Craftwork, as a hobby, has seen a resurgence of popularity recently. Knitting for example, has become a social act with the popularity of Stitch ‘n Bitch gatherings. Crafts are also a way to express dissent, epitomised perhaps most clearly in the Pussyhat Project, mobilised for the 2017 Women’s March. In recent months, a return to hobby crafts has been a way to pass time in the relative isolation necessitated by the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic. More broadly, a return to crafts represents a wider societal shift that valorizes handmade and locally produced objects which have beauty, uniqueness, and social-consciousness attached to them—something lacking in mass- and industrially produced items. Craft objects can be found and purchased throughout Edmonton, adorning the shelves of local stores and pop-ups, tables at the various Farmer’s Markets, the galleries of the Alberta Craft Council, or readily available through online retailers like Etsy.
Advocacy for handmade crafts in Edmonton has a long history. In 1911, a local branch of the Canadian Handicrafts Guild (CHG) was established here. Founded nationally in 1905 by two Montreal women, Alice Peck and May Phillips, the Guild was intended to create a platform for the encouragement of handicraft production by amateur artisans. The Guild strove to protect the skills of producers and the quality of their handmade items, provide craftspeople venues at which to exhibit and sell, and to document, archive and preserve the creations of Canadian artisans the nation over. The Edmonton branch of the CHG frequently hosted exhibitions, competitions, and sales of crafts within the categories of weaving, dyeing, lace, embroidery, knitting, rugs, leatherwork, hand-sewing, metalwork, bookbinding, basketry, pottery, and woodcarving. Special emphasis was given to encouraging the work of immigrant communities and a celebration of the “peasant arts.”
Craftwork was seen as a way to preserve the traditional crafts of rural peoples and at the same time offer artisans on struggling farms an opportunity to earn much-needed additional income. Around Edmonton, the textiles and embroidery done by Ruthenian and Doukhobor women from the Mundare area as well as “genuine Indian beadwork” were especially celebrated. Calls were made for craftspeople to create objects that exhibited a distinctly “Albertan” identity, with the encouragement of motifs using mountains, grains, big horn sheep, buffalo, cone flowers, and any other identifiable Alberta imagery which might contribute to a high-quality Albertan craft and tourist souvenir market.
At its core the Edmonton Handicrafts Guild, which existed into the 1960s, was a philanthropic undertaking and membership fees provided the bulk of the funds made available for projects. By the 1950s there were sixteen branches of the Guild across the province with a membership of over 600. It was reported by the Edmonton Journal that “Alberta has nearly twice as many members as any other province and is the only province with more than one branch (February 27, 1950, p. 17). The Guild was largely populated by well-off local women, and branch advertisements frequently appeared within the “Women’s Pages” of city newspapers, such as the Edmonton Journal’s long-running “Things of Interest to Women” section. On these pages readers could also find beauty tips, recipes and kitchen hacks, as well as the comings-and-goings of influential community members.
Readers might recognise a few of the local names involved in the Guild. Edith Kerr—always referred to in the newspapers by her married name, Mrs. W.A.R. Kerr— was an early and long-standing president of the Edmonton branch, and eventually went on to leadership positions within both the provincial and national guilds. Her husband, Dr. William A.R. Kerr was a Professor of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies and was President of the University of Alberta from 1936-1941. Senator/Dr. Donald Cameron, also director of the Banff School of Fine Arts, was national CHG president in the early-1940s, and his wife Stella was president of the Edmonton branch at the same time. Another prevalent figure within the Edmonton branch was Miss Jessie Montgomery. Alongside her work as a Librarian at the U of A she dedicated many decades to the Guild through administrative work, teaching craft classes to students, and even offering radio lectures on crafts broadcast by CKUA in the 1930s!
The Edmonton Handicrafts Guild was responsible for important community service, particularly during the difficult and austere war years of the 1940s. In 1941, the Guild’s annual tea featured the sale of lavender sachets as a means to raise funds for British air raid victims. The Guild teamed up with the Girl Guides in 1945 to sell handmade toys, the proceeds from which went directly to the Red Cross. Pre-WWII tensions infiltrated the form of crafts in interesting ways: the Edmonton Journal noted that the annual Guild exhibition at the Macdonald Hotel in April 1939 featured “two cleverly fashioned puppets” of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, the latter of which “carried his cap respectfully in his hand, but in his pocket was folded a map of Europe.” (April 12, 1939, p. 16). Unfortunately, no images of these puppets were published in the article, and in hindsight it is quite interesting to see how casually they are included, briefly mentioned between descriptions of a damask tablecloth and a spinning wheel pattern machine called an “apple-box”.
In 1928, Alice Peck, co-founder of the Canadian Handicrafts Guild, visited Edmonton and spoke to a gathering of local members over tea at the Macdonald Hotel about the importance of handicrafts to those recovering from injury, especially soldiers. In fact, Peck had previously worked overseas at a private soldiers’ hospital during WWI, and her belief in the therapeutic qualities of handicraft production was likely an underlying purpose of the organisation. Even prior to the consolidation of the discipline of Occupational Therapy in Alberta, the Guild worked closely with veterans, hospital patients, and community organisations to forward the production of handicrafts as both a therapeutic intervention and a means for injured folks and people with permanent disabilities to achieve a stream of income. From 1938-1964 Government House, on the grounds of the old Royal Alberta Museum in Glenora, functioned as a convalescent home for soldiers of these categories. These men were taught handicrafts, and their products were frequently featured at Guild exhibitions and sales. Similarly, these shows featured leatherwork from CNIB clients, Indigenous basketry and beadwork from tuberculosis patients at the Charles Camsell Hospital, and items produced by people with mental illnesses staying at the Oliver Hospital (later Alberta Hospital Edmonton).
The Edmonton Handicrafts Guild exhibitions and craft sales were the most visible and well-documented of the organization’s activities. In the same year that it was founded, the Guild opened a permanent craft exhibition at the Blue Moon Tea Room. The Tea Room was a popular gathering spot in the Bellamy Block, a now-demolished building located at the intersection of Rice and Howard Streets (today’s Rice Howard Way). Several other downtown locations played host to Guild displays, including “pop-ups” at Cranford Shops, Morton’s Dress Shop (103 Street and Jasper Avenue), Mrs. Stubbs’ Millinery Shop, and the now-gone Corona Hotel at 107 Street and Jasper Avenue. At various times, the Guild also held office space at the YWCA, Lemarchand Mansion, the Alberta Jasper Building (9815 Jasper Avenue), and in the Arts Building on the University of Alberta campus.
The Guild worked closely with the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), and frequently installed displays of handcrafted items within its downtown department store (now Enterprise Square). Beginning in the 1930s, the Guild sponsored daily needlework and embroidery classes, free of charge, in the Fancy Work department of the Hudson’s Bay store. Nationally, the Guild and HBC worked together to arrange travelling exhibitions of craftwork, which notably included beautiful items from Alberta immigrant and Indigenous communities.
Perhaps the most important event on the Edmonton Guild’s annual calendar was the Edmonton Exhibition. The precursor to K-Days, Capital Ex, and Klondike Days began in the 1870s at the now-vacated Exhibition grounds north of downtown. The Exhibition consistently played host to large-scale handicraft competitions from 1879 until 1962. Crafts were displayed within the Women’s Pavilion, run jointly by the Handicrafts Guild and other community organisations like the Edmonton Home Economics Association. Cash prizes and awards were given to the best exemplars within different craft categories, and winners frequently had their names and home addresses published in the city newspapers. The Guild constructed model kitchens and homes in co-operation with the provincial Public Health Department, highlighting the contribution of craftwork and handmade objects to a happy and healthy domestic sphere.
While an entire article could be written on the problematic nature of the Edmonton Handicraft Guild’s privilege, paternalism, ethnic homogeneity, and imperialist attitudes, it is also necessary to recognize the important work done by these women who volunteered their time to advocate for locally produced crafts and provide markets for objects produced by differently-abled and marginalised (both immigrant and Indigenous) artisans. The legacy of the Edmonton Handicrafts Guild exists today in the strength of the Banff Centre for the Arts (to whom they endowed money beginning in the 1960s), as well as in the work of the Alberta Craft Council, which today continues the important work of exhibiting and advocating for the crafts, a project begun so many decades ago by pioneering and philanthropic local women.
Brandi S. Goddard © 2021