Long before the vaccine had rolled out, Karlie Higgins, 37, was working with needles of her own.
A former geologist, Higgins works with much softer materials these days: wools and threads for elaborate cross-stitch displays, stunning sweaters, groovy garden gnomes, and much more.
Higgins takes a medication for psoriatic arthritis that suppresses her immune system, which means when the pandemic hit, she had to be even more careful than most about her contacts.
"Being even more limited now in where we can go and who we can see, I’ve been trying to put more energy into crafting," she said.
At the beginning of the pandemic, her husband and kids were so worried about her contracting COVID that they sent her to her parents’ place in northwest Ontario, where she and her mother completed a quilt. But that was only the beginning of a huge increase in her crafting activities.
Regarding cross stitch, Higgins said she tends "to prefer cute, more stylized or modern patterns, often themed around holidays or seasons, so I can change them out regularly."
Cute they are indeed, but they are also elaborate, such as the 12-part mini cross-stitch seasonal series she swaps out the first of every month. May, for example, features a wicker basket of seasonal flowers and a butterfly.
A knitter for almost 20 years, she’s made — in addition to countless masks — sweaters for herself, for her brother and sister-in-law, and baby hats to donate to the stillbirth unit at St. Boniface Hospital.
Her newest venture is rigid heddle looming. When asked what on earth that is, she explained it is a type of weaving loom that’s easy for beginners to use and small enough to rest in your lap or on a table. As for how it works, Higgins gave a good explanation to an uninitiated reporter:
"You create a warp by running long lengths of yarn lengthwise through the heddle, which lifts up and down to allow you to thread the weft (the horizontal threads that are interlaced through the warp) width-wise through the warp," she explained. "If you ever wove on a tissue box in elementary school you’ll know you need to weave over-then-under each thread across. The heddle lifts half the threads away for you, so you don’t have to weave over and under each thread individually."
The loom is small, but she’s created big things with it: a houndstooth scarf for her son, a dozen dishcloths, and striped and plaid fringe cowls.
"I’m definitely improving with each project," she said. "Getting the fabric balanced and neat on the edges is quite a challenge. It takes a lot of attention to detail to try and keep the tension the same for every shuttle pass."
Completing these projects can be a challenge, Higgins said. "I’d like to do more, but it’s difficult for me to load a warp right now as you need to walk back and forth to create the lengths," she said. Chronic migraines sometimes render her unable to do so.
Regardless, she’s proud of what she’s made in the past year: especially of a striking purple, blue and gray Fair Isle sweater and her cowl.
"Both took a lot of work and fighting with my illnesses, and have beautiful results I’m proud to wear."
You can check out her work on Instagram @tiamatfire.
Another Winnipegger finding mindfulness through art is Natalie Copps.
Copps, who is Métis, has begun doing traditional beadwork — something she wanted to try for years as a way to reconnect with her roots and heritage, she said.
During the second wave in November, Natalie was encouraged by her friend Andrée — who had been "going" to Zoom-based beading circles — to pick up the art form for herself.
"I was having a rough time and I was looking for something that wasn’t just kind of sitting and watching TV or dwelling on things" Copps said, adding Andrée gave her some supplies and reading material to get started.
"I was really lucky that my friend Andrée was going through something similar and knew how healing and grounding beadwork could be and reached out in a moment that I needed it."
Copps is still in the early days of developing her technique; she’s finished a few pieces she’s so far kept for herself, joking she’s afraid that some of them might fall apart.
Her goal is to get skilled enough to bead her black-velvet blazer.
"I wanted to bead myself something ceremonial that I could wear to events and showcase some of my culture. A lot of Métis beadwork that I’ve seen at the Manitoba Museum or online or in books is usually placed on black velvet…
My goal is to get good enough to bead the collar and the lapel of my velvet blazer," she said, adding that beading on fabric is tougher than beading earrings.
"I’m a lawyer, I have to go to wine and cheeses, I can throw that on and feel good and think about all the hard work that took and be connected to my family and heritage," she said.
A precise and tactile art such as beadwork is satisfying to the self-proclaimed "perfectionist" Copps in a way that painting and drawing is not.
"I consider myself someone who has an artistic side but not a whole lot of artistic talent," she laughed. "When I have tried in the past to draw and paint, I get really frustrated fairly easily. I don’t find that medium a good release, in a sense, because I get too focused on ‘oh, well this doesn’t look like a dog, or this doesn’t look a flower, I’m terrible at this and I have to quit!’ And it’s the opposite of relaxing!"
Beadwork is structured, but also creative, Copps said.
"There’s also a lot of templates that are available that are passed down that make it very easy at least to start," she said. "There’s certain traditional patterns and flowers that go with Métis beadwork so I’ve started there, but there’s nothing to say ‘this flower has to be this colour…’ you can really design it however you want."
Apart from the blazer, Copps also wants to make some patches for her family members, including a hummingbird patch for her brother’s birthday.
Copps also acknowledged she’s far from the exception in picking up beadwork.
"I know almost a dozen young Métis folk who have picked up the hobby during COVID, or turned it into a business over the pandemic," she said. "I think many of us are finding solace and connection in it."
Meanwhile, Keith Vandersluis would likely not call his 2011 Dodge Grand Caravan a work of art, but he’s found working on it a rewarding challenge and a practical money-saver.
The Transcona-area teacher and father of two never did his own vehicle maintenance prior to the pandemic. Last spring, when he took his car into the shop to have his winter tires swapped for all-seasons, the shop found a few other items that needed attention.
"It was going to be a solid chunk of change to fix them all, so I decided to investigate doing it myself. After researching each project online, I decided I could take them on," Vandersluis said.
When asked what his wife Jessica’s reaction was when he told her he was going to take on the repairs himself, Vandersluis said "if she was skeptical, she did not give voice to it. When we ran the numbers and saw the potential savings she was willing to let me try."
Try he did and succeed he did as well. Since then, he’s done some major mechanics, changing the brakes and rotors on all four corners, replacing the spark plugs and ignition coils, and replacing the driver’s side constant-velocity axle. The last project was the most difficult, he said.
He’s got enough projects to keep him busy for a while. He had his van into a repair shop last week and found he has to replace the passenger-side constant-velocity axle, investigate power steering and transmission cooler line leaks, and clean up the throttle body.
Moving from car parts to virtual darts, Sean Kluczkowski has found the hobby has kept him right on target.
The 34-year-old has taken a sharp interest in the game. Using a United Kingdom-based site that allows users to play darts against each other via webcam, he’s faced folks from all around the world — no pub required.
"The site basically offers a platform which will show your dartboard and your opponent’s with a calculator that counts down your scores and keeps all your stats. It has an old-style chatroom set up, very basic," Kluczkowski said.
"I really love that you can log in and play and basically any time of day as it is worldwide," he continued. "I usually find someone with an average (score) close to mine so the games are tight and fun."
One of Kluczkowski’s most memorable opponents was a Croatian fellow who took the time to make sure Kluczkowski’s setup was good when he was a newbie player.
Kluczkowski and the Croatian guy formed a connection based on their similar occupations.
"We ended up playing for hours and had beers, talking about the pandemic," said Kluczkowski, a commercial and residential painter. "He was a drywall contractor there running his own company. That trade goes hand in hand with mine so we had a good chat."
Another memorable opponent was an older gent from Australia who gave helpful tips.
"I hit a couple 140-point throws during the match and said to him I’d never hit a 180 before," Kluczkowski said.
The 180 is the highest score possible with three darts, achieved by hitting three triple 20s.
"He gave me some advice to not pause after the first two darts in triple 20 and just let the muscle memory make it follow. I hit my first one that game and he yelled with me! He made me stop and take pictures before we continued our game."
Sean said when restrictions allow, he will still continue playing online, but looks forward to Kluczkowski back into his league at the Fort Garry Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion.
He said playing darts helped him during an anxious time, when he was off work and newly single.
"I was in a bit of anxious and depressed state, living alone and trying to adhere to the rules limiting contact," he said. "The online darts felt like just hanging out with buddies at a pub and really helped me get my mental health back in check."
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Bead-worker Copps said her hobby has helped keep her calm and grounded.
"Being able to do something where you’re making something real and something you can wear or put on display and something that your family members have been making for generations — instead of just sitting and staring at a screen all day — it’s hugely healing," she said.
"It’s meditative, it allows me to relax in a way that just watching TV doesn’t. Or frankly, like I like cooking, I like gardening, but those things don’t let my mind shut off in the way beadwork does."
Higgins admitted she sometimes feels guilty for not being able to work due to illness, but said she derives value out of her ability to create. She’s encouraged her whole family to be creative as well.
Her nine-year-old draws and has started sculpting with polymer clay, her seven-year-old builds with Lego, and her husband sketches and paints.
"I think… having a result at the end feels more valuable than time spent doing something like playing a video game, though we all do plenty of that as well," she said. "Who else is addicted to Animal Crossing?"
On the hobby horse
The COVID-19 pandemic has made our lives narrower, but our hobbies wider.
More than a year ago, when COVID arrived and the province went into its first lockdown, many Manitobans found themselves with a lot more time on their hands. After they realized there’s only so much Netflix you can watch before the shows start to blend together, they used those hands to try new hobbies.
Some pastimes taken up were passing fancies. However, for every Winnipegger who let their (named) sourdough starter die after a month or whose running shoes haven’t pounded the pavement since last July, there are many others still going strong in their COVID-discovered hobbies to this day.
This is the second in a two-part series about just some of those Winnipeggers.