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Jun 2014

KitchenFest! Q+A: Eveline MacLeod

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Eveline MacLeod is well-known in the Gaelic community for her extensive work in many areas of the culture, from weaving to pipe bands, highland dancing to history. During KitchenFest, she’ll release her new book, “Celtic Threads.” (Thursday, July 3 from 2-4pm at the Gaelic College) Margie Beaton and Leah Noble visited with her in her home in South Haven to learn more about Eveline’s book, and her passion for weaving and textile arts. (Check out KitchenFest details on our website here or call us at the College, 902-295-3411.)

Leah: You were born in New Glasgow. What brought you to Cape Breton?

Eveline: I came to teach Home Economics.

Leah: How did you become interested in weaving? Was it something you’d always done?

Eveline: No, I wasn’t a weaver. I knew a bit about it, but… when my son Kevin was born, I gave up teaching, and I was looking for something to do. At that time, there wasn’t any handcraft promotion at all in Cape Breton, and I happened to notice a piece in the paper written by Father Greg MacLeod, inviting people that were interested in handcrafts to come to Sydney for a meeting. So I went there, and, gosh, it wasn’t long before I was appointed researcher in this part of Cape Breton.

Leah: Did you have your own loom here?

Eveline: Yes, well, he appointed four of us to go around Cape Breton and find out about the traditional crafts, and if anybody was spinning and weaving, and I went and I found all kinds of knitters and quilters and rug hookers. The only weaving I found was here, in St. Ann’s, and Boularderie.

Leah: Is that right? Wow. When would that have been, the 1970’s?

Eveline: Yes, the early 70’s, 1972. And so from then on, I got involved with the Cape Breton School of Crafts, in the old Lyceum, and I decided if I was going to teach weaving, I had to learn more about it. The Home Ec training I had didn’t give you much background in weaving at all, you know. So I went to the Banff School of Fine Arts, I spent a month there. My teacher was from Sweden, a marvellous teacher and a great weaver and everything, and I told her that I wanted to learn all about overshot, because that was the traditional weave in Cape Breton. And, well, she said, I’ll give you an overshot project to do. So she gave me a Swedish book, which I couldn’t read, but I could read the draft, the pattern of the weave. She said “We’re not going to do a traditional weave at all, we’re going to do a modern overshot.” I said, “Sure, fine.” She gave me something that was entirely different for me, we were threading three threads on the loom, instead of one, and that’s in the headles, the headles are the things that hold the threads, and I had wool, linen and silk. They were all hard to use because … if linen stretches, it won’t unstretch! Wool is elastic, it will go back. She was testing me, but anyway, it worked out. I have a beautiful piece that I still keep! I won’t be giving that away.

Margie: Would those materials have been used around here? Would people have been weaving with silk?

Eveline: No, that would have been extravagant. Wool, is what was used around here. And cotton, and linen. They raised linen here, in Mabou and Middle River. They processed it here, made tablecloths, I’ve seen some beautiful linen from around here. So, I did that, at the Banff, and that gave me a good start. And the next year I went out researching with Mr. Stan Solinsky. He was a great master weaver in Canada. He had escaped from Poland, as a young man. He was such a brain that he wrote his first physics book when he was 16! He was so good that he could hear us thumping away upstairs on the looms and he’d say, “You’re not doing it right!” He knew by the sound of it. I had a summer school with him for three weeks, which was fabulous. And he drew up my course of studies for the Gaelic College. He was going to come down the next year and get it started with me, but didn’t he pass away from a heart attack. But that’s the course of study I’ve been using and it’s wonderful. And it’s what the weaving instructors have been using at the College since.

And then the last Summer School I went to was in New York State, I went to the Thousand Islands School of Weaving. It was nice, I learned to do rug weaving.

Leah: So your book, then, is it focused on your story, or on the history?

Eveline: No, It’s focused on traditional weaving from Scotland, that came to Cape Breton. You see, when I was out at Banff, I decided I would go into Calgary one day, and go to the museums there. Because I knew a lot of people went West from Nova Scotia, you see, a lot of the people out there have roots in the Maritimes. And I saw some lovely coverlets there, and when I asked them where they came from, she said “Oh, the East! Nova Scotia, New Brunswick.” It was then that I realized that we had something here in Cape Breton that they don’t have anywhere else. And it was then I decided we need to do something about this, to preserve it.

Leah: In 2010 when the people at Cape Breton Heritage did the video with you, you said that exact same thing. Has there been anything in the last four years, that you’ve seen, that is working toward that goal?

Eveline: Yes, I think so, I’ve been talking to Catherine MacNutt. I’m giving all my old things to the Beaton Institute, with the stipulation that they can be used as teaching materials by the Gaelic College and by the Cape Breton School of Crafts. Cape Breton has a very unique heritage, the weaving is preserved in the old homes. Yet, what’s going to happen with all these people going to Alberta, I don’t know.

Leah: In your video with Heritage CB, you said you feel very strongly that the families should keep the weaving pieces in the families, in the homes. You didn’t want to ask to have a coverlet, for example.

Eveline: Yes, I think that the families should treasure them as long as they can. With the younger people, they don’t have the same interest in them because they don’t know, what all went into the weavings.

Leah: So you collaborated with Dr. Dan MacInnes on this book. He is a professor at St. FX, in Sociology. So why was it important to you to collaborate with him? What did he bring to the project?

Eveline: Well, one time Emily, my daughter was home, and I had this big pile of papers and photographs, and I said, “How am I ever going to turn this into a book?” “Oh,” she said, “I’ve got a friend who will help you, I know he will, he’s interested in history.” And that was Dan. He is a very good friend of Emily and Angus, and he said yes he would, and he came down and had a look at what I had and said it was worth doing. If he didn’t do it, I don’t think I would ever have a book!

Margie: So how many years has this book been in the works?

Eveline: When I came back from Banff in the 70s, that’s when I realized that something needed to be done. It was easy for me, because everywhere I went the women brought their weaving to show me, and I would take pictures. The houses were full of the weaving then! And I don’t know where it’s all gone. I remember I went in to see the weaving one time at this one home… I went in one Saturday morning, and didn’t they have three or four coverlets spread out over the couch! So you see every time we lose an old home, we lose our heritage, our woven heritage.

Leah: Hopefully things like your book, and the College, will work toward that preservation.

Eveline: I would like to see a Textile Heritage Center at the College, so that people can come and learn! I had a letter once from a woman in the Isle of Lewis, who wanted to come and learn here, because they’ve lost the pattern there, they’re gone. You see, when they started to weave Harris Tweed, it became a big industry, and they used semi-mechanized looms, you know they’re much faster. They got rid of the old wooden looms, and the women stopped weaving the coverlets. Now, over here, it survived, because we were isolated, and every community was its own little Celtic center. The people used to meet in the houses at night, and tell stories in Gaelic, and sing, and step dance. That was the Ceilidh. They might meet in the Halls, too.

Margie: That’s really interesting about Harris tweed, because it’s so popular there now. To think if they could incorporate some of the traditional ways in their modern product, would be so nice. I didn’t know that history about it, it’s really interesting.

Leah: The last question that I wanted to ask is a bit different, it’s about kitchens! The reason why is that the name of the festival is of course is Kitchen Fest. I want to ask every person I talk to about kitchens, and why they are so important in Cape Breton culture.

Eveline: Well in Cape Breton culture the kitchen was the main room in the house. Not only for cooking and eating, but that was the place they had their ceilidhs, most often! The reason is that was the only place that was warm enough. It was the gathering-place.

Leah: A lot of houses would have a sitting room, but was it used much?

Eveline: Well as my mother said, it was used when the minister came. That’s about it! Yes, most people had a parlour – that was the name of it. They would open it up when there was a special guest.

Leah: Bev Brett was saying that she had memories of a couple on the North Shore that she knew, and their kitchen had a little daybed in it. Was that pretty common?

Eveline: Yes. But they weren’t very comfortable for sleeping on! It was made of wood, and curved up at the end. I can’t imagine lying on it! They’d put a blanket on it, very often a woven coverlet. One old coverlet I have is in tatters on one side, because it was on the daybed!

At that point, Eveline took out a suitcase full of old pieces of weaving that she is bringing to the Beaton Institute to be preserved. She showed them to us and told us the history of each piece. If you’re interested in learning more about Cape Breton’s textile and craft history, be sure to come out to meet Eveline when she launches her book on July 3rd at the Gaelic College!


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