Friday, April 03, 2009

Doukhobor Textiles in BC

Our own ancestors came from Scotland to Winnipeg and then within a year came out west on the train in the late 1800s to be one of the first pioneer families to settle in Castlegar-Robson area. So by the time they arrived the trains were running and the Eaton’s catalogue was a reality of life. Yarn could be bought in the store – Robin’s grandfather, Gordon Brown, was the knitter in the family and his wife (Elizabeth Davidson Brown) never learned to knit until after he passed away.

The Doukhobors arrived shortly after Grandpa Brown's family in the early 1900s. They were a Russian immigrant group that came to Canada to flee religious persecution in Russia. They lived communally, spoke Russian, were vegetarian and pacifists, and didn't mingle with their neighbors. They settled first in Saskatchewan and then one group bought land in B.C. and moved here, led by John Verigan, the Lordly. They continued to travel and trade with the community in Saskatchewan.

The Doukhobors had a spinning and fiber arts tradition, but they didn’t keep sheep in B.C. They instead traveled East by train, to the Doukhobor settlements in Saskatchewan and helped them shear their sheep and then brought home part of the clip to be processed at the settlements here. The Doukhobors were vegetarian and although they kept milk cows, they never kept sheep – possibly because of the large predators here – bear, wolf, lynx, cougar and coyote.

The Courthouse museum in Grand Forks has a wonderful display of quality Doukhobor textiles and tools on display right now – organized with the help of the Boundary Spinner and Weaver Guild and Joybilee Farm. “The Thread of our Heritage” show has been extended and will now be on display throughout the summer. So if you are interested in the history of fiber arts in Western Canada be sure and take in the show. Admission is by donation.

Yesterday we had 4 groups of elementary school children through the show. We made felted bracelets with them. They each wove a strip of fabric with a peace wish into our peace banner. They visited with “Kiwi” our new born lamb – the 2009 Joybilee Farm ambassador. They viewed the Doukhobor exhibit, too, and learned some of the history of the area.

An interesting book about Doukhobor traditions in Canada is “Unlike the Lilies” by Dorothy Burnham. It is the story of Doukhobor spinning and weaving and is excellent. The author interviewed Doukhobors that grew up watching their mothers and grand mothers spin and weave. The interviews took place in the late 1960s and early 70s. By then the communal lifestyle had been disrupted by internal factions within the communities and government hostility. By the 1950s the communes were breaking up. And the prosperity among individual families made the need for handspun fabric obsolete.

The textiles on display in Grand Forks are on loan from the grand children and great grand children of the women who spun and created them. The grand children are in their ‘80s now and have only vague memories of seeing their grandmothers spinning. Some of them took up weaving as a hobby; very few of them still spin.

Something interesting about the textiles – the thread was spun worsted and very tightly and finely. The Doukhobor spinning wheel orifice is small making a fine yarn the only option. The wool garments are like armor and the wool is scratchy. The fabric was woven with wool warp and weft or flax warp and weft or hemp warp and weft. No Linsey-Woolsey like in Eastern Canada due to a lack of available wool. The Doukhobors also brought garments from Russia with them when they immigrated and many of these garments were repaired and worn for generations. Some of the Russian garments are made from commercial fabrics.

The garments were sewn with a treadle sewing machine – not by hand. And the handspun, handwoven fabric wore extremely well, so it was unnecessary to remake many garments each year for each person.

Also there is a misconception that the Doukhobors used natural dyes. By the time they immigrated to Canada chemical dyes were on the market and found to be cheaper and easier to use. Some indigo was used but it is unknown if this was synthetic or natural indigo. “Diamond” was the brand of dyes most commonly used. Because of this the colours of the Doukhobor textiles are bold and modern looking. There is noticeable fading where a textile was exposed to sunlight such as on a carpet by a window.

Children in the community wore linen tunics until they were 12 years old, in the summer months. There are pictures of children in their linen tunics standing in the flax field with the bundles of flax drying. This picture was taken in Grand Forks in the 1940s. In winter the children wore wool and dressed like miniatures of their parents. The clothing style has a Russian flavor – especially the men’s linen or hemp shirts.

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