Angela Dyck and Alyssa Bruce think a little differently than most teen girls about clothing.
They don’t take a full closet for granted. Earlier generations didn’t have one, and it took a long time to make anything to wear, say the two 12-year-olds at Miami School.
“We have it much better than they did,” says Dyck.
They learned about that last year while in Mrs. Elaine Owen’s Grade 6 social studies class — where they also learned to card and spin wool and to knit and crochet.
Owen introduced fibre studies and handcrafting into her Grade 6 classroom a couple of years back while looking for a new way to teach social studies, with its focus on Manitoba becoming a province.
“I was thinking about something unusual I could do with my kids that might stand out in their minds,” she said.
What better way, she thought, for them to connect with the values of their own families, and to respect hard work, she thought, than by having them learn to make small items of clothing, and understand the processes that go into it.
She didn’t set out to teach all that herself, though. A self-described “OK knitter” she called on the youngsters’ grandmothers, who were happy to come to class and demonstrate knitting and crocheting techniques. While little fingers kept busy, they heard about how past generations made do, while seeing how great it is to know how to make things yourself, says Owen.
They’ve learned to appreciate that something handmade is valuable in other ways too.
“If Grandma or Auntie gives you a scarf or tuque or mitts or whatever they’ve made, they’ve put a lot of their time and love into it,” says Owen.
The resources to do this came from a community as excited about the idea as Owen was.
“People have been very kind,” she says.
Fundraising by the parent council produced two spinning wheels for the classroom. Antique drum carders were donated. Owen wrote to the Scottish Tartan Authority about what they were doing and received a package of swatches and information about tartans. She connected with Briggs and Little Woolen Mill, Canada’s oldest woollen mill and it sent them a beautiful box of wool samples. Owen was so excited about that she had her class actually phone the mill’s owner and ask questions about the mill for a history lesson.
Of course, all the yarn, wool and needles are donations too. “I’m lucky I have so many drawers in my classroom,” she says. “They fill up quickly.”
But they empty out fast too. She tells her students people have donated to this, so it’s important to give back too.
“So our motto is ‘make one item for yourself, make one item to donate,’” she said.
The students have given items they’ve made, like scarves and neck warmers, to Genesis House shelter in Winkler and Main Street Project in Winnipeg.
Meanwhile, this focus on fibre makes the difficulties of Canada’s earlier generations so much more real. While they work on their projects, they’re learning about fair trade, the monetary value of labour and relations with First Nations people too.
“We’ve talked about the Coast Salish Knitters,” says Owen. That group integrated its own ancient wool-working traditions with those of the Scottish and English settlers to make the iconic Cowichan sweater. But they weren’t always paid fairly for them, says Owen. To bring that point home, she had her students, familiar already with how long it takes to knit something, sit down and calculate how much time it would take to make one of these sweaters.
“We looked at wages and time and cost of the yarn. We had watched a video and read about how originally they were getting paid less than $50,” she said.
Her main hope is that these studies are creating “something that will last” among her students, she continues.
“Lots of these kids have these skills from their moms and aunts and grannies,” she said. “It’s important to keep that connection strong.”
Clearly, the kids enjoy it all. So much so, many continue on with their knitting and crocheting projects after Grade 6 in a lunch hour fibre club at school.
That’s the club that Dyck, who is now in Grade 7, is in. She’s made slippers and scarves, and even tuques using a circular loom.
“It’s a lot of fun to learn how to knit and crochet,” she says.
Her friend, Alyssa Bruce, agrees. She’s made needle felting pictures to give as Christmas presents. Now she’s making a scarf. This is a fun club and she likes what she’s learning in it, she said.
“It will help me when I’m older. If I need to repair something or make a scarf, I will know how to, instead of going to buy one.”