One more blog post about Custom Woolen Mills (and photos, photos, photos)

Posted by Sylvia Olsen on

Just one more...for now.

Saying goodbye...Sylvia, Maddy, Megan, Loralee, front of the bell

I lived for a month in a hundred year old bunkhouse—an old wagon that housed the men who ran a threshing mill that moved from farm to farm to complete the harvest in a previous life few of us remember. It was at least 200 yards from the bathroom (I had a little commode). I ate meals and showered in the family home, which is a displaced 19th century train station. If I wasn’t in the house when it was time to eat someone rang a huge iron bell to call me in—the food was fantastic.


The dye garden and hops on the porch

I was the first person to inhabit the artist’s studio—a new building on its own little bit of prairie that was itself a work of art. I fed the tiny wood stove and worked at the table or the comfortable chair while knitting visitors came to look at my work and ask questions about theirs.


Knitting talk

It felt like something between summer camp and a dream. At times I had to pinch myself to realize I was actually sloshing through the mud, in the rain, my hair wrapped in a towel heading to my bunk that was parked next to the old school bus, which was waiting for a reno so it could host the next visitor. As my daughter, Heather, asked, “Who does something like that?” My response was, “Only very privileged people and people with adaptable physical needs.” Perhaps that’s a definition of an artist—a person with the willingness and even the desire to disrupt her/his usual life cycles and creature comforts to pursue the act of creating. Is not the act of celebrating disruption, itself, the art of living?

Thankfully I'm a better knitter/designer than photographer but you get the picture

I had two creative goals; first to make woollen rope and second to knit a sphere. I wanted round. Not doily round. Tangerine orange round. I didn’t want to create a new garment. I do that all the time.

I did design and knit a sweater and shawl while I was there (I couldn't stop myself)

I wanted to push knitting to places it is not usually found. I thought a rug, a floor pillow, but mostly I had in my mind a poof. I remember my children rolling on my parents’ poof, a nondescript green vinyl cylinder. They scrambled to be the one who got to sit on it, loll over it, jump off it. By the time the grandchildren came along the straw stuffing was leaking out of the seams like an old scarecrow. I wanted a more interesting poof that my grandchildren would never forget. It would be big, firm, soft, and most importantly round. It was hard work and a crazy creative adventure.

But you have no choice but to be creative at the mill. The place itself is creative. It was put together by Fenn Rossighn and Bill Purvis-Smith in the 1970s when they rescued several smaller mills that were going out of business. Fenn still works everyday but has passed the creative direction and everyday decision making to Maddy, her daughter. After Bill passed away Maddy left her Phd studies and came home to face her own work of art in progress. One of Fenn’s other daughters, Loralee, is also employed at the mill, doing a lot of the heavy lifting.

Photos of naturally dyed yarn from Custom Woolen Mills

But these women don’t just feed wool into machinery. Under Maddy’s new direction they make felt, design natural dyes, create jewelry, design knitwear (get it designed maybe) and think non stop about ways to make wool-making a more earth friendly activity. Maddy’s philosophy is that humans are the most eco friendly source of energy so they will not be mechanizing the old machinery any time soon.

When they aren’t making wool they are making music.

My wringer washer was the envy of the party-goers

While I didn’t get to hear Fenn or Maddy perform, Ruth Purvis-Smith (an older daughter) brought her band to the wrap up party.


Maddie and Carly in their beautiful hand felted dresses made for dancing

All the workers scrubbed their stations. The batt table was cleared for the potluck—homemade buns, meat balls, cheesy dishes brought by the neighbours. They pushed the winders and bobbins out of the way and we had a mill concert. This is stuff you can’t make up. This is another world. A world we all want to live in. Custom Woolen Mills is one of Alberta’s treasures.

If you are ever north of Calgary find your way about 20 km east of Carstairs, near the Mennonite village of Linden to Custom Woolen Mills and experience your own creative adventure.

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