(For the history of The Handweavers, Spinners and Dyers Guild see here.)
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
from A Shropshire Lad, 1896
by A. E. Houseman
It is a glittering autumn day. The streets of Battery Point are bathed in crystalline Tasmanian light, which somehow makes the stones of St George’s church look soft and mellow. This is going to be a wonderful morning. It’s the week before Easter, and I’m off to indulge a peculiar passion of my own, or at least, one shared by a select few.
I’m going to meet the Hobart Spinners and Weavers.
I’ve been invited to meet them at the back of St George’s. This was built in 1838. It’s a well known Hobart landmark, its little spire visible from all over town, sticking up over the rooves of Battery Point. This morning, with its neo-classical columns, it looks strangely imposing, and firmly closed.
I spot a woman carrying a wooden contraption that could only be a loom, so I follow her. We cross a lawn and go into some low sandstone rooms at the back of the church.
I find a space full of colourful treasures.
The Yarn Store.
I am in the Yarn Store, at a counter holding books and multi-coloured balls of sock yarn. All around the walls there are shelves stacked with packets and reels — spinning wool, thread, yarns, all in glorious colour, as well as a lot of wooden contraptions that I don’t recognise.
Soon I have met Glenys and Viv (“We’re sisters”) and Margot, the Secretary. I say something about the official name (The Handweavers, Spinners and Dyers Guild of Tasmania) and I’m assured that everyone here still calls the group the “Spinners and Weavers”.
Glenys and Viv begin fiddling with a new yarn winder and Margot ushers me off to watch the Show and Tell.
Show and Tell
Another cheerful room: bright pictures on the walls and sunlight streaming through a window. There are eight or ten people sitting in a circle, knitting and spinning while they talk. I’m introduced to “our president”, Eva, and Ken the treasurer, and Doris “one of our oldest members”. Doris is wearing a hand-spun jumper like the one I made in the 70s. Near the table of display items, Judy is on her feet explaining a knitting project. There are murmurs of appreciation and intelligent questions that I don’t understand.
In low voices, Eva is told I have a spinning wheel in need of repair. She asks me what kind of wheel it is and fixes me with a look of such sharp intelligence that I stammer and sit backwards. I manage to point to one in the room. “It’s like that.”
“Ah. An Elizabeth.” Eva is satisfied.
Now she stands up to show the group a hank of art yarn, describing how she made the fat seed-like coils.
Judy joins in to say that they had a wonderful time at the art yarn workshop, then she shows everyone the socks she is knitting, with the ankles covered in the “F…” word. I’m surprised, and worried that she has maybe picked the wrong crowd, but everyone laughs in a mild kind of way. They’ve seen Judy’s socks before.
Now Eva is holding up some superfine merino fleece that looks like white silk.
She explains how it must be washed and warns that taking shortcuts will lead to felting. Everyone nods knowingly. Ken asks if it is 14 microns and Eva says no, it’s superfine, not ultrafine and everyone laughs. I realise I’m in the presence of arcane knowledge.
I could stay here all day. The room is rich with the smell of lanolin and a sense of companionship. This is the world of my childhood and my mother, of charity halls and craft and tea urns, and cakes brought for sharing.
I have a sense that I have found something I lost a long time ago.
Of course, no one bothers to reflect on anything like that. The Spinners and Weavers are absorbed in what they are discussing, in the pleasures of textures and colour, in the joy of creativity and the intellectual challenges of each other’s projects.
The Spinning Wheel
Suddenly I am summoned. Doris is leaving and Margot wants her to look at my wheel. I offer to bring it from the car, but Doris and Margot come with me and we look at it in the street. Margot wants to take it back to the rooms to ask who can mend it, but Doris insists that she will deal with it herself. We cram it into her tiny car, shoving it up against a huge fleece that she calls a “peck”.
I’ve brought three bags of old fleece to ask if someone could use them, or if they are too old. Doris digs into them, pulling at the yarn, testing its springiness. She accepts two of them and shoves the third back at me with a laugh. ‘You can have that one.’ Margot takes it, offering kindly to put it in a bin.
Around us the pretty houses sit quietly behind lavender and late roses. A plane is drawing crosses and hearts across the sky in little puffs of cloud and here, on the tiny streets of Battery Point, it’s somehow possible to see that message without cynicism. I am not religious. But today I’m filled with a deep happiness — that here, in the back rooms of my lovely town, there are passionate people creating bright art; that there are people like the Spinners and Weavers, kind and welcoming, knowledgeable and absorbed in their craft; that the world still has hand-spun jumpers, and spinning wheels and little cars crammed with fleeces.
We wave Doris off into the golden morning. Margot says I can email questions. She says I can come back any time.
And I definitely will.
Thank you to these people for the images
“Battery Point. Hobart. Colonial cottages from the 1820s near Arthurs Circus” by denisbin on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/82134796@N03/25130481216
Handweavers, Spinners and Dyers Guild of Tasmania http://www.hwsdguildtasmania.org/
“St George’s Anglican Church in Georgian style Battery Point Hobart. Tower added 1847” by denisbin on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/82134796@N03/10375565015
Ashford Wheels and looms https://www.ashford.co.nz/elizabeth-2
References and Further Reading
Handweavers, Spinners and Dyers Guild of Tasmania Inc (2011), Textile Journeys, Hobart, Forty Degrees South.
Williams, Mary (2016), The Weaving Patterns of Edward Hussey: Being notes on Edward Hussey: His Patern Book, 1787. Sandy Bay, Tasmania, Mary Williams.