by Matt Paulson
photography by Gloria Diaz
“The variety of programs that we have is stimulating,” states Virginia Eiermann before wondering out loud: “What did I glue on me?”
On the third Friday of each month, the multi-purpose room at the East San Gabriel Valley Church is spinning mad. Upon entering, anticipation saturates the air. Marie Villareal stands at the front table, chatting with the two women manning the door. “And you don’t need a doctor’s excuse if you’re over 70,” she says to one of the gatekeepers, who was pondering getting out of recently-acquired jury duty. Marge D’Elia reveals herself. “We’re late already, but we’re going to start soon,” she says with anxious excitement.
Looking around the room, it is filled mainly with women, although there are four men sprinkled about. Only one will actually participate. All gather to their respective places; Alice Schmidt and Marge sit at the front table, and a few others situate in a V-shape before the main table, while the rest are perched at round tables in the back. A noise akin to a gunshot rings out.
“Ooh, that’s a nasty sound,” Marge says, as she bangs her gavel at 9:45 a.m., to signal the start of the business meeting that kicks off every event.
It has begun. But everything did not actually start at 9:45 a.m. this morning. It all started in July of 1955. Fifteen handweavers, disconcerted with the lack of interest and organization in the realm of handweaving, guided by an unrelenting thirst for their craft, founded the Bobbinwinders guild, an odd conclave dedicated to bringing “together those interested in handweaving throughout the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys for the purpose of exchanging ideas and developing a finer understanding and appreciation of the techniques and beauty of handweaving,” according to the purpose stated on the Web site. They were undaunted by convention. They were unintimidated by the naysayers. They heard proclamations like “It will never happen,” “You won’t make it,” and “Just give up” so often they became cliché. They would not be broken.
Their love forged on, and it created something better than the perfect art or craft. “Well, let’s see what words I can find,” Marge deliberately articulates as she pauses to search for her chosen words when asked to describe the group. This was not the first nor would it be the last time she would stop and browse her vocabulary. “It’s a gathering together with interest and experience in handweaving and the production of textiles. It’s a very congenial group. There are extraordinary people … artists that have been weaving for 1,000 years it seems like,” says Marge, former department manager of Mathematics at Caltech, in jest as she describes the make-up of the guild. She says that the weavers extraordinaire span the age gap of long-time retired, newly retired, and about-to-be retired. “A small handful are approaching advanced age. You know, like 80. There are, I think, some members that have been there from the beginning. Is that possible? Maybe there’s not too many of those. People stay with it until they are incapacitated.”
But, on this day, the business meeting must continue. After reporting to the members, Marge shifts the meeting over to Janice Martens, corresponding secretary. The first order of business is a “Thank you” note to Kathleen Waln for the recent Riverside convention, where for six days, 250 people, nearly 30 vendors and 30 teachers met to immerse themselves into the realm of handweaving, never to come up for air until their collective thirst for handweaving was satiated, an event that was voted to become their permanent convention.
Then it is the hospitality chair’s turn to report. Margo Ricard jumps up to the front of class, forgetting her notes at the back of the room. While attempting to remember the names of the guests she was supposed to introduce, she struggles. “Go get your notes,” Martens chuckles as Margo still tries to recall her guests’ handles. She then begins spouting news about the hospitality for the silent auction in May. They will have “tea sandwiches, sliced fruit, deviled eggs, good things that are kind of fun to eat,” Margo proclaims.
Shelby Smarte, a new member from Riverside, is then introduced as a whisper echoes from the hushed crowd, “That’s a long way.”
“Let’s forget about old business,” Marge says as she hastens to move the meeting along. There are arts and crafts to be done. And the nominating committee is in need of a nomination. Lillian Sergio is the honorable nominee. “Second?” Twice, simultaneously, by two Bobbinwinders sitting next to each other as they throw coy elbows between each other. There is a resounding vote of “Yay” for Lillian. “Anyone oppose?” Marge asks out of respect for the parliamentary procedure to which the group so loosely adheres. “Better not,” retorts Martens not-so-under her breath with a small laugh to soften the blow.
Renowned expert Elizabeth Smithwa, who “traveled a good distance” from Mission Viejo is the master and teacher of this week’s projects. “Hopefully, we’ll have a good time,” Smithwa says sheepishly.
For the Bobbinwinders, membership is not simply handed to anyone. This exclusive group weeds out the stragglers by posing an annual membership fee of $15. The group also boasts a membership directory, articulately referred to as “my handy dandy book” by Marge, which contains the group’s by-laws, as well as the makeup of the elected officers. Marge’s “handy dandy book,” however, is not regarded lightly. Upon requesting a copy from membership chair Alice Schmidt, it is discovered that the membership directory is only given to members; therefore, it is restricted to the press. “No, I’m sorry, we don’t give them out,” says Schmidt as she momentarily sheds the sunny demeanor shared by all the Bobbinwinders. The true secrets of the Bobbinwinders shall remain forever darkened by the shroud of the exclusive members-only label, unless, of course they pay their $15 and show up at the once-a-month meetings, where an additional $5 is collected each time.
The guild has a president, a historian, who “does a marvelous job. She actually photographs all the hand-done items for show and tell,” Marge says. In addition, there is a hospitality chair, who plans the meal to be served at the monthly meeting. “We have lunch. It’s fantastic,” Marge says, beaming with pride. There is also a list of committee chairs, under whom there is seldom actually a committee: publicity, membership, parliament, program, and ways and means. “The chair can enlist help whenever he or she needs it,” Marge says.
With the direction of Smithwa, the Bobbinwinders get started, but no one really seems to care what they’re making. It’s not handweaving today, but that doesn’t matter to them.
“I know I’m supposed to wait for directions, but I never wait for directions. I’m terrible at waiting for directions, especially when it looks like fun,” says Wendy Macdonald, as she begins her creation. Macdonald says that she has had this contempt for waiting for instruction since kindergarten. “You were a rebel from the beginning,” says Shelby, the new member, before continuing. “As my friend says, ‘I’m older than plastic. I can do anything I want.” With the very mention of kindergarten, Jeanette Kelly, who is sitting next to Macdonald, launches into a rant about her hatred for her kindergarten experience. “And they wouldn’t teach me to read. Excuse me? Kindergarten was a disaster.”
Now an educator herself, Kelly has grown from a disgruntled kindergartner into a full-fledged voice on teaching children. Macdonald recalls teaching part-time at a school by which Kelly was employed. “And [Kelly] stomped up to the principal and said ‘Why isn’t she working full time?’” “Well, they were stupid,” Kelly reminisces. “They didn’t get it.”
Kelly’s one lesson to those who wish to become educators? “Don’t name the mice you’re going to feed to the snake.”
Upon discovering who the person was standing over the table, feverishly scribbling down notes, Kelly lightly warns her table: “Well, you guys, we need to start talking about art and weaving rather than how much I hated kindergarten.” Please don’t.
“Are you playing Madame Le Perfectionist?” is being asked of Marge at her table a few feet away. The question was raised by Iona, a new member who declares that she does not have a last name. Like Cher? “I still have my original face,” Iona says. “That wasn’t nice. I’m sorry, Cher.”
Across the room, Martens discloses her relationship to those around her. “I’m these monsters’ teacher.” The self-proclaimed “fun table” is in full swing. Virginia Eiermann – the mystery self-gluer – and Jeanette Stern, the two happy seconders from the nomination committee nomination, are two integral parts in making this the arguable fun table. They are engaged in an exchange about a “Thank you, friend” stamp. Although it is a nice stamp, it is expensive, but this means one can use it over and over again, they argue. “Well, how many friends can you thank?” Stern asks. “Well, how many friends do you have?” Martens retorts. “I don’t know how many of my friends do anything for me,” Virginia throws back instantaneously.
“I’m so glad I came today instead of staying home,” Virginia says. “Were you contemplating staying home, Virginia?” Stern fires back. “I’m always contemplating staying home. I’m too old to be out running around, you know,” Virginia returns with her consistently speedy timing. These exchanges take place with a timing so perfect and breadth so thick that Lucy and Ethel would blush with jealousy.
One of the three men in the room not participating is rubbing Stern’s back. Stern and her husband, Francis Brugere, were married in 1988, and Bruce, as he is affectionately known to the Bobbinwinders, has been coming ever since. “I can’t figure out how many years that is,” Bruce shrugs, shifting his attention to his wife. “If you wanted a cup of tea while you’re working, I’ll get you one.” “You’re sweet,” Stern replies.
“I did it again,” Virginia whispers as she covers her mouth. While working, she has been pounding on the table, much to the chagrin of Schmidt, or so Virginia thinks. “I was admiring it. I like you to pound on the table,” Schmidt replies. “Is she picking on you?” Martens chimes in to Virginia.
Despite every exchange spouted by the women—and Bruce—they state that they are still here for a reason: “Perpetuating weaving so it doesn’t become a dying art,” Stern states sternly. “It is not a dying art,” Martens fires back. But, although the woman may say it is, this is clearly not the true spirit behind the Bobbinwinders; in fact, handweaving is far down the list. This has now become absolutely clear.
Back across the room at the kindergarten-hating table, they have digressed—or progressed—away from handweaving and back into casual conversation.
“You would have loved her in a bustle,” Macdonald chuckles. Kathleen Waln, the recipient of this meeting’s “Thank you” note and the Bobbinwinder responsible for the convention, has been deemed “our expert in costumes and theater,” Macdonald says.
Recently, the Bobbinwinders witnessed a demonstration of historical costumes, led by Waln and Kim Campos, the lone male participant at today’s Bobbinwinders meeting. Campos, who dons a pony tail and long earrings, was wearing a Louis XIV wig. “He was really regal and a little scary,” Macdonald says. “It was a day of fun if we do say so ourselves.”
Once again, glancing back across the room, the fun table continues to … well … have fun. “We’ll come out laughing every time, and someone will stop us and say, ‘What are you always laughing about?’” Virginia beams. “Might as well laugh,” Stern replies.
Kelly smiles: “Imagine grown ups getting to play.” “We play all the time,” Macdonald quips. Kelly replies: “We don’t want to hide this fun we’re having. Fun is kind of like a requirement, and learning new things, exploring new things, not like kindergarten.”
Oh, yeah, at this meeting, they were making collages out of hand-weaving scraps, and no one knows what Virginia glued on herself.
The Fun Looms for Future Weavers
The craze of handweaving began with the dawn of civilization; it is “very, very old, like, beginning of civilization kind of old,” says Sandra Swarbrick, president of the board of directors of the Handweavers Guild of America, Inc., an international guild with members in Germany, England, New Zealand, Japan, Norway, France, Italy, Israel and many others.
“Handweaving has been around, like, forever,” Swarbrick says. Before the industrial revolution, everything was made by hand. The art developed as civilization developed. However, “the industrial revolution killed (handweaving),” Swarbrick says. But with the dawning of the arts and crafts movement started by William Morris and John Ruskin of 1880s Britain, handweaving enjoyed resurgence; and in the 1900s, the guild system began forming. The Weavers’ Guild of Boston, the first American handweaving guild was conceived in May of 1922 when Ellen Webster, and Francis Stewart Kershaw, wife of the director of the Museum of Fine Arts, gathered 10 fellow handweaving enthusiasts around her Cambridge, Mass. tea table on a Saturday afternoon. From there, “the nature of the craft has evolved and continues to evolve,” Swarbrick says.
“Now, there are a lot of people who are doing handweaving and are pretty good at it,” Swarbrick continues. “There are younger people getting involved in the craft. I see it as growing. We get lots of new members through the Internet.”
As it grows, handweaving is continuously benefiting those who participate, especially the elderly.
“The research indicates that having a purpose in life has been found to be very important,” says J. Adam Milgram, executive director of the Stein Institute for Research on Aging at the University of California, San Diego. “If you have a hobby, it makes life meaningful.”