Jill Pyrz | Weaving their magic: Local guild’s annual sale looms large

Chicago
By Chicago 7 Min Read

Show time What:

Champaign-Urbana Spinners and Weavers Guild Show and Sale, featuring hand-spun yarns, fabrics, hats, gloves, scarves, artwork, holiday gifts, home decor and much more.

When:

3 to 8 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.

Where:

Hessel Park Church, 700 W. Kirby Ave., C.

Admission: Free.

Fast isn’t fast enough anymore. Now we need instant. Instant food, instant friends, even instant fashion.

“Fast fashion” is a relatively new phenomenon, known for high trendiness and low quality. Clothes tend to degrade after just a few washes.

But that’s OK — they’re so cheap you can just buy more. Never mind the cost to the overseas workers or to the environment — you can’t be caught wearing last week’s leopard print when everyone knows this week is zebra. Duh.

Not so fast for the Champaign-Urbana Spinners and Weavers Guild, a 70-year-old organization with 80 members, some of whom grow their own cocoons for silk, shear their own sheep for wool, even squish tiny cochineals for their natural red dye.

Longtime guild member Beth Engelbrecht-Wiggans has done it all. She learned to weave in her teens and hasn’t stopped since. Today, she can make nearly anything — including sofas, which she has done more than once with the help of husband Richard.

Guild members aren’t little old ladies who only know how to knit and bake cakes. Rather, they are genius mathematicians, anthropologists, cell biologists, librarians, nurses, software engineers and high school students, to name a few. Their backgrounds are as different as the items they make.

Engelbrecht-Wiggans and her husband studied mathematics at Cornell and Yale before moving to Champaign-Urbana, where they both worked at the University of Illinois while raising their two daughters. Along the way, Beth practiced and perfected her craft.

She’s quite good at teaching it too, which she often does at community events. The guild also hosts “play days,” where members share their skills and try out new ones.

If the play days aren’t your cup of tea, Engelbrecht-Wiggans points out that the guild also has “study groups where we get together and stitch and” — a word that rhymes but can’t be printed here.

Her sunroom bursts with potted plants the size of backyard trees and bags of sheep fleece waiting to be prepped for spinning into yarn. She uses the yarn to make anything from placemats to sweaters.

But she likes making socks the best.

“No two pairs are ever the same,” she says. “One of the really fun things is ‘seeing them in the wild,’ as they say — when you go out and you’re at the grocery store and you look down and you say ‘I made those socks.’”

Along with her coveted tea towels, Engelbrecht-Wiggans’ socks always sell fast at the annual Champaign-Urbana Spinners and Weavers Guild Show and Sale. This year’s event is set for 3 to 8 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at Hessel Park Church in Champaign.

The sale draws hundreds of people every year. In years past, lines wrapped around the church just to get in. It makes sense, though, when you see and feel the one-of-a-kind knitted and woven items.

“It’s not just a hat and mitten sale,” she says.

There are plenty of unexpected items at the sale, like silk bookmarks, intricate baskets, wool sculptures, jewelry and other woven artwork.

“One woman does weaving as they did in Viking times,” Engelbrecht-Wiggans says. “It’s amazing what these people come up with.”

A big part of the guild’s mission is to “promote and educate the community in the fiber arts,” which includes spinning, weaving, knitting, crocheting, felting, dyeing, tatting and basket-making. Some members are experts in one area and others can do it all — but anyone is welcome to join the guild.

“The idea that you have to be an expert to join is a big fallacy,” says guild member Dottie Wolgemuth. “It’s really about having a good time and helping each other advance in whatever way they want to advance.”

Several guild members will be at the show and sale to share their expertise and demonstrate their work.

Kiri Fagan-Ulmschneider is bringing one of her portable looms so attendees can “try weaving for themselves — with guidance,” she says.

Her favorite loom won’t be at the show — even when folded up, it’s still the size of a queen mattress. Though it did travel on the roof of her car from Massachusetts to Illinois a few years back.

Fagan-Ulmschneider had just completed a four-month immersion program at Vävstuga Weaving School in Shelburne Falls, Mass., when she decided she couldn’t leave without it.

“I’m the kind of person for looms — the bigger, the better,” she says. “We moved out of our master bedroom and the loom lives there now.”

Fagan-Ulmschneider is no stranger to challenging coursework. She holds a master’s degree in cell biology from Washington University in St. Louis. But she found her calling at Vävstuga.

“Going to Vävstuga pretty much changed my life. I fell in love with weaving while I was there,” she says. “It also gave me a very solid foundation on which to continue building my technical skills. It was the final piece I needed to have the ability to make any clothing or household textile I want, from any point in the process.”

But that’s not all she learned during her 15-week stay at the 19th-century farmhouse.

“In a world full of disposable fast fashion, I now see and understand, in a very direct way, what goes into making cloth,” she says. “I also feel connected to all the weavers who went before me, all over the world.”

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