Philadelphia Guild of Handweavers hosts annual ‘Celebration of Fibers’ exhibit through Saturday

Textiles used to be so closely associated with Manayunk that it was called “the Manchester of America” after the British industrial center. The great power looms that served as the fabric of the neighborhood have since gone silent, but a small building on Main Street carries on even older textile traditions and is applying them in a most modern fashion.

This week the Philadelphia Guild of Handweavers is hosting its annual “Celebration of Fibers,” an exhibition of 54 pieces by 29 textile artists open to the public.

Historic fiber of the neighborhood

The Guild was founded in 1952 and has held the show every year since 1954, but the offerings have expanded from weaving to include felt, embroidery, knitting, dying, and even computer printed and stitched creations.

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“It feels good literally. Wool feels good. Linen feels good. It is a way of meditating,” said Kay Finney of the textile arts, standing by a stadium coat that she made.

The Guild has about 120 members. Some learned their art in classes offered in Manayunk and others, like Finney, who “grew up with sheep” outside Troy, N.Y. started elsewhere. “I told my sister that I wanted to learn to weave when I retired, but then I got a loom for Christmas. My sister said, ‘We don’t live that long’,” she recalled.

Charlotte Chatfield, who has a cardigan sweater showcased in the show, took an elective class in weaving at the University of Wisconsin, which inspired her to study further at the Philadelphia Textile Institute (now Philadelphia University), where she then worked for many years.

Now Chatfield does it just for fun. “It is a way to relax. If you have had a rough day, you can relax weaving and knitting,” she said.

Going beyond traditional items 

It is not only traditional coats, sweaters, and mittens in the show. A piece called “Fabric Knives” by Wendy Anderson features three blades piercing the air. “Emergence” by Faith Varrone mimics a skate fish giving birth to its live young.

Elsewhere on display are jewelry and pots, but everything is made by felting or weaving or other hand crafted textile arts. Some are made by fancy twill and some by networked twill—a kind of fancy twill—and in the case of Eva Stossel’s award winning “Echo Weave Scarf in Pastel Colors” very fancy twill made on a 16-shaft loom.

What is twill? “Over two and under two,” explained Finney, “just like blue jeans.” And a 16-shaft loom? “Shafts hold heddles. Your basic barn loom has two shafts,” she said pointing to a specimen in the loom room. And heddles? You can look it up in the Guild library or take a class.

The exhibition runs through Saturday, but classes and workshops are held all year. The Guild will remain and with it Manyunk will continue to have its textiles. Russ Fawley of Wilde Yarns, the former factory next door, gave them the building for a dollar and when the factory is eventually converted to apartments, Finney and Chatfield look forward to some new members.

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