Helen Howard Member Focus & March 2022 Newsletter

helen howard

Helen Howard Member Focus & March 2022 Newsletter

The March 2022 newsletter is available for download.

Our Member Focus this time is Helen Howard, and we had more material than we had space for in the newsletter. So here is the full version of the column! Enjoy!

helen howard

My introduction to the Weavers’ Guild was at Lydia Fohn Hansen’s home possibly in 1969. I think Hilda Savela and Benjie Adler were there. Benjie owned Fairbanks’ first bookstore. Hilda came from Eastern Europe and she used a curiously shaped spindle, and a long draw. Lydia, of course, is known for having taught some Home Economics students how to weave scarves using the underwool of the 1930’s Greenlandic musk oxen that were penned in the area now named Musk Ox Subdivision. Those animals, which were placed on Nunivak Island in 1936, fathered every musk ox now in Alaska.

It was Ann Lillian Schell who took me to the Weavers’ Guild meeting. We were working for the Musk Ox Project. Its purpose was to develop a village-based qiviut knitting industry and a domesticated musk ox. Ann (now known as Ann Lillian) had approached John J. Teal, Jr. about studying qiviut for a Master’s degree in Textiles at the University of Alaska. He had hired me in 1964 as a half-time secretary, at first at his own home, before office space was available. We soon moved into the 2nd floor Eielson Building as the last captured musk oxen were brought to the farm on Yankovich Road in 1965. The qiviut hand-knitting industry really did not begin until December 1968 when Ann Schell taught a workshop in Mekoryuk on Nunivak Island.

In 1968 I was in England where I learned to spin. I was asked to return to the Musk Ox Project, arriving in May 1969. Ann completed her Master’s degree. She soon moved to Barrow, and departed the Project, leaving me to continue the qiviut workshops, develop production and set up the Producers’ Cooperative. Ann and I both were taught knitting-design by Dorothy Reade and we used her graphic stitch notation method to write knitting patterns that became signature to individual villages.
John Teal was living in Seattle and Vermont, while he worked to start musk ox farms in Canada, Norway and possibly Greenland. The office moved upstairs to the 3rd floor Eielson Building, where I had the corner office with its wonderful unbroken view of the boreal forest across the flats to the Alaska Range – no Geist Road in those days! No MacDonald’s or school, just the late Otto Geist’s cabin with all his archaeological finds in the woods where the Bank now stands.

My textile background started age 11, when I was taught to knit by another ‘boarder’ at my Boarding School in Cornwall, England. My mother was a knitter, using the German method of holding the yarn left-handed whereas I use the English method.

My first qiviut knitting workshop was in Goodnews Bay, where I stayed with a Yup’ik family and was rather intimidated when asked to use an interpreter as I demonstrated how to follow a graphed knitting pattern. Later I conducted workshops in Marshall, St. Mary’s, Nightmute, Point Hope and other villages as well as back in Mekoryuk.


John Teal hoped that natural dyes might be collected and used in the villages. That was impracticable. Qiviut was totally new. Commercial spinners, Dorothy Reade and others made recommendations for its use. At one point some qiviut was commercially bleached and Ann created a wonderful “wedding dress” for a fashion show, using lacy white scarves knitted in Mekoryuk’s ‘harpoon’ pattern. An attractive Native student modeling it in a field of fireweed blossoms was a stunning sight. But bleaching qiviut deteriorates the delicate fiber and that was never done again.

After Ann had left for Barrow, a skillful Japanese weaver, Kyo Currier, joined the Musk Ox Project to dye some of the qiviut knits. Fran Reed followed Kyo, dyeing hats, scarves and nachaqs for the Project. I visited a spinning mill on the East Coast. Fran studied qiviut’s heat retention properties at another company. Both the idea of domesticating musk oxen and of using their qiviut were totally new ventures which meant inquiry and experimentation. [The word qiviut was established by John Teal and I introduced it to the Webster dictionary.]

Kyo Currier started a weaving class at the University. From Kyo I learned tapestry and wove a long hanging*. An elderly friend, Forbes Baker, gave me his grandmother’s antique wool wheel. It was perfect for me to spin fine qiviut. Later I got an Ashford, then a Majacraft. I was loaned a table loom and wove a square necked top. I wove the trim on a birch inkle loom my husband built me. Then I bought Gayle Hazen’s 4-Harness Leclerc which I loved and used for years.
Kyo’s and later Fran’s weaving classes were held in a large 3rd floor room in the Eielson Building. When the University took it for the accounting department, they moved the looms to a room above 3rd and Cushman Street. Space was at a premium, so soon the looms were moved again – this time out to Moose Creek. Not many weavers were eager to drive 25 miles out there in winter so the looms were stored and weaving stopped.

It was thanks to Penny Wakefield’s boundless enthusiasm and eagerness to teach that the University classes restarted and that the Weavers’ and Spinners’ Guild became such a vibrant group. There were weaving and spinning workshops with visiting teachers on more than an annual basis, and in 1989 we hosted a weaving conference, FiberAlaska, followed by a second FiberAlaska two years later in Anchorage. I wove a shadow weave dress* for it. Laurel Herbeck wove some wonderful pieces for her church. Marjorie Rees held spinning bees at her home and we dyed indigo there in a pot on her porch. Penny arranged with the University to allow students credit for weaving and gathered a huge yarn stash filling 2nd floor Lathrop Building on 2nd Avenue. I and others had a plethora of opportunities to learn techniques and new skills. We had a wonderful dye workshop with Michelle Whipplinger and I produced a pullover*, a vest and a hat from the dye samples I got from it.

When I retired in 1999 I started watercolor painting so my weaving interests were laid aside until recently when I wove a stole on a warp I had made in the 1980’s. The Guild has been important to my life and populated by my best friends. It challenged me and made me grow. Thankfully, I see the Guild taking off with a new lease of life thanks to the current Board.

Some of the classes I took, listed here, might give Guild members joy in recalling their own weaving and spinning history and the wonderful teachers we had here in Fairbanks such as Celia Quinn, Katie Meek, Pat Spark (felting), Lisa Popovics and of course, Penny Wakefield.

1986 May Peter Collingwood – Rugs and Tablet Weaving, Exploring Block Weaves
1987 November Jean Pierre Larochette – Aubusson Tapestry weaver from France
1988 August Robin Mayo – Hand-felting to make hats, Gail Mayo also
1988 FSAF Pat Hickman – Textile Sculpture
1989 FiberAlaska Penelope Drooker – Samplers You Can Use
1989 June Linda Rapp – Batik and Shibori
1990 June Michelle Whipplinger – Silk Warp Dyeing
1992 October 9-11 Nancy Arthur Hoskins – Coptic Tapestry
1993 October 4 Karen Selk – Silk Weaving