesn't take into account the men and schoolchildren, too, who knit or crochet. It's also a technologically aware market. An online knitters' forum, Ravelry (like Facebook for knitters), has more than 5.5 million people signed up, with more joining every day. So while some denigrate fibre arts as "women's work" or "granny stuff," smart folk should take a step back. These skills are alive and well and have a huge market share to prove it. Perhaps it's time to remember what handmade mitts feel like, and educate ourselves.

Historically, we needed these skills, this ability to create through fibre art, in order to survive. Our ancestors spun, wove, knit, crocheted and sewed layer upon layer in order to brave winter without frostbite. More particularly, we needed natural fibres from animals such as sheep, alpaca, llamas, goats, musk oxen, yak and even camel. In summer, we relied on other natural fibres, such as linen and cotton (and yes, even wool, as it breathes well), to make it through hot days. Before the modern invention of synthetics (usually produced with the use of a great deal of petroleum byproducts, potential for pollution and the use of lots of energy), we relied on natural, renewable materials and our own hands and industry instead.

This is not nostalgia. When everyone made clothes by hand, folks worked hard! Most couldn't expect to have more than one everyday outfit and a set of dress clothes. Many wore rags or went without — but for some, maybe things aren't so different today, even with mass-produced clothing.

Many of us still feel the need to create. We can buy yarn (or spin our own) to knit or crochet and those handmade mitts, sweaters, hats and more all can be sized to fit exactly. We have freedom to choose any colour or design, creating one-of-a kind masterpieces. Our sweater styles can show Canada's great diversity. Beyond all that self-expression, there is something even greater — a chance to think local, with an eye towards improving our well-being.

Spinning wheel needed for survival

In an age of global technology, we wear and use products produced worldwide. In Manitoba, we have a rich history of textile production. The Made-well and Spin-well spinning wheels manufactured in Sifton, Man., speak to the age when European settlers spun their wool at home. Manitoba legal codes from the 1870s indicate that in case of property confiscation due to bankruptcy, a spinning wheel and loom for weaving were exempt. These tools were deemed absolutely necessary for survival. Today, Manitoba farm families still sell clothing made from locally grown wool or alpaca.

In roughly 145 years, we've come full circle. Earlier this fall, the third annual Manitoba Fibre Festival, held for two days at Red River Exhibition Park, attracted about 1,600 people who shopped for everything related to the fibre arts, from sheep shearing to spinning, weaving, knitting, crochet and more. Farmers across our province raise sheep, alpaca, llamas and goats for fibre. They also provide lamb for our freezers. We've got access to a world's worth of textiles, but many of us make our woollies at home. When the exchange rate challenges us, instead of importing overseas goods, we can invest in Manitoba by buying local, supporting shepherds, Winnipeg's yarn shops and craftspeople. 

There are many reasons to create our own clothes beyond creative self-expression, although that's a good start. Studies show that needlecrafts are good for us, helping to stave off depression, dementia and even Alzheimer's. We can avoid wasting those odd moments standing in line or at the doctor's office by picking up our needles. We can even donate to Chase the Chill or other charities that help warm others who are not so fortunate.

Embrace wool  

Many take pleasure in belittling things done by hand, but from an economic standpoint, it's a large consumer market poised to invest locally. From a health perspective, we all stand to save money by encouraging Manitobans to take up their knitting. As a chance to embrace art and creativity, we can open our eyes to the visual woolly feast that walks our streets each fall. These sweaters and mitts remind us of Canada's amazing and creative population, one that encompasses many textile traditions, including First Nations people and immigrants.

We can't stop the change of seasons — winter is on the way! So instead, let's enjoy and embrace it, by putting on our naturally produced, local, traditional woollies. I'll look forward to seeing what you (and your friends and family) create!

Joanne Seiff is the author of Fiber Gathering, about U.S. fibre festivals, and Knit Green, which examines environmental issues around knitting and textiles. She's an active supporter of the Manitoba Fibre Festival who spins, designs knitwear and proudly wears her woollies in Winnipeg.


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