October 5, 2011

Cottage Craft

Shortly after arriving in St. Andrews,  Cat Bordhi, Veronik Avery and I (having failed to find both a cheese sandwich and Lucy Neatby - though over the next three days, finding Lucy proved to be far easier than the elusive cheese sandwich) went for a walk by the sea. 

The town of St. Andrews By-the-Sea sits right where the name promises - on the edge of the sea on Passamaquoddy Bay, which is an inlet of the intriguing Bay of Fundy.  (If you don't know about it, you should read about it. It's a crazy place. The highest tides in the world, reversing falls, tidal bores, whirlpools... The ocean really shows off its best tricks in the Bay of Fundy.) It's an old town, founded in 1783, and it has all the charm that implies.  We wandered along, looking and investigating, until we happened upon Charlotte County Cottage Craft Woollens.

This little building, sitting right by the sea, is the home of Canada's oldest cottage industry, and was founded by Grace Helen Mowat in 1915, when she realized that the skills of the women around town were a "cash crop".  She created unique colours of yarn that reflected the countryside that surrounded her - which was a brilliant idea really - because it made the yarn tourist yarn.  You know how when you travel to a place you look for the perfect souvenir yarn? Yarn made in the place you're at - something to remember it by?  Miss Mowat had your number in 1915, and not only did she provide this yarn, in her own signature colours, she had them woven up into unique tweedy yard goods. 

Fast forward a little bit, and what this lady has is a thriving business making all kinds of woolly stuff.  Cool bags, each one a piece of art -


Intriguing little dolls...

Any manner of wonderful stuff, but her best idea ever, was this:

Enough of the handwoven yarn goods (in a multitude of possible tweeds) to make a skirt, paired with heathered solid colour yarn to make a sweater that matched perfectly. With a pattern tucked in,  it was the New Brunswick answer to the twin set, and they were hugely popular.

Things have changed since Grace's day,  but you can still make your own set - they still sell the beautiful handwoven yard goods, still in the original colours, and they still sell the yarn that matches.  A thinking person could put together their own co-ordinating set - but it wouldn't have the charm of that boxed set.  (Cat, Veronik and I tried to convince the owners, Michelle and Evan, that such a set was still a good idea. Especially if they could re-create the original packaging - and include the vintage pattern.)

The shop also sells a ton of pre-knit stuff... sweaters, hats, mittens... little jackets and bags, and a ton of fashion forward capes and jackets made from the handwoven fabric.  

The whole time we were there some sort of party, complete with fiddle music and wine - raged in the backroom, with laughter and dancing, and the waves of the ocean out the window...

It was wonderful.  Michelle showed us the old swatch books - originally put together by Miss Mowat when she was deciding what fabrics and yarns to make- and we got to dig around in her old trunk, full of clippings and swatches and little wee things of interest - things that really belong in a museum rather than a shop by the sea - but really.. don't they seem more at home there?

There was a lot that was great about Knit East, enough that if I'm asked back, I'd do it again in a heartbeat, but I have to say that the little history lesson I got by the sea was something I truly loved.

The only down side is that I might have convinced myself that I need a whole bunch of souvenir yarn, which I don't feel bad about, not really.  After all Miss Mowat has been rigging the set-up since 1915.  I was doomed.

Posted by Stephanie at October 5, 2011 2:43 PM