19th annual event winds up drawing record numbers

CHESTERVILLE – If you walked into the Royal Canadian Legion Chesterville Branch 434 on Sat., Feb. 3, you would have run into a whole crowd of people spinning their wheels, pulling a few yarns and needling each other.

Gordon Moat, above and at right, works with his 1922 Auto Knitter or circular sock knitting machine.

The 19th annual Chesterville Spin In brought in vendors from across Ontario and Quebec with a wide range of products from various fibres, wood and even preserves. Event organizer Nancy MacMillan was thrilled with the turn out, but already had an eye on next year’s event.

“It’s the most vendors I’ve had, but I’m hoping for a few more next year because it will be the 20th anniversary,” she said.

Spending just a few moments with each vendor it was apparent that this is something much more than just a group of enthusiastic knitters and spinners, for many it’s a lifelong obsession.

“I started knitting when I was nine and I started spinning when I was 19. My mom taught me both things,” said MacMillan. “It’s called an addiction for a reason.  We are on the needle exchange program. Most of us have a stash that takes over our houses much to our husbands chagrin. It really is an addiction and it’s just a love of fibre and it keeps you in touch with the past.”

History was on full display as a genuine 1922 Auto knitter, or as it’s more commonly known, a circular sock knitting machine, was being operated by owner Gordon Moat.

“In the early 1900s, the company was making these machines and selling them like a cottage industry. They would supply the yarn and you would send the socks back to the company and they would sell them through mail order,” he said.

The machines were very common in the early 1900s, but today they would cost more than $1,000. Moat was lucky enough to get one at Touchstone Manor in Osgoode while working there. The machine is actually quite versatile as you could make underwear, mitts, gloves, knee warmers, scarves and toques. But, owning one and mastering the sometimes finicky machine are two completely different things

“Getting it adjusted is what’s killing me right now. It’s been 10 years since I used it,” said Moat.

For those that have always been interested, but often intimidated by what appears to be a complex hobby, MacMillan was quick to point out that their annual event is a great way to take the wheel and take spinning for a test drive.

“It’s a great place to try a wheel. If you’re interested in spinning, but don’t want to shell out too much money or you don’t know what to do or what is the best thing for you, a lot of these people can actually help direct you… a lot of the guilds have wheels on loan… which is a great thing because it’s not for everyone, that way you haven’t wasted a huge amount of money on something and you find out you don’t want to do it,” she said.

Laurie Harkin-Chiasson, who amongst her many talents creates pine needle baskets, learned her trade at a craft class similar to the ones offered by the various guilds.

“I learned how to make [pine needle baskets] when I went down to Arizona… My father had actually learned it down there and that intrigued me… I went to the fibre store that was in Arizona and there was a class on. A Navaho lady taught the class,” said Harkin-Chiasson.

Laurie Harkin-Chiasson with one of her hand crafted pine needle baskets. Press Photos – Schoch

For many it’s simply a hobby that can pass the time during the long winter months, but for people like Harkin-Chiasson it’s a chance to socialize, earn a few dollars and pass on what’s she’s learned.

“It’s a business because I teach and everything else that I have here is part of my business. I couldn’t live off it, but it’s spending money,” said Harkin-Chiasson.

Her annual pine needle basket class is offered through the Ottawa Valley Weavers and Spinners Guild and it happens this coming weekend.

Even those that are experts in their particular field are constantly mastering new techniques or picking up a few tricks from others.

“I’m trying to master using a knitting belt myself… it is a very old tradition to knit with this. So this is new for me… I knit and walk all the time so this actually makes it easier,” said MacMillan.

While that may cast a few similarities to modern teens craning their necks downward, engrossed in their digital devices, MacMillan is certain there is no real danger.

“When you knit as much as I do, you don’t actually look at it most of the time. People sort of poke their neighbours as you’re walking past wondering what the devil you’re doing,” she said.

With the room full of colours, conversation and co-operative learning, this tight knit community of enthusiasts harkened back to a time where hand made crafts and clothes were the common thread that strengthened the fibre of small towns across this country.