Creative Fibre

1969 –

Theme: Arts and crafts

Known as:

  • New Zealand Spinning, Weaving and Woolcrafts Society
    1969 – 1998
  • Creative Fibre
    1998 –

This essay written by Dorothea Turner was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993. It was updated by Claire Regnault in 2018.

1969 – 1993

The New Zealand Spinning, Weaving and Woolcrafts Society (NZSWWS) was formed to foster and speak for all aspects of the handcrafts concerned. The only national body, in 1993 it had 216 affiliated groups and over 5000 members, almost all women.

World War II accelerated the rise of spinning. The services and POWs needed weather-resistant jerseys. Hundreds of wheels were made and keenly used by women taught in patriotic clubs to handle unscoured fleece. Spinning lapsed for a while after the war, though the Eastbourne Spinners still met with their founder, Aileen Stace, who taught for over 30 years more.

In 1946 Florence Akins was asked to include weaving in the diploma course at Canterbury University College of Art, where it grew by 1960 into a Major subject. Plant-dyeing had long been pursued by keen naturalists, notably Amy Hutchinson, whose samples and published manual are in the Hawke's Bay Museum, Napier. These spinners were pioneers, and dyes from native plants were dramatic, as they knew from the work of B.C. Aston, scientist to the Department of Agriculture. This fibrecraft skill being eminently sharable by post, they could maintain a countrywide network, even if the early guilds lapsed.

The longest surviving group in the 1990s was the Handweavers and Spinners Guild Auckland Inc, which first met in 1953 as the Auckland Handweavers' Guild. Among its founders was Ilse von Randow, with overseas experience, who was commissioned in 1958 to weave a huge pair of curtains for the Auckland City Art Gallery. The Guild's journals, Three Crafts (1958) and The Web (1970), brought it a national membership.

The World Crafts Council, New Zealand Chapter, founded by Nan Berkeley in 1964, gave the emerging weavers respect and chances to exhibit in stimulating company. In Christchurch, Ida Lough exhibited regularly with The Group. Occupational therapists were a helpful teaching force, as weaving was fostered then in mental hospitals. But import bans on supplies and equipment still impeded progress.

Some spinners combined for fleece-to-garment experiments, and Māori Women's Welfare League groups knitted from fleece which was not spun but rolled, as had been done in shearing sheds. The term Kiwicraft was coined for this technique in Wairoa's first Wool Week in 1967, which included fleece-to-garment demonstrations using both spun and unspun wool. This became a popular team sport. To establish winners, the quality points the judges gave completed garments were collated with the stewards' record of how long each had taken. It became clear that in such a contest, teams must conform to a set pattern. Colin Southey, local sheep and wool adviser from the Department of Agriculture, organised this exercise, conferring with Wairoa's expert spinners who devised a pattern. Their 1968 Wool Week featured a national fleece-to-garment contest for a Silver Spinning Wheel given by the Hawke's Bay Farmers' Co-operative. Sixty wheels – ten teams – took part. A Westland team won.

In 1969 Gisborne was celebrating the bicentenary of Cook's New Zealand landfall. It borrowed Wairoa's Wool Week, including the trophy, jersey pattern and management. The sixteen teams present saw a need for national rules, and agreed to reassemble on 5 July at Wairoa. That meeting of 80 elected a broadly based national executive for the New Zealand Spinning and Woolcrafts Council, and Eric Powdrell of Wairoa, resident director of the Hawke's Bay Farmers' Co operative, became president. In February 1970 the Auckland guild and others were represented again at Wairoa; Auckland enrolled its members and gave The Web to the new body. In April the AGM, also at Wairoa, added 'Weaving' to its title and the 1972 AGM changed 'Council' to 'Society'. Thanks to Wairoa's vision and hospitality, the country's scattered fibrecraft threads were gathered up and plied together at last.

Though almost all weavers spun, they were characteristically outnumbered by spinners-only. Weaving had costly equipment; most forms of it ate up materials and so needed a market, and the finished work needed understanding for display. By 1970 much of this had yet to be won. The NZSWWC's remit at Arts Conference 70, that handweaving be accepted as an art form, was passed amid teasing. In 1971, with the Reserve Bank and the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, the NZSWWC ran a competition for soft furnishings for the Bank's new building. Other good exhibitions followed. But in 1977 the Customs Department, invoking a Sales Tax Act of 1974, threatened a retrospective tax on decorative weaving. After a year's duel by deputation and letter, president Jenny Poore won the exemption always granted to painters.

By 1972 Wool Week was known as the Festival and included a national exhibition, action competitions, teaching seminars, a fashion parade, long executive meetings and the AGM. Held in Invercargill that year, it moved on to Dannevirke, Greymouth and Whangarei – wherever it was invited by a committee ready to hire premises and about 1000 beds. Powdrell presided for seven years. Generous and dedicated, he gave security while the scattered groups eagerly discovered one another and shared their skills.

The rules for incorporation, passed in 1972, divided the country into fifteen regions, each with a delegate elected by all enrolled members, who could pay dues through their clubs or join singly. The delegates, together with president, secretary, treasurer and the heads of some special committees, met as the executive, each delegate voting according to her region’s membership numbers.

The society represented a complexity of crafts, and delegates passed specialist matters over to expert committees. The standing committees (such as Education, Quality Mark, Exhibitions) went where the expertise was. Editing of The Web moved around, to Petone, Cambridge, Balclutha, New Plymouth, Greymouth, Lyttelton and Palmerston North.

By this pattern the society avoided becoming either centralist or bureaucratic, instead tapping the wealth of skills and energy in its farflung membership. Its officers were not salaried, though a few received small honoraria, and delegates' expenses were met. From 1985 until the early 1990s, the Wool Board and the Hillary Commission made annual grants, tagged for members' benefit, not administration, which was mainly funded by members' dues – $8 in 1992. In 1993, a full-time administrator was appointed, funded by grants from the Department of Labour and the QEII Arts Council. Many other sponsors assisted special projects.

A few members joined the Crafts Council of New Zealand (CCNZ), the state funded group which superseded the voluntary work of the World Crafts Council in 1977. The NZSWWS, though the largest craft group, did not, because the CCNZ would not give it the final say in selection and awards in its own field. The society found it unacceptable that specialists elected by their own craft practitioners should be outvoted by outsiders in what concerned that craft.

Much effort went into tuition at all levels. The society published numerous books and papers written by members. It brought in international figures, including Mary Barker, Theo Moorman, Peter Collingwood and Kaffe Fassett, for Festival and/or workshop tours. The education committee arranged seminars for special techniques, held a library of books and slides, and sponsored two films on spinning and one on hand-felting. In 1977 a National Film Unit travelled from the Kaipara to Te Anau documenting NZSWWS activities in Woollen Piece, shown here and overseas.

By the early 1990s membership was about two-thirds of its peak a decade earlier. Basic tuition, formerly the society's responsibility, was available in many technical schools; equipment and materials were at last plentiful. Many women, with less time at home due to longer hours of employment, found the lapwork of embroidery or quilting easier to handle and less messy; within weaving itself, small tapestries became popular. The society's tuition kept active, moving on to meet new needs. The club programmes and the work shown proved the growing variety, vitality and finesse of New Zealand fibrecraft.

Dorothea Turner

1994 – 2018

In 1998, the New Zealand Spinning, Weaving and Woolcrafts Society amended their constitution and rebranded as Creative Fibre. The decision to change the organisation’s name was part of a concerted effort by Alison Hurley, president since 1995, and her committee, to modernise the society. Membership had reached its zenith in 1985, with just over 7500 members, and had since been in decline. [1] In order to attract new members, the committee realised that they needed to embrace ‘all other allied crafts pertaining to the uses of wool and other fibres’. [2] In turn, their name needed to reflect the increasing diverse range of fibre practices, while avoiding the divisive nature of the craft/art debate. [3]  

Creative Fibre became the public name not only of the society, but also of its annual festival and quarterly magazine; unlike The Web, this was made available to every member as part of their subscription. The change in name also reflected other organisational changes, including streamlining the executive committee, amending the constitution to encourage greater flexibility, and deciding to trial independent selectors for the annual exhibition.

The committee also strategically chose to make the Creative Fibre Award, which had been offered since 1989, its major award, and increased the prize money to $2000. Their goal was not only to attract more high quality entrants, but to also encourage members to push their practice and break boundaries. [4] They also increased the prize money for the fashion award. The first festival and annual exhibition to be held under the auspices of the new brand was organised by the Kaitaia branch in 1998. The theme of the festival was flax, a choice that reflected the event’s location in the Far North and also the organisation’s wider remit.

From the late 1990s, Creative Fibre retained a steady membership of around 3000, comprised of professional and amateur fibre practitioners, and including spinners, dyers, weavers, knitters, felters, crocheters, flax workers and ‘free form’ fibre artists. The Creative Fibre Festival, which by 2018 was biennial, continued to feature a national exhibition and fashion show, workshops, lectures, trades, and displays. Education remained a strong part of the organisation’s mandate, with members being offered several certificated correspondence courses, access to a resource library, and an educationally focused event every second year. This made it possible for smaller areas, which lacked the capacity to hold a full festival, to host a national event.

While membership was not limited to women, 99 percent of members were female; the largest group was women in their seventies, [5] with women in their sixties the next largest. As 2018 president Fiona Macrae stated, the organisation tended ‘to pick people up when they retire and are looking for things to do with their time’. [6] Another contemporary shift identified by the committee was that the membership was no longer predominantly rural based.

By 2018 an upsurge in interest in the hand made and in crafting was taking place among younger women. However, Creative Fibre found themselves competing for this generation’s attention with newer forms of organisation, such as ‘Stitch n Bitch’ groups, which tended to meet in cafes and pubs after work hours; weekend retreats, such as Unwind and Knit August Nights; and international online communities such as Ravelry.

Creative Fibre nevertheless retained many loyal members, some of whom had been with the organisation since its inception. The organisation fostered not only their practice and skills base, but also deep friendships. In 2019 the members of Creative Fibre would celebrate ‘50 golden years’.

Claire Regnault

Notes

[1] Abbott and Bourke, 1994, p.36.

[2] ‘Draft Amended Constitution of New ZealandSpinning, Weaving and Woolcrafters Society Incorporated’, The Woolcrafter, March 1998, p. 9.

[3] Alison Hurley, former president, personal communication, 27 November 2018.

[4] Hurley, 2018.

[5] A survey of members was held in 2016. Fiona Macrae, 2018 president of Creative Fibre, personal communication, 21 November 2018.

[6] Macrae, 2018.

Unpublished sources

New Zealand Spinning, Weaving and Woolcrafts Society records, 1967–, in possession of current national secretary

Rules of the New Zealand Spinning, Weaving and Woolcrafts Society Incorporated, 1991, brochure for distribution to members

Unpublished papers including memoirs written on request for the files, and for 25th anniversary history of NZSWWS, ed. Jean Abbott, New Plymouth

Published sources

Abbott, Jean and Shirley Bourke, Spin a Yarn, Weave a Dream: a History of the New Zealand Spinning, Weaving and Woolcrafts Society Inc, 1969–1994, NZSWWS

Creative Fibre, quarterly magazine, 1998–

Knight, K.M., 'The Story of Handspinning: An Interview with Miss Josephine Mulvany', The Weekly News, 28 August 1935

Pattrick, Jenny, 'Nan Berkeley, Outrageous Visionary', New Zealand Crafts, Winter 1989, pp. 2–5

The Web, 1970–1998, quarterly journal of the Auckland Handweavers' Guild, transferred to NZSWWS from Vol. 2 No. 1, March 1971

The Woolcrafter, quarterly bulletin of the New Zealand Spinning, Weaving and Woolcrafts Society Inc., 1994–1998

Turner, Dorothea, Ways into Woolcraft, Dorothea Turner,Auckland, 1980

Wood, Joan (ed.), Spindles and Shafts, A Fibrecrafts Anthology, NZSWWS, Wellington, 1980

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