Clicking into the Past, by Deb Witwicki
While most of us are stitching into the future, working on such projects as winter woolens, Christmas gifts and handmade items to welcome wee ones on the way, there is a group of folks in the city who regularly knit and crochet their way into the past. They are the Fort Edmonton Park knitting circle: 25 members strong with some 60 others waiting for an opening.
One of the largest living history museums in Canada, Fort Edmonton Park represents Edmonton’s past from times prior to European contact through the 1920s. Thanks to the hands of the volunteer knitters, the interpreters who animate the past sport jaunty handmade knits such as sweaters, hats and wristlets, among many other vintage pieces authentic to the period. Even when they are not in costume, staff and volunteers can be readily distinguished at special events by their red and white scarves knitted by the circle.
Every month, members of the group meet at Fort Edmonton Park to turn in completed work, choose a new project, learn from one another and enjoy a splendid spirit of industry and camaraderie. Says Erin Sinclair, an emergency room nurse, “ When I first came to the knitting circle, members met in a cute little alcove off the costume shop. There was an old radio playing songs from the 1920s; it was warm and the tea was flowing. I thought, ‘I’ve found my people ’. It was like discovering a secret world apart from the hustle and bustle of the city and I knew I was going to hang on to it.”
Fort Edmonton Park’s knitting circle is a diverse group, ranging in age from teenagers to seniors. It includes some men, such as Lucas Anderson, a young FedEx employee, who is relatively new to knitting but a long-time fibre lover who does finger and loom weaving and is a former member of Edmonton’s Weavers’ Guild and Hand Weavers, Spinners and Dyers of Alberta. Bev Roy’s family members are not big fans of knitted items so she enjoys having people to knit for. She says her favourite thing about the knitting circle is when Maple Wong and Sanly Kwan (whom she enlisted from her exercise class) speak Chinese to one another. The Fort Edmonton Park knitting circle attracts people for many reasons; most share a passion for knitting and history.
Judy Glenn, Volunteer Supervisor for Fort Edmonton, leads the enterprise with the help of her literal right hand May Carter. Judy is a left-hand knitter and May a right-hand one, which is just one of the many fundamental ways the two complement each other in supporting the knitting circle. Judy and May prepare knitting kits for the various projects — such as Queen Vicki’s Wristlets, Columbia Ladies’ Eaton Jacket and Felicity Design Ladies Hat — and May logs volunteer hours. As City of Edmonton volunteers, members who contribute more than 120 hours a year are entitled to a recreation pass.
The only requirement for membership in the circle is a desire to learn. “ We started out with simple projects like scarves and shawls, ” says Judy, “and then progressed to sweaters, dresses and even suits.” Some of the knitters, though, are highly experienced. Fay Eagle, newly retired from the optical shop she owned in Edmonton, has turned in 67 projects since she joined two years ago, including intricate lace collars and reticules. Fay says she has “enjoyed learning about the colours and styles that are period specific.”
The vintage patterns present some challenges for today’s knitters. Their language is different and they are more vague than contemporary patterns. As Lisa Yung assembles her materials for The Belgravia Jacket, May and Judy work with her to determine the best size needles since
the numbers noted in the pattern do not apply to today’s measures. After an online search and
pooling of experience draws a blank, May says, “You might just have to experiment love. ”
May and Judy have a long, rich history in needlecrafts. Judy’s mother and grandmother were convinced that “something was going to happen and someone would have to know how to go back to the basics.” Hence Judy was equipped with myriad skills, including tatting, sewing, knitting and crochet. “My grandmother never had a pattern.” says Judy, “To make a sweater, she would just knit the fabric as long and wide as needed and then shape the neck and arms.” Born in Scotland, May learned to knit at the age of five from watching the hands of her mom and granny and was allowed to knit in school before coming to Canada at the age of nine. “I love everything old, ” she says. Some days I wish I was born in another era.”
In the past, people did hand work for economical reasons. It was much less expensive to knit or crochet a garment than purchase one. As today’s artisans will attest, for the most part, this is no longer true. Says Judy, one of the appeals of the Fort Edmonton knitting circle is that all materials are provided so there is no out-of-pocket expense. They also benefit from wool and material donations which allow them to contribute to the community in different ways. For example, last year, the circle turned their hands to honouring living representatives of our heritage. Inspired by a CBC story, the group knit comfort/fiddle muffs for those suffering from Alzheimer’s. The inside of the muffs provide warmth and comfort while the outsides are adorned with mementos that stir memories from the recipient’s past.
Whether providing for the historical eras or to the community at large, these knitters are united as much by the spirit of those present as the spirit of the past. Do you want to contribute to their cause? Consider donating your left over wool and equipment to the Knitting Circle. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.