Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Threads of our Heritage -- Museum Show

In Celebration of the International Year of Natural Fibre, the Boundary Spinners and Weaver Guild, and Joybilee Farm are partnering with the Courthouse Museum in Grand Forks to put on a show of natural fiber textiles and Doukhobor Heritage.

The textiles displayed in this show are amazing, never before displayed, works of fibre art. The show is displayed so that you can reach out and touch the fibers -- feel the difference between linen and hemp clothing -- hemp is a lot scratchier -- linen has a sheen that hemp lacks.

The Doukhobors grew linen in the Grand Forks area up until the 1950s. They harvested the stalks for fiber and the seeds for oil. They retted the flax (linen) in the steams flowing near their settlements, dried it in bundles and then broke it over hollowed logs to release the fine fibers from them. This flax was combed with wooden combs which also acted as a distaff for spinning.

The seeds of the flax were pressed for oil and there is a horse hair basket, single crochet, that was used for straining the oil from the seeds after pressing. This oil was used for cooking. Did the Doukhobors also use hemp seed oil for cooking? I will have to ask.

The Doukhobor flax spinning is impeccable -- fine, even and tightly spun. They used singles yarn for weaving, so most of the balls of yarn in the display are singles yarn. The most common weaving was a broken twill and this fabric was used for garments -- baby clothes, children's tunics, men's shirts, womens blouses -- as well as household linens. It was firm and long wearing, but softened with wear and washing.

The hemp was processed in the same way as linen-- although linen would be preferred for its comfort -- Hemp was used for sacking, clothing, men's pants. It was stiffer than linen, and scratchy -- a coarser fiber. The women show ingenuity in creating beautiful garments from this plant that was commonly used for rope. After WWII, it became illegal to grow hemp fibers in Canada and the growing of hemp stopped in the Doukhobor communities.

The dress in the front of this display is a broken twill weave woven of handspun hemp fiber. The men's shirt directly behind it is of linen and is much softer and has a soft sheen. The two fabrics to the left, on the sewing machine are both in broken twill. The top fabric is hemp and the bottom fabric is linen. A casual observer would think they were the same fiber -- but touching them you can feel the difference. Hemp is coaser and more scratchy.

Although the activists would have us believe that the world will be saved if we all wore hemp, in reality bringing back natural fibers for all textile needs would support rural communities -- like Grand Forks, B.C. -- support family farms, increase sustainability and reduce our carbon footprint. Natural fibers are good for humans, wild life and the environment. Natural fibers are renewable resources, and go back to the earth when their use ends. Turning off the television and working together to grow and create our own clothing brings families closer together, passes on culture to the next generation, promotes health and well being and sustains a community and creates wealth -- individually and corporately.

The Show at the courthouse museum includes a natural fiber learning centre, a hemp display, as well as Doukhobor textiles and tools for spinning and fiber preparation. The show runs from March 7th to May 30th. Open Tuesday to Saturday -- 10am to 4 pm. Be sure and come by and see this amazing work of "Toil and a Peaceful Life".


  1. Those linen and hemp fabrics are so wonderful. Even being used for so long, they are still in good shape, not showing signs of wear.

    My grandparents grew hemp, and used the oil for cooking, the fibres for spinning and weaving, and the hulls for feeding to the cows. Not much gets wasted! I'm sure the Doukobors would have done the same as well. It would be wonderful to see this display!

  2. HI, Tallguy
    The fabrics are truly wonderful and rare. A few items have small wear holes but mostly they are in great condition.

    Do you have any of the hemp fabrics that your grandparents spun and wove? I think its amazing that my Doukhobor friends have saved the garments and fabrics from their grandparents and great grandparents. Mabel Novokshinoff from the Boundary Spinner and Weaver Guild is in her 80s and many of these garments were created by her grandmother. It blows my mind.

  3. Hi ..I was just researching Hemp Cloth ,as I came across quite a few yards of cloth. I had an opportunity to pick up some collectibles from a Doukhobor home being torn down. there was a loom there I was unable to get it But I think I might know who has it .
    Anyway... I had heard of the cloths rarity and value, from a antique store in Nelson . I'd like to verify the material if possable do you know who could help ? Dennis ..

  4. Hi, Dennis
    I could tell you if it was linen or hemp, but I wouldn't be able to distinguish between hemp and nettles without taking a few threads and unwinding them. Alternatively, if you are closer to Castlegar, go to the Doukobor museum in Castlegar and talk to someone in the Spinner/Weaver guild there. They meet on the museum grounds.

    I hope this helps,