Arts & Life
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It isn’t too often a Free Press writer gets scooped by a grade-schooler, but that’s precisely what occurred a few months ago when a Balmoral Hall student penned a piece about Amina Haswell, the subject of today’s sweeping article, for her school newspaper.
Haswell is the founder of Prairie Breeze Folk Arts Studio, a throwback operation that turns out 32 varieties of handcrafted brooms, brushes and whisks, including one billed as a "rad" broom. (Don’t take that the wrong way; rather than meaning cool or awesome, in this case rad refers to the fact Haswell’s cleaning tool is just the right size for removing dust and cobwebs that build up between the cast iron fins of a hot water radiator, or rad.)
After Haswell went up and down her street this past May, knocking on doors and leaving free brooms behind for moms and moms-to-be ahead of Mother’s Day, one recipient’s daughter approached Haswell, a mother of two herself, asking to write a story about her and her brooms.
"It was the cutest thing and, lo and behold, actually resulted in a few sales," Haswell says, seated in the dining room of her Wolseley-area three-story, the basement of which serves as her primary work studio. "Not only do I make the brooms, I’m also responsible for all my own marketing. It was pretty cool that she reached out because hey, every little bit helps, right?"
Haswell, 41, grew up in Stoney Creek, Ont., near Hamilton. After studying management and human resources at the University of Toronto, she was hired by a Calgary-based accounting firm. In 2007, a person from Winnipeg she met at the U of T invited her to visit. Haswell accepted the offer and during her stay here, attended her first-ever wedding social.
"To make a long story short, I met my ex-partner, the father of our kids, at that social, and within a few months I’d relocated to Arborg, where he has a farm," Haswell says. "Except after two years of living on a farm, I realized that wasn’t the life for me and moved to the city instead, while continuing to maintain our relationship from a distance."
In 2011 Haswell was working as an ethics and compliance manager for a major aerospace firm, a position that required her to spend a great deal of time travelling across the country. One afternoon, during a trip to Vancouver, she was poking around Granville Island when she stumbled upon the Granville Island Broom Company, which produces Shaker-style brooms onsite. Let’s just say she was smitten.
“Honestly, I didn’t realize brooms, outside of what you see at Canadian Tire or wherever, was a thing." – Amina Haswell
"Honestly, I didn’t realize brooms, outside of what you see at Canadian Tire or wherever, was a thing until I set foot in their shop," she says, running her hand through a head of sorghum, the type of grain that produces the seed branches she uses for her wares. "I bought a gorgeous, little whisk — it’s hanging on the wall, just over there — and for the next year-and-a-half, every time I went to Vancouver I came home with another of their brooms."
A couple of things happened next. First, in the fall of 2013, about a year before her first son was born, she attended an outdoor festival in Columbus, Ohio, while there on business. Everybody was walking around with a "friggin’ broom," so she asked a passerby what was going on, exactly. "Haven’t you heard? The broom lady is here," the person told her, referring to a Kentuckian who’d been building and selling rustic-looking cornbrooms for decades. Next, thinking perhaps broom-making was something she could do as a side gig one day (she also has a business degree from Royal Roads University in Victoria), she enrolled in a two-day session offered at Driftless Folk School, in La Farge, Wis. Following that, she began making brooms, no more than five or six a year, for friends and family.
Skip ahead to 2018. Pregnant with her second child and desiring to do something more enjoyable than writing policy day-in and day-out, she made the decision to up her game by attending what she calls "broom university." She spent just over $10,000 — she agrees that’s a lot of cornstraw — to take a week-long course held at John C. Campbell Folk School, a much-heralded academy in rural North Carolina that draws people from all over the world to learn skills such as blacksmithing, woodcarving and quilting.
Not only did taking that course give her the confidence to move forward and start her own "little broom company," it also provided her with a network of people she could call, even if just to say, "Hey, I’m running into a problem here. Can you give me some advice?"
After officially launching Prairie Breeze Folk Arts Studio in the fall of 2019 — her business name refers to an acreage she owns in Balmoral where she hopes to teach broommaking to others someday — she filled out a vendor’s application for the 2020 Winnipeg Folk Festival, figuring that event would serve as her "big reveal." She doesn’t have to remind anybody how that turned out.
By the time the festival was officially cancelled in mid-April, Haswell had built up a stock of close to 500 brooms and whisks, which was when she decided to give a slew of them away for Mother’s Day, which was how today’s story began. Since then, she’s been busily selling brooms at outdoor events such as the St. Norbert Farmer’s Market, and filling online orders for customers from as far away as Brazil and Australia, people who happened upon her Instagram feed and thought, "I need one of those brooms in my life."
Haswell, who is Black, has also taken custom requests for elegantly crafted wedding brooms, devices made with oak, ash or willow handles that are steeped in history.
"When Black people were brought over from Africa to be slaves, they weren’t allowed to be legally married," she explains, reaching for a wedding broom she recently made for an LGBTTQ+ couple she’ll be shipping off later in the week. "What they did instead was lay a broom down on the ground, then jump over it together, which was a symbolic way of letting the community know they’d just tied the knot. Some (wedding brooms) incorporate flowers and gems, but what I like to do is find naturally harvested sticks of wood that have a fork in them, to signify two souls coming together."
Weather permitting, Haswell will spend the next two weekends at Schwabe Pumpkins, a good, old-fashioned pumpkin patch located on Meadowdale Road in St. Andrews. In addition to her regular line of goods, she’ll also be peddling a new, spook-tacular collection she’s dubbed Bippity Boppity Brooms.
"My mom is a devout Christian, she’s never been a big fan of anything witchy, but in September I was thinking, ‘Jeez, Halloween’s right around the corner. I make brooms. What could be more perfect?’" she says with a laugh, holding up one fashioned with black-and-red dyed broomcorn. (Sorry, you don’t get your money back if you can’t get your witch’s broom off the ground.)
One more question: if a person makes brooms for a living, does that mean they’re a neatnik, nonpareil? Yes and no, she replies.
"I definitely like order and my brain will not compute very well if things are astray," Haswell says. "The sad thing is, making brooms is probably the messiest thing a person can do. Honestly, to make even one broom means my downstairs studio is completely strewn with all kinds of crap. So here I am, making this device to clean spaces and at the end of each one, I have to spend an inordinate amount of time tidying up."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.
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