The Barb Brown: How the heck did I get here?

I come from a long line of adventurous women: My Great Granny Jeremina got on a ship at the end of the 19th century with nothing for company but a spinning wheel, and set out from Shetland to Vancouver Island. My Grandmother Birthe got on a ship after World War I and travelled – alone, mind you! – from Denmark to Canada, after which she boarded a train and travelled clear across to Vancouver Island. My Baba Hanya (Grandmother) arrived in Canada from the Ukraine at the end of the 19h century; she was about 8 years old, and walked the 300 miles to the homestead, carrying her 3-year-old sister piggy back.

Adventurous Women
Top: Great Grandma Jeremina; Bottom Left: Grandma Birthe with my Grandpa Magnus (he’s wearing a sweater, spun and knit by Jeremina 40 years before this pic was taken); Bottom Right: My Baba Hanya.

Fast forward several years to when I was born, at the tail end of the baby boom. I spent my first years in a logging camp in the bush in northern B.C. (my Mom was a fairly adventurous person, too). We used horses for hauling the logs, and had no electricity or running water. My Mom and Pop grew quite nostalgic for the peace of that place, but not the hard work! 

Left: My brother keeping me company while I’m in my playpen at the mill; Middle: A few of the sawmill crew in front of the bunkhouse; Right: Mom and I at the sawmill.

Then we moved to the edge of Winnipeg, near my Baba and my father’s extended family. This was the time during which people from the camps in post World War II Europe were coming to Canada. Many of the workers at the mill and our neighbours in our new home were newly arrived from camps in Eastern Europe. I was the kind of kid who loved old people and the stories they told, and I’d sit and listen for hours. I’d ask questions, but quickly learned not to ask which country they came from, because the answer was almost always, “My country is gone. It’s not on the map anymore” and then there would be a long, sad silence. So I decided that I would remember their stories, and the things they taught me. As a child, I thought this would help keep those countries alive – and maybe it did, in some way. Not all of the stories were suitable for children, and the old ladies would shoo me away…but I would quietly slide under the table, where I’d sit in the cave behind the table cloth and listen anyway!

Many of these ladies were knitters, and my Mom was also a prolific knitter. She was also a great storyteller, and I loved hearing the tales of Great Grandmother and her knitting and spinning. I always had a strange feeling that the stories weren’t new, that they were stories I was being reminded of. I really felt like I already knew this lovely, friendly lady (my grandgaughter has that same connection with my Mom, and loves nothing better than a “Margrethe” story.  I guess it runs in the family!). My Great Grandmother had many friends in the QUW’UTSUN’ band of Vancouver Island. They met for knitting afternoons, drinking tea and telling jokes, and sharing skills, tips and tricks. She helped her friends improve the quality of their spinning and knitting and worked with a local shop to start a profitable business in local knitwear. These friends greatly admired her stranded patterning on heavy sweaters, and adapted the skill to their creations. 

Sweater on the left, by Jeremina Colvin.  The blue was obtained from indigo.  Sweater on the left by an unknown Native lady, Both were knit in the early 1940’s are on display at the Quw’utsun’ Cultural Centre in Duncan BC…( copyright for pictures, C.M.Sommerfeld
Left: Sweater knit by an unknown Native woman. Right:Sweater by Jeremina Colvin; the blue was obtained by indgo. Both were knit in the early 1940’s and are on display at the Quw’utsun’ Cultural Centre in Duncan, BC.

As for me, I began learning to knit when I was about 3 years old, and I’ve never stopped knitting or learning. Many knitters have a period in their lives, sometimes for years, when they don’t pick up the needles. This was never the case for me, perhaps because, as a child, I rarely saw a woman sitting and relaxing who wasn’t also knitting! When I was 12, I discovered people would pay me for knitted items, and my output doubled.

Once I grew up, I moved to several places in Canada: Winnipeg, outside Nanaimo, Prince George, Vancouver, Port Hardy. I was always meeting knitters or makers from different cultures wherever I went. I worked as a welder’s helper, in greenhouses, in offices, and as a waitress…and somewhere along the line, I accidentally wound up as an accountant. 

When my boys came along, I lived in Port Hardy, right on the northern tip of Vancouver Island. It rains there from September until May, a climate very similar to Scotland. It seemed to me that dressing the kids in wool was the best way to keep them warm. With perfect timing, Elizabeth Zimmerman came into my life, with her book Knitting Workshop.  Her common sense “of course you can” advice, combined with my Mom’s “if you want to knit it, then knit it.  Why not?” attitude set me free. I began designing sensible sweaters for the boys – designs they would actually wear. And I never looked back.

Along came the internet, opening the whole world of knitting! I retired, tried my hand at designing for publication (Thank you Bonnie Franz!) and now here I am, Design Coordinator for Ancient Arts Yarns, and I’ve written a book, Knitting Knee-Highs: Sock Designs from Classic to Contemporary. I design for magazines, including Vogue Knitting, and The Knitter in the UK. My designs have been included in multiple contributor books by Soho Publications, and in books by Carol Sulcoski, including Lace Yarn Studio.

And I’m still not sure how the little girl who wanted to be a mechanic like her Daddy wound up here.

PIC 9 Me


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