Crafts: How a Sheffield guild is keeping alive traditional skills of spinning, weaving and dying

From the city of makers, comes the Hallamshire Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers. Creative, resourceful and managing to defy Sleeping Beauty.

Wednesday, 6th April 2022, 8:10 am

Forget scary tales of touching spindles, this guild keeps on turning and is celebrating its 70th anniversary, continuing to bring people together and celebrate traditional crafts.

The guild members meet monthly at Jordanthorpe to hear speakers, share skills, show their work and spend time on their crafts.

“We enjoy sharing,” says chairwoman Sara Clayton. “We don’t give on-going tuition but can help with problem solving and getting you started.”

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Guild chairwoman Sara Clayton

There are more than 60 members from Sheffield, North Derbyshire, South and West Yorkshire in the guild. They also take their spinning wheels and weaving looms out to events in the community.

Now they are preparing to celebrate their anniversary with an open day on April 10, from noon–3pm at the Batemoor and Jordanthorpe Community Centre in Dyche Lane.

There will be examples of work on display, demonstrations of craft skills and simple activities to try. Members will be on hand to show and tell.

There’s also a book called the Hallamshire and District Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers - 70 years and still going strong.

Members were invited to create a small panel inspired by stained glass using one or more of our crafts. These were then sewn together to make this banner.

In it, members say why they joined and what they get out of it. They cover a range of skills from beginners to semi professional.

Sara, aged 75, is enthusiastic about the guild’s work. A retired librarian who lives in Intake. she enjoys spinning animal and vegetable fibres, but has tried the other crafts.

“I’ve done some dying and a little unskilled weaving. One set of equipment is enough for most people,” she explains.

The skills are intriguing, as Sara says. “You can watch someone and think that looks like fun, I’ll try that even if you don’t take it up in depth.

Dog hair toy by Rachel Rodham

“One of the activities is sharing skills, where very often we have a specific topic for the day, have a talk and practical session with a guest demonstrator.”

Trends ebb and flow, as Sara notes. “Over the years, the numbers in each craft have varied as one became trendy or one group developed particular interests. At the moment, we are fairly well split.”

Members do not dye at the current meeting place due to the materials needed. “A lot of the process includes the use of chemicals and this is a community centre where there is a cafe so dying tends to be done at home. If you use synthetic dyes, it can be unpleasant.”

So they use their resources, green resources. “We grow our own dye plants or go out and collect them in the garden or the wild,” says Sara.

Knitted bag using 17th Century pattern from archaeological dig by Sara Clayton.

“We also have a link with the Meersbrook walled garden which has a dying day with plants grown there and we do dying in barns, which is more environmentally friendly.”

Sara is proud of the talented members. “Some are involved in the Sheffield Open Studios project on a semi-professional basis and we have an annual challenge.”

It has led to impressive pieces of work. “One year we asked people to produce something inspired by stained glass - all the entries were put together and it made a banner of six feet by three feet.”

Member Monica Ward, a tapestry worker, has displayed in national exhibitions and the guild is affiliated to the national association which has 80 member groups. It runs shows which regularly features work by Hallamshire members.

So how did lockdown affect the guild?

“When it was announced, we thought that was it,” says Sara. “Everyone was sorting out their personal matters, but we started using Zoom as a social thing and decided to keep in touch to show what we were doing.

Dyeing at Meersbrook walled garden is Leonie Souster.

“That was done in lieu of monthly meetings but we also phoned members to make sure they were well. There is a social element and caring for one another, encouraging them to carry on doing some work at home.”

They didn’t need much encouraging. “We all have what we call a stash - resources we keep for making - and we decided to have a stash busting challenge so people were making blankets and bed throws.

“It also meant we got speakers who might not have travelled to us but could do Zoom, including one from Spain.

“The majority of our members are older, but we have a couple of teenagers and people in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Once you get a couple from those age groups, they tend to attract more who like the social side.”

Sara says the guild is embedded in the area’s culture. “The textile heritage of Yorkshire is part of the county’s lifeblood. We try and keep in contact with local activities and organisations and source local supplies.

“Heeley City Farm, Whirlow Hall Farm, Graves Park. We have spun and used fibres from these places and from the alpacas at Ringinglow. I’ve spun sheep’s wool from Heeley City Farm and sometimes they like us to do an open day.”

Reaching the 70th anniversary is a cause for celebration. “We started just after World War Two and there is a note from the first guild journal which says ‘a small band of five persons’ were joined by spinners and in four months there were 29 members, so a guild was formed.”

The first meeting place was a pre-nursing centre in the city centre, which has since been demolished. The guild moved to what was Granville College on Granville Road, Norfolk Park, and then onto the former Rowlinson School in Jordanthorpe.

Now they are in the community centre and continue to be in demand. “We are often asked to attend open days at Bishop’s House and will be at Revolution House in Chesterfield in July.

“We’ve been at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the Norton Show and libraries. The aim is to spread the word and show that it is quite safe to touch the spinning wheel, you won’t fall asleep for 100 years.”

Oh yes, Sleeping Beauty has a lot to answer for. The folktale begins with a princess whose parents are told by a wicked fairy that their daughter will die when she pricks her finger on a particular item. In Perrault's and the Grimm Brothers' versions, the item is a spindle.

Once Disney got hold of it, the spinning wheel got a reputation. “That is still a thing,” says Sara.

“It’s a fairytale, a traditional story which for many young children will be their only connection to us.”

She is looking forward to dispelling the myth at the open day. “We’ll be ready to show what we do and talk about it, what the guild is and how we work.

“Some of the display will be historical and current members will be spinning and weaving.

“We hope to have a number of simple activities for younger people to join, card weaving, stick weaving and maybe some stick spinning.

“We’ll have quite a fun challenge - the fibre challenge, where 15 to 20 small boxes contain fibres such as cotton, alpaca, wool and nylon. People are invited to pull out a piece and identify it.”

So go and help celebrate a yarn which shows no sign of ending. Admission to the open day is free. For more information visit the guild’s website https://hallamshirewsd.org.uk/

Microwave dyeing by Brenda White
Warp-faced woven rug by Sarah Williams
Daffodil dyeing by Margot Dalton
Weaving based on Icelandic waterfall by Gilly Renshaw
Woven chair seats by Leonie Souster
Graves Park alpaca shawl by Marie Johnson