Toronto’s Beach community is not only a beautiful waterfront neighbourhood with mature trees and historic houses, it is also one of the favourite places of residence for a great many artists. I was glad I had a chance to discover more about arts in the Beach when I accidentally connected with a local artist, a photographer by the name of John Dowding, during my interview with Mary Lee from Spiagga Restaurant. This gave me an opportunity to learn more about the wide spectrum of creative people in the Beach. John then connected me to Lucille Crighton who is one of Canada’s foremost textile artists.
On a snowy afternoon, after my interesting interview with Steven Zarlenga and Paul Karamat, two creative bed and breakfast owners in the Beach, followed by an interview with John Dowding, I had a chance to visit Lucille Crighton at her home: a beautiful historic property dating back to the first part of the 20th century. Lucille has a long attachment to Beach, as her grandfather bought this very house in 1927. The brick came from rubble from the Great Toronto Fire of 1904, and Lucille took me outside to show me the darkened colour and rough texture of the bricks.
Lucille also has a long connection to the textile arts: she started weaving as a teenager. With a chuckle she says she hesitates to count the number of decades that she has been weaving now. She graduated in design arts and textile arts, has a diploma in weaving with Nell Znamierowski from FIT, NYC and also completed a program in teacher training for professional hand weavers. She has written 2 of the courses (Fabric to Fashion and Fabric Design Sample) for the OHS master weaver program.
When her children were small, she opened her own yarn store and ran classes in quilting, macramé, knitting, weaving and needlework. Lucille explained that at one point she decided to specialize in weaving because it is an in-depth craft where you never stop learning. Weaving reminds her very much of music; her brother Garry is a musician. Designing a threading is quite analogous to writing music and the intricacy of the threadings keeps you challenged for a long time.
Lucille used to teach weaving all over North America, in places such as Washington DC, Portland, Oregon, Florida and Michigan, New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. All these places have weaving guilds, and they would invite her to teach colour and design in weaving. Although she enjoyed it, she had to give it up since she did not have enough time to produce the jackets that she has become so well-known for. Lucille adds that she enjoys teaching, but she loves designing.
Lucille finds inspiration in daily life and constantly looks at relationships of one colour to another, texture, line and pattern, values and intensities. While weaving, she is intuitively considering light reflection, rhythm and repetition, emphasis, balance and proportion while experimenting with new harmonious colour combinations.
“Although I work long hours it is creative, it is inspiring to put my ideas out there in terms of colour and design. I get up every morning and love what I do.” But Lucille admits that it took her a long time to get to this level of success. Today her brilliantly coloured jackets are highly coveted fashion items, and her customers often wait several months for Lucille’s creations. Her special artistic craft was honoured when she was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the One-Of-A-Kind Craft Show, a popular trade show for unique arts and crafts, held twice a year in Toronto.
Lucille and I went upstairs where three of her rooms are dedicated towards her craft. The smaller loom is set up in a room with hundreds of cones of yarn, all organized by colour, which presented quite a beautiful arrangement by itself. Lucille explained that with the Leclerc loom, bought in Canada, she uses up to 20 shuttles (the longitudinal pieces of wood that are moved horizontally across the vertical threads, creating a fabric one row at a time) for one jacket. Each bobbin in the shuttle can be set up with a different colour and as a result, Lucille can create very intricate designs as she weaves, with occasional repeats in the same fabric.
Lucille demonstrated to me how the weaving actually works: the shuttle containing the thread is virtually thrown from side of the loom to the other, creating an additional row. Then a “beater” is used to compress the new line of thread and push it close to the already woven fabric. Then pressing a foot pedal (treadle) a new opening is created for the next row of yarn. She uses numerous yarns of different thicknesses and materials; some of them have metallic or even three-dimensional effects.
Weaving is a very physical process, you always sit hunched forward and the process of throwing the shuttle produces a repetitive strain on muscles and joints, particularly when you work every day from morning to late at night. Lucille explains that she needs physiotherapy every six weeks and daily exercises to relieve the physical strain of her profession.
A second room features a larger California-built AVL loom that is actually connected to a computer and a weaving software program. Lucille added that this setup allows her to create intricate fabric designs on the computer while in the past graph paper would have had to be used. The software has made fabric design so much more convenient and efficient than before.
The third room is a cutting room where the woven fabrics are cut, ready to be assembled into jackets. In addition this room houses dozens of binders of fabric samples that Lucille has created over the years, a tangible chronology of Lucille’s artistic evolution. She could literally go back, for example, to November of 1996 and show me what types of fabrics she was producing at that time. I was admiring her organizational skills for keeping such exact records of her artistic projects. She added that she never produces the same fabric twice unless a customer specifically requests it. Now I started to understand that this is truly a craft where you never stop learning.
Weaving is indeed a very intricate craft: it takes about a week to 10 days to set up the threads on the smaller loom while the setup on the larger loom could take more than three weeks. This does not include designing the warp, weighing and calculating yardages for the yarns as well as searching out the yarns and ordering them. Lucille sets up about 200 yards of warp yarn on the loom at a time which allows her to create between 75 to 100 jackets from one setup. The nature of weaving is such that on one warp you are able to create completely different fabrics; you would not even think that the designs came from the same loom.
It was obvious to me that considering the set-up and the manual process of weaving a fabric row by row, weaving is an extremely labour-intensive process. I inquired how much one jacket would cost roughly, and Lucille responded that the average cost of a jacket is in the C$650 to $1000 range. That was actually a lot more reasonable than I had expected. Lucille explained that her customers are very diverse and simply would like to own a one-of-a-kind garment that is not replicated anywhere in the world.
Now a well established successful artist, Lucille has a substantial backlog of orders and does not have to worry about where the next project is coming from. Her marketing consists of four art shows a year: twice a year she participates in the popular One-Of-A-Kind Trade Show in Toronto, while another two times a year she is a key participant in the Beach Studio Tour.
The Beach Studio Tour is organized twice yearly by a group of about 15 to 24 local artists in the Beach who open their homes to the public free of charge for three days in May and October of every year. Pottery, stained glass, jewellery, photography, fine art and textile arts are represented, and the artists welcome the visitors with demonstrations of their crafts and an opportunity to learn about the creative process.
The artists that participate in the Beach Studio Tour collectively shoulder the arketing and publicity effort to promote this event. They fundraise and sell advertising in their flyer in order to pay for an advertising campaign. Brochures have to be designed, a mailing list needs to be maintained, PR work needs to be done in order to publicize this event and attract visitors from all over the city and beyond. As a result, a lot of work has to be split between different artists. But the Beach Studio Tour has turned into a very popular regular event in the neighbourhood that is a successful marketing tool for local artists.
During the studio tour Lucille hires someone to give a tour of the looms and answer questions, and her dining room becomes a showroom for her creations. Usually she also features guest artists and during the last few years well-known local photographer John Dowding has showcased some of his work at Lucille’s home. She also hires someone to help her on the main floor so potential clients have a chance to talk with the master artist herself and be custom fitted or to discuss future projects.
But Lucille is not only a gifted textile artist, she is also an avid gardener. Horticulture is extremely popular in the Beach, a neighbourhood with many talented gardeners. Lucille volunteers as the librarian at the Beach Garden Society and a member of the board which meets once a month. The society brings in expert guest speakers who talk about such topics as shade gardening and planting perennials. Lucille’s garden was recently featured in Gardening Life magazine.
Lucille Crighton is an all around creative person, whether it be in textile arts or horticulture and garden design. She is a one-of-a-kind Hall of Famer and a good example of the creative talent in Toronto’s Beach neighbourhood.