Dyed in the wool legacy

Former crafts guild president's passion for natural colours, fibres was 'fabricated into her life'


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Margaret Ferguson wove her love of nature into her life.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 01/06/2019 (1283 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Margaret Ferguson wove her love of nature into her life.

The Winnipegger, who died on April 27 at age 97, left a legacy of lichen-dyed, homespun and woven tapestries cherished by her children and grandchildren — as well as her research notes at the Manitoba Crafts Museum and Library. The notes detail the colours created from lichen gathered during summers at her beloved Lake of the Woods.

“She had pots going on the stove in the cottage filled with dye,” said Lyn Ferguson, the eldest of three children.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Ferguson as a young woman wearing a scarf made of wool she spun, dyed and wove.

Ferguson made her own dye, spun her own wool and wove beautiful, practical pieces, her daughter said. “It was kind of fabricated into her life.”

Going through family photos, the handiwork is omnipresent. “There’s her woven pillows, her rugs on the floor, a baby asleep on a handmade pillow. I have a beautiful scarf — she spun the wool, she dyed it, she wove it.”

The crafter and creator, who had a master’s degree in home economics specializing in foods and nutrition, used lichen as well as onion skins to develop richly hued dyes.

The Edmonton-raised Ferguson, and her University of Manitoba geologist husband Bob, had a cottage on Big Duck Island and a small aluminum boat.

They used it to buzz around and collect samples of the simple, slow-growing plant that typically forms a low, crusty, leaf-like or branching growth on rocks, walls, and trees.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS A binder with lichen-dyed wool samples that Margaret Ferguson researched was part of a museum exhibit called the Women of the Manitoba Crafts Guild that runs until December.

Her meticulous notes, drawings and dyed wool samples can be seen at the Winnipeg crafts museum and online in a Virtual Museum of Canada exhibit: Narrative Threads: Crafting the Canadian Quilt.

Her work at the crafts museum is part of an exhibit called Women of the Crafts Guild of Manitoba — a group Ferguson had served as president.

“It’s such a wonderful piece to show the research she did, in terms of doing the dyeing — and she used that for teaching,” said curator Andrea Reichert.

“She had people out to the cottage for dyeing workshops. She would make dye with all these natural materials and, from drab green and grey lichens, you could get hot pink and some super cool colours,” said Reichert.

“It was wonderful,” said Gerdine Strong, who took dyeing classes at the Lake of the Woods in the 1970s.

SUPPLIED Ferguson and her late husband Bob Ferguson with whom she shared a love of nature and people. Bob died in 2015.

“It was very peaceful and they were so generous with having the craft people there,” said Strong, 87.

“The dark brown one gives you a gorgeous fuschia colour if you soak them in — the original recipe calls for strong male urine — but ammonia is what’s normally used,” she said with a laugh.

Strong and Ferguson belonged to a “cottage spinners group” that met monthly.

“She was a great one — very down to earth,” said Strong, who took over as the crafts guild president after Ferguson’s term ended.

The guild’s doors closed in 1997. Started as a branch of the Canadian Handicraft Guild, the provincial group’s goal was to generate money, help solve rural problems and preserve the art of craft-making — all rooted in feminism.

SUPPLIED Margaret Ferguson - for Carol Sanders Passages feature / Winnipeg Free Press 2019

“It was such a huge organization, and for so long it was run exclusively by women,” Reichert said.

For Ferguson, an ardent feminist, it was a good fit.

“Crafts are very practical,” said her daughter Lyn. “She made beautiful things but they were always functional.”

Ferguson, known to her family as “Muzz,” had more than one spinning wheel, and a passion for wool.

“She collected wool,” said Lyn, who recalled her mom spinning dog hair. “But she was really fascinated with sheep.”

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS PASSAGES Photo of Margaret Ferguson’s spinning wheel and wool that she spun, dyed and wove, into a scarf. Margaret, who died in April, was president of the Crafts Guild of Manitoba who experimented with lichens dyes for textiles – the results of her research with detailed technical notes were donated to the Manitoba Crafts Museum and Library. Carol Sanders | Reporter May 30, 2019

During a family trip to New Zealand, “she knew the names of all the sheep.”

Ferguson belonged to the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Winnipeg, and advocated for a safe environment and peace.

“She went through a stage where she was very concerned about radioactivity,” said her daughter, who recalled having to drink powdered skim milk that was thought to be safer.

“I still cannot, to this day, drink skim milk,” she said with a laugh.

The Fergusons opposed the Vietnam War — “I remember we hosted some draft dodgers in the ’70s” — and were progressive, open-minded and always learning.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS A binder with lichen-dyed wool samples that Margaret Ferguson researched was part of a museum exhibit called the Women of the Manitoba Crafts Guild that runs until December.

“My parents were kind of young at heart, in many ways.”

When Bob took three research leaves (Cambridge and Oxford in England, and Adelaide, Australia) Ferguson went with him and embraced the opportunity.

It was during their time in Oxford in the early 1970s that Ferguson’s creative side began to flourish, her daughter said.

“When she got back, she became more interested in weaving and spinning.”

Then, she began experimenting with natural dyes at Lake of the Woods.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS A binder with lichen-dyed wool samples that Margaret Ferguson researched is part of a museum exhibit called Women of the Manitoba Crafts Guild, which runs until December.

“The cottage was a magical place, as cottages often are, where the kids and grandkids and the cousins all came together,” said Lyn. “It was a place of great, great joy.”

Ferguson’s creativity wasn’t limited to textiles: her drawing of a huge pine tree near the cottage became an iconic image for the family. “Our son had it tattooed on his back,” said Lyn, who has a framed print hanging in her home.

The couple spent five months a year at their island cottage, and continued to go after Ferguson was diagnosed with vascular dementia at age 80. Bob helped care for her as long as he could. He died in 2015.

In her final years, Ferguson had no memory of her craftwork and dyeing, so she didn’t miss it, her daughter said.

“She wasn’t doing a lot of grieving,” said Lyn. “She was gracious, warm and lovely.”

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Chris Ferguson-Martin as a baby laying on a pillow that was woven by his grandmother, Margaret Ferguson.

A memorial service will be held July 8 at 2 p.m., at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Winnipeg.


Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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