Manitoba History: The Crafts Guild of Manitoba Celebrates Sixty-five Years
by Dot From
Its programs may change but its purpose endures and accordingly the Crafts Guild of Manitoba, founded in 1928, continues to maintain its unique traditions. Perhaps one of the best ways to gain insight into this remarkable institution is to explore its strengths, deeply rooted in the formative years that were shaped by a festival beginning.
Held 19 to 23 June 1928, it was an extravaganza never before witnessed in Western Canada. The rotunda of Winnipeg’s Royal Alexandra Hotel was completely transformed into a bustling, colorful European market place. Countless participants representing fourteen different nationalities were outfitted in their bright, distinctively embellished costumes, proudly exhibiting and demonstrating their exceptional artistic skills in a massive display of handicrafts.  Upstairs in the grandiose ballroom exuberant song and dance celebrated the old land so that the new land might understand. And down the way, more child and adult dancers, choirs, quartets and soloists in the Walker Theatre thrilled the throngs of people who enjoyed the unusual sounds and rhythms.
It was the New Canadian Folksong and Handicraft Festival and it marked the beginning of much more. The co-sponsors of the festivalthe fledgling Manitoba Branch of the Canadian Handicrafts Guild (later renamed the Crafts Guild of Manitoba) was savoring its first success. It would inspire 65 years of exceptional community outreach and leadership that members are now acknowledging in 1993.
The charter members of the Crafts Guild of Manitoba comprised a special group of women who had rallied to an unusual call of commitment at the Legislative Buildings in January, 1928. Listening to a Montreal representative from the Canadian Handicraft Guild, the Winnipeg group sensed the overall significance of handicrafts and the pending New Canadian Folksong and Handicraft Festival. The latter was being sponsored by the Canadian Pacific Railway which had secured the assistance of the Montreal guild. Manitoba women resolved to organize a local branch and participate in the festival. Meanwhile the CPR, thanks to its publicity director, Murray Gibbon, who was a recent Scottish arrival in Canada, had already gleaned tremendous goodwill from a Quebec handicraft exhibit. The Western show would document the timely publicity scheme of the CPR but more importantly, the imaginative role the railroad played in bringing Canadians together via handicraft activities it encouraged.
There was little time to ponder. A February meeting resulted in the assembly of some of the province’s most influential and powerful women of the day.  Executive members included Lady Constance Nanton, president; Mrs. C. E. Dafoe, vice-president; Mrs. H. A. Robson, treasurer; and, Miss Kathleen Peters, secretary. Some committee members included Mrs. John Bracken, Mrs. R. F. McWilliams, Miss Esther Thompson, Mrs. W. F. Osborne, Mrs. D. C. Coleman and Miss Amy Roe to name a few. Their immediate task involved drafting a statement confirming their desire to join forces with the 26-year old Canadian Handicrafts Guild, but with one proviso. To ensure the success of the work in this province the Manitoba branch asked for complete autonomy, “to have direction and control” over its own operation. It was a bold request that might well symbolize the collective courage of Guild members at many such historic crossroads during their now 65-year old operation. Needless to say, their forthrightness paid off; approval was given and three hectic months of festival planning ensued.
The aims of the festival and the aims of the Crafts Guild of Manitoba simply put were synonymous: To develop, market, teach and preserve crafts, and ultimately assist individuals. Certainly the exhibitions, demonstrations and competitions were inspiring and provided educational insight into crafts. Indirectly, however, the festival had a much more profound effect on the community and indeed Canada. Local and out-of-province participants alike readily mastered what is now commonly called “networking” and were never isolated to the same degree again. They saw themselves respecting the same ideals, only expressed in different ways. And the overall effect on the public was termed “a revelation.” It was as if the newcomers were being seen for the first time: The Europeans had not come to this country empty-handed. They had brought a great array of skills, folklore and culture that all Canadians could share.
The Ukrainian booth, resembling a thatched roof cottage, housed embroideries and pottery, all being demonstrated by its inhabitants. Tapestry weaving, embroidery and beadwork were some of the works performed by Swedish women in their distinctive national costumes. Icelanders were easily recognized for their demonstrations of cleaning, carding, and spinning of wool, a leading industry in their country. Embroidery, cutwork, crochet and lace identified Czecho-Slovakia and several of the other Balkan nations. Beautifully hammered and polished brass ware came from Poland, brightly embroidered textiles marked Hungary’s section and Denmark displayed its precision-made Hedebo stitching and woollen tapestries along with an array of other materials. One of the most exceptional exhibits was a beautiful fretwork replica of Milan’s famed cathedral with its many spires. And while each booth sparkled with differences, the vivid national flags, strolling minstrels and concert musicians blended colors and conversations of many lands into the seemingly new Canadian mosaic. Among those paying tribute to the festival milestone were Sir James Aitkens, a former Manitoba Lieutenant Governor and the consuls of the participating countries.
Even though the festival had proclaimed the potential of Canada’s cultural talents, a somewhat despairing year and a half followed at the Guild during which time Lady Nanton “regretfully” resigned as president. Effie Dafoe became the Crafts Guild’s second president, serving but a scant year. And “although excellent work is being done, there is no assurance of a steady supply,” summarized a disappointed sales committee that had carried on extensive rural inquiries during the 1928-1929 period. However, the first of many silver linings spurred them on.
The Crafts Guild had received commendable recognition in a Montreal exhibition and in special local events sponsored by the Swedish and Ukrainian groups. In addition, the Guild combined its talents with the therapy department of the Junior League in an exhibition that boosted morale as well as finances. And just at the darkest hour in the spring of 1930 when Mrs. Dafoe submitted her resignation while urging others to continue, Mary McLeod, with a background steeped in handicrafts, won resounding approval as the newly named president.
Seemingly insurmountable problems dimmed when confronted by these energetic, pioneering women. For instance, without any office or shop space of their own until 1935, members maintained exhaustive schedules that were continually being expanded. Regular “shop days” that focused on sales and the weekly meetings of the fourteen founding national groups were held in members’ homes; classes and demonstrations were offered throughout the city and rural areas; an ever-changing array of craft items were displayed in local and national exhibitions; and, attesting to the constant search for information were the very knowledgeable speakers that highlighted the general monthly meetings, held in the Red Cross rooms on Kennedy Street.
Early on the Guild teamed up with the Women’s Institute which was extremely receptive, recognizing immediately “the exceptional standards” of the Crafts Guild of Manitoba. For many years the Guild continued to complement institute courses, supplying outstanding samples of hooking, weaving, quilting, embroidery and knitting to the provincial W.I. groups. In addition, the Guild teachers held workshops for W.I. leaders who would then impart their new skills to more isolated country women. Sometimes the Guild and institute instructors worked together.
And while the weeds tumbled and the grit of the countryside choked everything in sight during the “dirty ‘30s,” the Guild flourished in its outreach to develop both the traditional and original work of its diverse membership. For instance, its innovative wool comforter, knitting, rug making and crochet classes at Earl Grey School, St. John’s Cathedral Parish Hall and the Y.W.C.A. gave new incentives and skills to the many unemployed people. Similarly, Guild members endlessly encouraged, exhibited and sold native Indian crafts that eventually became well known.
During its first decade the Guild participated in countless exhibitions and sales from Montreal to Vancouver. Some were hosted by the Girl Guides, Council of Women, the Tribune Christmas Stocking Fund and the Women’s Musical Club. Still other prestigious events that brought national and international acclaim to the Guild included participation in the 1933 W.I. convention in the Manitoba Agricultural College where displays overflowed the lower floor; the opening of Eaton’s new Toronto store; the massive 1934 model fair sponsored by the Back to the Land Assistance Association; the spectacular Canadian Women’s Press Club reception held at Winnipeg’s Art Gallery auditorium; the 1937 Glasgow Fair; the Chicago World Fair where Lady Tweedsmuir singled out many of the Guild’s entries plus its special embroideries mentioned below; and the Royal Week that prompted displays indicative of “the splendid work which the Guild is doing.”
During these beginning years the guild also honored its mandate by establishing a permanent collectionPolish dolls were the first entryand a library, both of which continue to grow and challenge contemporary members.
In addition, the “germ” of an ideaan original wheat design, considered emblematic of both the province and the Crafts Guild of Manitobahas evolved into the epitome of perfection that is known around the world. Mrs. Charles Lount designed and stitched the first wheat embroideries on exquisite, fine linen she decoratively hemstitched, making both placemats and napkins. Later the designs were modified by Eric Bergman, a Manitoba artist whose talents were often utilized by the Crafts Guild. To this day, placemats, napkins and fingertip towels embellished with these embroideries are considered exceptional gifts, frequently purchased for visiting Heads of State from other countries.
Meanwhile, one of the most ongoing, pressing problems concerned space. During the first 20 years of the Crafts Guild of Manitoba, the Red Cross Rooms, the old jail auditorium, the Power building, the Art Gallery, the Broadway university facility and William Street Library accommodated the Guild’s shop, meeting places, classrooms and storage needs from time to time.
If the depressed economy and growing creative interests “in this over industrialized era” spearheaded the many craft classes of the Guild’s first decade, then the “war effort” and hospital therapy classes documented the second decade. At any rate these activities reflect well the mutual respect of community and Guild; the former seeking the Guild’s assistance and the Guild responding.
Accordingly, just as the Guild members established a Design Standards Committee, another new group formed the War Effort Committee, working closely with the Red Cross. A simple routine netted admirable results. At each monthly meeting wool was dispersed to knitters who returned the following month with their completed projects. By 1941 Crafts Guild members had made more than 1,000 articles for the Red Cross; many more had been fashioned by the various national groups. Meanwhile, because of a tremendous demand in the shop for hand knitted items geared to the armed forces, these items were purchased outright rather than being sold on consignment as had been done previously.
Often sympathetic to sanctions of sister affiliations such as the Local Council of Women, the Guild quickly endorsed their patriotic motto: “buy Empire goods but bypass silk stockings.”
Undaunted when the federal government commandeered all Canadian wool11 fleece were required for one uniformGuild members received permission to test buffalo wool. A floral hooked mat, scarf and mitts in the museum at the Crafts Guild of Manitoba attest to the ambitious buffalo wool experiments.
While it was said creative craft work really took second place to war work, in hindsight it appears many endeavors highlighted every day. For instance, during the early war years various Guild members helped organize and offered weekly therapy classes to young polio victims in Children’s Hospital. A colorful display in 1942 of the young people’s workbraided cotton mats, hand woven plaid scarves, crochet and embroideryis a testimony of the members’ dedication and interest.
During the 1940s innumerable exhibits showing a myriad of work and ideassome of which could be purchasedtoured the continent, as the Guild hosted fairs in many major cities and small towns. Typical of some outstanding displays was the large demonstration and show that the Guild held at Beaver Hall in the Hudson’s Bay store in honour of the city’s 75th anniversary celebrations in January of 1949. The show included work from twenty-one nationalitieshandmade dolls to Easter eggsand fashions featuring 19th century gowns, national costumes and handwoven contemporary styles.
Some four years earlier the Guild had mounted a massive display of handwork assembled from across Canada, entitled “The Travelling Canadian Needlecraft Exhibit.” Among the dozens of exquisite individual pieces, Manitoba’s entry again epitomizes the individually of the Crafts Guild of Manitoba. While the Montreal headquarters supplied handwoven canvas to other provincial groups, Manitoba women emphasized that “to make it truly Manitoban, the material must be produced here.” The Guild’s weaving teachers, Mrs. Gosta (Inga) Roos and Mrs. C. M. Scott, created a fine linen fabric, suited to many more stitches than the canvas. Eric Bergman, designer of the sampler that depicted the Manitoba map, included many provincial motifs such as flowers, wheat, grain elevators, a settlers’ log cabin and Inuit dog team in his layout. It was embroidered by more than twenty stitchers representing eleven national groups. Colored prints of the sampler served as covers of the menu provided at the luncheon held for Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh at the Royal Alexandra Hotel when they visited Winnipeg in 1959.
Innovative educational programs involving Dominion-wide youth training centres and special adult instruction saw Guild members rubbing shoulders with various educational authorities. Knitting, lace making, smocking, rug making, dyeing, counted cross stitch, leather work, weaving and pottery classes were some of the crafts taught at city schools, community centres, Y.W.C.A. and even the Hudson’s Bay knitting room for the Canadian Women’s Army Corps students. In addition, the Searle Grain Company utilized at leastone Guild person in its three-year weaving program that helped 2,000 prairie women clothe their families. Meanwhile 12-week courses at the University of Manitoba Evening Institute attracted more than forty students per session. Similarly, from 1945-1947 some 5,800 Deer Lodge patients participated in therapy craft classes offered by Crafts Guild teachers and veterans’ affairs instructors, who were also taught by Guild members.
Paralleling these events were the on-going searching and saving programs of the House Committee. It maintained the frugal spending habits and unanimous vision of all members who dreamed of “a home of our own.” And indeed by 1950 the property at 183 Kennedy Street was purchased, the architect’s plans were drafted, the cornerstone laid and the key in the lock opened the Guild’s own door on 30 April 1951. Full ownership of the little building was realized a year later when a final payment of $2,000 cleared the mortgage.
The stepping stones had been secured, a new era was dawning. The Guild as always looked to the horizon, in this case the miraculous Inuit carvings that would set them on a whole new path of learning and sharing. And so it has continued with building additions, program additions, juried shows, workshops with international instructors, participation in the arts community and forever the roots of a festival that celebrated the joy of creativity.
This research has been aided by a grant provided by the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature Foundation Fund.
1. The term ‘handicrafts’ is being used in this article to maintain the integrity of the period. Now an archaic, devalued word, ‘handicrafts’ in the old days denoted the same standards that ‘handcrafted’ does today. That is, fine craftsmanship reflecting the ultimate of either traditional or contemporary design.
2. Many women prior to the 1950s were identified by their husband’s initials, names and occupation. Following is a list of the women mentioned in the text plus some of the others who formed the first committee of the Crafts Guild of Manitoba. Most of these women are identified in relation to their husbands, others are career women.
1. Crafts Guild of Manitoba archival materialannual reports, minutes, membership records, special presentations and members’ scrapbooks etc.
2. Winnipeg Free Press1928-1952.
3. Winnipeg Tribune1928-1952.
4. Green, Gordon H., A Heritage of Canadian Handicrafts. McClelland and Stewart Ltd., Toronto, 1967.
Page revised: 29 April 2020