Not My Grandmother’s Mat

How Fibre Arts Evolved Into Works of Art

Generations ago, quilts and rugs were part of a woman’s household chores, practical work to keep a house and its residents warm. Relegated to boxes in attics as they lost popularity, quilts and rugs have made a creative comeback – not merely for floors and beds but for walls and tables, churches, and even fashion.
The author of six books about rug hooking and Canadian rug hooker of the year in 2016, Deanne Fitzpatrick still gets emotional when describing the trip she took as a teenager to an outport in Newfoundland. It was the resettled community her father had grown up in and she sat on a hill and took it all in.
“That trip never left me,” she says, sitting in the light-filled office of the studio and store she opened in downtown Amherst 25 years ago. “How beautiful it was, what the loss of a community is like. It became a really powerful idea in my head.”
At 16, she moved to Nova Scotia’s north shore and at 24, hooked her first rug as a floor mat. But the idea planted in her during that long-ago trip was powerful enough to transform her craft into art. Deanne began hooking the landscapes and fields she’d seen as a teenager, creating rugs meant to hang on walls rather than lie in a doorway.
“I realized I had a way to express that idea,” Deanne says. “I didn’t think of myself as an artist; I was making a connection to the idea that had been in my head since I was a girl.”
Often Deanne’s landscape rugs are described as “painterly” or as paintings done with wool, which doesn’t surprise Gail Tuttle, a visual
art curator and art historian and former director of the art gallery at Memorial University in Newfoundland.
Now retired and living in Tatamagouche, Gail says fibre arts are a way of expressing yourself and creating something not just for the floor but as an actual work of art.
“It is art,” she says, “because of the way artists are designing, using their own images, and dyeing their own materials, and putting their materials together in a way that makes the backing a canvas.”
Karen Neary of Amherst grew up in a house full of quilts her grandmother made but when she decided to take up quilting in 1986 after the birth of her son, she quickly embraced a more artistic expression. As people admired her quilts, wall hangings and table runners, they’d ask where she found the design, so she began a long career of designing and selling her own patterns.
This design influence, and her love of working with silk (“which reflects light like nothing else”), inspired her to create liturgical pieces like the stoles ministers drape around their neck for worship.
“A woman commissioned a stole for the 35th anniversary of her husband’s ministry,” Karen says, “and after he wore it to church, the congregation asked me to make a series of hangings for the church seasons.”
That minister was Bryon Corkum, now retired from First Baptist Church in downtown Amherst. He says the hangings – called paraments – compliment the church’s stained glass windows.
“The paraments set the mood for each season,” he says, “and when you come in and see the windows and the parament on the pulpit, it completes the circle.”
Karen Neary also planted the idea of wearable art in Peggy Stevens of Roslin, who took up quilting after she retired from teaching. She took a workshop with Karen on making a bag out of selvage edges, and now she’s known as “the bag lady” at the Pugwash Farmers’ Market.
Peggy says she never makes two bags that are identical. “I love the cutting, the selecting of colours, which is the hard part for me. I’m not brilliant at selecting colours, I just go with what I like.”
Regardless of the textile or the style, using familiar, traditional techniques in a new way is the hallmark of modern creative fibre art.
Even knitters are doing it, says curator Gail Tuttle, a knitter and weaver herself.
“A shawl can be a work of art. Once you add the fibres and colours and textures, you create something that is a wearable work of art.”
Gail says adding three-dimensional fibres and embellishments is not something our grandmothers and great-grandmother would have done, and that’s what turns fibre arts into works of art.
“It’s art because you become an artist when you are working with materials,” says Gail. “Once you get a basic textile, you’re limited only by your skill and your imagination.”

To Dye For

According to Gail Tuttle, a visual art curator and art historian who is also a knitter and a weaver, dyeing your own yarn or wool “makes the heart sing.”
She says it fires the imagination. “It’s such a passion for people to work with hand-dyed yarn.”
At Deanne Fitzpatrick’s studio in Amherst, Logan Milne is the full-time dyer working with wool cloth and wool yarn. She lives in Sackville, NB, and her boyfriend works in Wallace Bay, NS, and she says she is inspired by the colours she sees while travelling around.
“What I have been doing is associating colours with memories and stories. I’ll see something on a drive or a walk and I’m captured by it. Then I go into the studio and use those memories to make those colours. Everything I dye is unique.”
While she dyes both wool cloth and yarn (skeins), Logan says she gets more “painterly” with skeins.
“I’m paying particular attention to how the dye falls and how it interacts with the water.”
Workshops and online tutorials are great ways to learn to dye. Although what you need depends on your method, here are the basic dyeing supplies:
– old roasting pans or glass casserole dishes
-gloves and a face mask
– plastic cups and spoons for mixing dye powder
– long wooden sticks for moving yarn around gently
– white vinegar or citric acid
– plastic wrap
– squirt bottles
– heat source

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Sara Jewell admits that she related to this story of the quilt blocks in a weird way when she wrote about the topic of her Field Notes column. “If my friends sent me a pile of quilt blocks, I’d have no idea what to do with them!” All joking aside, since she has no skills with needles or textiles, Sara truly appreciates the tradition and the creativity of fibre arts, and was delighted to explore them as works of art.