Gather is absolutely thrilled to be featuring patterns from Megan Samms, a weaver, regenerative farmer and natural dyer in Katalisk Sipu (Cordroy Valley, Newfoundland). Through her business Live Textiles, Megan produces handwoven cloth as well as weaving and knitting drafts. Her expertise and commitment to raising the technical bar for handweaving in Canada has made her a juried member of the Newfoundland Craft Council and a provincial representative in the Guild of Canadian Weavers.
We chatted with Megan about the patterns she created for Gather, how her weaving practice connects to her L’nu (Mi’kmaw) territory and traditions, and her excitement for the Artist in Residence program she is launching on her farm.
Gather: Can you tell me about your weaving practice?
Megan: [laughing] You want me to go all the way back to the beginning?
I learned to spin yarn from my godfather when I was under ten, maybe seven or eight years old. He owns the old wool mill that his father ran (he opened it as a museum). Then when I was a teenager I learned from my mom and my godmother how to knit. And then I got gifted a loom from a family friend, so I figured I had a responsibility to use it.
I worked at that time in Treaty 8 territory, just near Slave Lake, on a wildfire lookout. I worked there for 11 years. I had a lot of time and a huge garden there, so I grew or foraged dye plants. I taught myself to weave there from books. (As much as I use the internet as a tool I also can’t stand it. I’m the last person you’ll find googling “how do I do blah blah blah”.) I screwed up so bad so many times. Wasted tons of yarn! But there are some mistakes you only make once.
After three or four years of weaving on my own I did studio time at the Kootenay School of Arts. I sat in on weaving classes and worked in the studio. The teacher was very generous--Coby Vandergaast--and she helped me a lot. I was working on a 10-shaft loom and trying to figure out how to do, like, triple weave! And she helped me figure that out, which really clicked my understanding of how looms worked.
Now I’m at home in Newfoundland in my traditional territory, we have a farm here and Live Textiles continues. But traditionally too, a lot of people in my family were knitters, weavers, spinners... A lot of the women here on the north side of the river here I live on were known as basket weavers and then as loom weavers later (I’m Mi’kmaw, this is a Mi’kmaw area). At some point they were also known for natural dyes and weaving, witching and medicine, but a lot of that has been lost for obvious reasons!
I didn’t know that until two or three years ago. I’d been dyeing and weaving and working in the dye world for years when I learned that. My sister worked for the historical society last year or the year before and we working together on digging up that information. In the well-known book Keep Me Warm One Night my community is mentioned--we’re the only place in Newfoundland mentioned in the book. I just this winter came into possession of my great-great-grandmother’s loom, which is over a hundred years old.
Gather: That’s amazing. Do you feel like something was drawing you to weaving and dyeing, even though you weren’t aware of that connection?
Megan: Oh yeah, absolutely. It feels like it’s ancestral talk. When I started weaving and dyeing it all clicked pretty quick.
Gather: And you keep a dye garden and a farm as well? I see on your site that you keep bees and chickens now?
Megan: I kept bees and chickens at the fire tower as well. This is my tenth year keeping bees! We sell cut flowers, herbs, produce, inside and out body care, duck eggs, and all my dye work comes from the farm.
Gather: There are a few elements in the patterns that you’ve done for Gather that feel like they fit right into your overall practice, like the use of hemp and the really sparing use of colour. Can you talk about why you use colour so carefully?
Megan: [laughing] Well that’s the political part! You put so much labour into dyeing. It’s not just at the dye pot. Really, the colour I put onto fibre begins right now. We’ve been seeding since February, and our indigo and dyer’s chamomile are a few inches tall now. The reason I use dyed yarn so sparingly is because as soon as you introduce dye into textiles the labour goes through the roof! It’s so taken for granted now. Even in the natural dye world… we see a lot of dyers who want and entire sweater, or blanket, or woven piece dyed and it’s so labour intensive. It takes a lot of water. It’s a months-long process.
I use it sparingly because it’s so precious. It’s humble, because it’s just yarn, but it’s a precious thing. It took months to get to where it is. So that’s part of the reason I use dyed yarn so sparingly.
I don’t buy dyes or extracts or anything. I did when I was first learning, but now I don’t at all. All my dyes are seasonal, based on what’s growing. I embrace what is available to me. And respect it and hold it in the same high regard as the best French madder. I feel like the dyes I can achieve here and the colours I can achieve here are just as good.
Gather: And how does hemp fit into those values?
Megan: I love hemp. Some hemp is like burlap, but it can be as soft as cotton. It covers all the bases. The really fine 2/16 in the weft for those patterns for Gather is glossy and shiny.
Hemp used to be grown across Canada widely. There were linen mills, and way more wool mills, and a few cotton mills in Ontario, and there were hemp mills all over the place. It can be manufactured kind of similarly to linen. Hemp fabric went underground when cannabis became criminalized. You couldn’t grow hemp because it’s so hard to tell cannabis plants from hemp plants.
Hemp is long lasting, it’s cooling, it dries quickly. It’s anti-fungal, so it won’t get mouldy on you. And it’s as strong or stronger than linen. All of the mariner ropes and sails for long term overseas travel were made from hemp originally. It’s such a wonderful fabric. It wears really well, just like linen. It becomes better with age, with similar drape and handle. And it’s a really great material to dye. It’s just as thirsty as linen so it really sucks the dye up.
Gather: Is it less water-intensive than cotton?
Megan: I haven’t processed hemp myself, but as far as I know yes it is. It’s far less water-intensive in the field, and even in the processing. With hemp you can basically put it in the ground and just walk away.
Textile hemp can grow 12 feet tall. The best textile linen only grows four feet tall. Think of the strength of the fibres holding up a 12-foot plant. It’s amazing tensile strength. There’s only so much arable land on the planet. If a lot of that arable land is being taken up with cotton, which is more water-intensive and doesn’t produce as strong fibres, then there’s less place for food production. If a lot of those fields were back-planted with hemp (or even allowed to re-naturalize) it would be a good thing for the planet.
Gather: I looked around for sources on the demi-damask structure you’re using in your patterns, and I couldn’t find anything. Can you tell me about why you chose this structure?
Megan: Demi damask or half damask is a structure I don’t know a ton about either, because it’s not that popular. Damask is super common but half damask not as much. I tend towards really old weaving books, like Edward Worst’s books. They were small print runs, and they’re just really basic drafts, but there are a lot of them. I reference his books quite a bit. His book and one by Oscar Bériau are the only places I’ve found half damask. I love those old patterns and those old techniques… those old forgotten structures and drafts.
Gather: I know you’re involved in the Guild of Canadian Weavers and have connections to lots of parts of the Canadian weaving scene… what do you see happening in Canadian weaving these days that you’re really excited about?
Megan: There is a huge uptick in interest in weaving! I’m sure you see it there, too. Like, massive! GCW membership has grown hugely in the past few years, as well as people wanting to volunteer. I love to see that!
And I love that people are interested in getting really into the technical aspects. One of the reasons the GCW was started back in the 40s was to raise the technical bar of handweaving in Canada. In places like Scandinavia, you can become a Red Seal weaver, but in North America options have been limited beyond going to art school to explore more fine art, conceptual weaving. The founders of the GCW developed a Master Weaving program to raise the technical bar. I’ve always been super excited about this program. It’s been in place since the 1940s to be by correspondence and self-paced… it was made before Covid but it’s perfect for this time. There are multiple levels, and we’re working on adding a mentorship program. I think it’s excellent--the kind of parameters you have to work within and the techniques you have to display are so high calibre.
I love that hand weaving as a craft and as a skill is being taken so seriously. Not just as a hobby that you can do with some yarn you found, but something that has knowledge about the importance of sett and balance and what structures are best for what use… that’s what people are inquiring about through the Guild. People want to do this very very well and start creating heirloom pieces again instead of quick-consumption cloth.
Gather: And what’s coming up for you personally that you’re excited to share?
Megan: We organize quarterly makers and gardeners markets here in the valley, and we have one of those coming up in May. There are farms that vend there and other craftspeople, soap makers, we’ve got a seed swap at this one because it’s spring… it’s a very local event obviously, but I get really jazzed about them.
The next big thing is our artist in residency program. I’ve been dreaming about this program for a long time. It has been floating around in the back of my head for years. We just built our house here last spring, and now it’s time for the next step! The lumber is coming off the mill this weekend to build a loom shed. It will be ready by the end of the summer and will have two floors, a living floor and some studio space. We’ll be inviting an artist to come in August 2022. We’ll be feeding them off the farm and keeping them in the loom shed. They’re welcome to come and do research, or build a body of work, or work on an existing body of work. Pretty much whatever they’re interested in doing, we’re excited about. At the end of the residency, they’ll have two opportunities to show their work. One is here in the valley in the fall. And then in the following spring they’ll be able to move their work over to St John’s to the Newfoundland Craft Council to show. I’m so excited for it!
To learn more about the Artist in Residence Program, Megan’s handweaving, and her research into fibre production and natural dyeing, follow her on instagram @livetextiles or visit her Live Textiles site!