History of the guild

This article was written by Sheila Williams and first printed in our newsletter October 2005.

Lilian has asked me to tell you how our Guild came into being, so here goes.

I see that in 1988 Margaret Andrews described me as “press ganger in chief’ – for the washing-up, so who better to ask!

The idea sprang from the Spinning and Weaving class in Greyfriars attic tended by Val Barnes a loveable lady. Val’s class was in the throes of a renaissance, with a number of new members eager to learn all we could about ancient crafts.

Those of us who were able joined the Dorset Guild and anything we learned there we passed on to the rest of the class. The Guild was full to bursting and we considered we had a nucleus for one closer to home. We reckoned the area between Salisbury and Bournemouth could be our catchment area.

I attended a weekend workshop at Urchfont tutored by Mike Halsey (incidentally a one-time pupil of Doreen’s), but it was the other workshop that gave me an idea. It was taken by Tim Searcey, a leading member of ‘The National Association of Guilds’ (TNAG), and it looked such fun. His pupils were doing off-loom weaving. They were surrounded by piles of yarns, rags and bits and pieces and producing some weird and wonderful creations. I asked him if he would be prepared to come to our house in Damerham, for a weekend, and do the same for us. He agreed to come in the autumn of 1979. It was probably half-term, as he was a teacher. About a dozen of us took part. He brought bundles of stuff and a head-full of ideas and we had a great time – a playgroup for grown-ups.

Gill Coveney says she can’t remember what she actually produced but she does remember a persistent refrain (mine) throughout the two days ­”What we need is a secretary then we could be in business,” and bless her, she rose to the challenge, Sheila Harley agreed to be chairman, and Ted , my husband offered to be treasurer. We were ready.

On 14th November 1979, we convened a meeting at Greyfriars to work out a strategy. There were 8 of us, Sheila Harley, Anne Fordham, Margaret Andrews, Val Barnes, Gill Coveney, Tony Williams, Ted and me. We decided on the name, a constitution based on that of Dorset, and to be affiliated to TNAG. Ted roughed out our probable expenses for a year, and we fixed subs accordingly, at £2.50, visitors 50p.

To keep expenses to the minimum we didn’t use commercial advertising but wrote to local Community Centres, Community magazines and put cards in post offices, craft shops and anywhere else we could think of. Also for the same reason we planned mainly home-grown speakers to start with. Dorset Guild were very helpful and gave us a donation towards setting-up costs. Some Dorset members joined us, most notable Mollie Richmond.

The opening meeting of the New Forest Guild was on 19th January 1980, in the Lecture Room at Greyfriars, (opposite the Canteen). Mrs Murray, President of Dorset Guild gave a talk on “Crafts Around the World”, with slides.

The response to our low-key advertising was astonishing. The room was packed, overflowing on to the stairs. A fair number of those enrolled on the spot. It was exciting, encouraging and a bit scary, we were launched!

The new committee devised a programme for the next few months. I was volunteered for the February slot, showing and talking about rugs I’d woven and the ups and downs of vegetable dying. At that meeting Pat (Meaden) made her first appearance. There were talks by Mollie Richmond of Dorset Guild, Tony talked about silk weaving, there was a skills day and a free-weaving day, and an outing to Darlington, where we saw the Elizabeth Peacock banners in the school and visited the mill. The first newsletter appeared in August, Margaret produced that. The eight on the steering committee were joined by Maureen and one other, Jill Bide before the year was out.

In 1981 Doreen came and gave us a talk, covering materials, design and fashion. She became a member on the spot. Other notable speakers were Roy Russell of Russell Dyes and Hilary Chetwynd of Winchester College of Art on colour and design.

The one remembered with most affection is Mr. Dixon Wright. He taught us a lot. He demonstrated the case for washing fleece first, not spinning in the grease, spinning cat hair by blending with wool (or one ends up with felt). I still have his pattern for banana socks, One size fits all, super inside wellies or as bed socks.

Another memory of 1981, is of an inkle-loom making workshop at the home of Les and Sue Edwards.

Members have been so generous.

An event in 1981 which took a lot of planning was a Guild Exhibition in Salisbury Guildhall. We invited a number of craftspeople to have stalls and exhibited our own work. It cost a lot to hire, but we made a very helpful profit on the day. Takings put us on a much healthier financial position and we were able to take risks with more confidence.

It is now 26 years since all that began. Four of those eight original committee members have died, Margaret, Val, Tony and Ted have all died, sorely missed and Gill, Anne, and Sheila Harley have moved away. They all contributed so much, but I know that they gained much as well – new skills, new friends and the pleasure of giving pleasure to others. It is good to see the same spirit is still pervading. Looking back, I realise that some of my best friends have come to me via this Guild, and I imagine that the same could be said by many of us.