Reflections on our online guilds…

A Meeting of Technologies: Hands-on Crafting Classes Successfully Go Online During Covid

Column by Karen Canan in Corvallis, Willamette Valley, Oregon, December 1, 2020

As we enter into the ninth month of the worldwide Covid pandemic’s spread into the United States, we can look to other countries for inspiration in how to continue our outdoor activities while being as safe as possible.  EartHand Gleaners, in neighboring Vancouver, Canada, is one such inspiration. 

EartHand is an arts-based nonprofit that teaches heritage skills such as basketry, weaving, dyeing, and knitting, with a focus on using local plants and fibers.  

EartHand craft guilds went online this year due to Covid, and I was able to join the Autumn Fibers Guild, taught by EartHand founder Sharon Kallis.  In 2013 Kallis formed EartHand to help Vancouver’s citizens rediscover the value of plant materials right in their backyards. Two public gardens, one called Means of Production garden, and another called Trillium, have partnered with EartHand to provide plant material such as nettles, dogbane, and milkweed for locals to craft with.  EartHand participants help maintain the public gardens, which grow food as well as fibers.  

Even with Covid, participants in EartHand’s online classes who live near the Vancouver gardens are still able to individually gather plants to turn into thread and basketry materials, by going on their own or in very small groups to the gardens, whereas participants farther afield can participate in the online classes but of course need to find their own materials.  The new online guilds allow a wider audience to learn from the skills teachers, but coordinating the care of the actual gardens themselves remains challenging.

Vancouver resident Czarina Lobo, who teaches the Kitchen Dyer’s Guild, says that having the  classes continue in the form of online guilds has been a lifesaver: “Sharon [Kallis] is phenomenal in her thinking and yes she was wise to round up the regulars and skill holders to start up the [online] guilds.  It definitely stopped a panic for me right at the beginning [of Covid]… I loved the challenge.  I loved making my [Fall] Kitchen Dyers Guild all about using what we had in the kitchen or in the alleyways, neighbours’ gardens and forests, keeping a low budget, cutting up old sheets for the dye pot, etc…  I used some concepts gleaned from EartHand like offering to clean up your friend’s yard in return for garden waste to use for baskets, or deadheading flowers for the dye pot.”

Given the Covid restrictions, the online guilds work better than trying to meet in person, says Lobo. “To be honest I’ve tried teaching outdoors…with bubbles of people segregated under tents with masks on.  It’s been stressful because community building, weaving, natural dyeing, pigments and ink making are all the kind of crafting I like to do in close circles: talking shop and sharing stories.  And having to shout instructions through a mask has been awful and honestly really exhausting.  I much prefer looking at full, open faces and talking softly with a second camera focusing closely on the hand work that people can see.” 

Coordinating the physical maintenance of the gardens under Covid, however, is more difficult, when Vancouver’s Provincial Health Officer has discouraged social gatherings of any kind in what essentially is another shutdown, according to Vancouver resident and longtime EartHand supporter Cyndy Chwelos.  Chwelos says it was hard to know exactly how and where to help in the gardens, even with an online preparatory meeting where Kallis showed which areas needed work.  “I need the face to face.  I need the [physical] garden tour,” says Chwelos ruefully, clearly looking forward to when small gatherings will be possible once again.  

An anecdote from EartHand basketry teacher and guild participant Jaymie Johnson recalls pre-Covid days.  Johnson was leading a garden tour for people who had recently immigrated to Vancouver.  “At the top of the M.O.P. [garden] there were fruit trees,” says Johnson, “and this man from Iran was so generous and happy to offer… advice and wisdom” from his previous orchard experience, even returning a couple more times to help out in the orchard.  These garden tours, says Johnson, usually ended with a brief skills session, such as making rope from fiber plants harvested from the garden. 

Rope is made by twisting one strand of fiber away from you and then bringing that twisted strand towards you over the other strand, locking them together with a technology that dates back more than 17,000 years.  Because of Covid, EartHand’s teachers have begun teaching this and other skills through the internet’s world wide web, begun in 1991, using the conference app Zoom, which was invented in 2012. 

There is a valuable lesson to be learned from EartHand Gleaners Society about the benefits of a can-do attitude combined with honoring the wisdom of the old and the knowledge of the new.  EartHand’s website is and their youtube channel and Facebook page are both EartHand Gleaners Society.   

…Thank you Karen for writing about your experiences with EartHand!