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Manitoba History: The Searle Grain Company and Manitoba Handweaving, A Program of Imaginative Philanthropy

by Janet A. Hoskins

Manitoba History, Number 6, Fall 1983

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

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In the early 1930s, Augustus L. Searle, then Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Searle Grain Co. Ltd., set up within his company a Research Department and “Crop Testing Plan,” believing firmly “that an organization that handled the farmers’ products owed a duty to farmers to try to assist them in improving their welfare,” besides handling their grain efficiently. [1] He was also concerned that some effort should be made to assist the farm wives, many of whom “lived quite isolated lives on our western prairies.” [2] During the depression of the previous decade, Western farmers had found a need to become more self-sufficient, growing their own vegetables and raising their own livestock. Hand-weaving of clothing and household textiles was yet another way in which the farm household could become less dependent on purchased goods. “[I]nspired by the astonishing success that attended the revival of home-weaving and handicrafts in Quebec, the Company ... [embarked upon a program of weaving instruction] with the particular object of helping the farmer’s wife.” [3] The Searle Grain program of weaving instruction was thus an attempt on the part of this company to assist the prairie farm wives directly, and their families indirectly, by teaching them the craft of weaving. The Winnipeg Tribune recognized the philosophy of the program as “not to establish a new farm industry but merely to show farm women how to weave so they can improve their own individual surroundings.” [4]

Mrs. Dorothy Rankine wearing a handwoven suit
Source: Searle Grain Company

But by the fall of 1942, after the program was in place, the Searle Grain Company also noted other advantages of their home weaving program for a post-war western Canada.

“... when the war is over, numbers of young women who have left the farms to serve in various war capacities as stenographers, clerks, and as members of the women’s forces, will be out of employment, and will return to their farm homes. Home weaving would provide for them a very useful occupation. It is also thought that soldiers when they are demobilized after the stress and strain of war, will feel an urge to do something with their hands. Many demobilized soldiers after the last war took up various forms of knitting, needlework, tapestry and other forms of work. It is felt that a certain number of the demobilized soldiers who will return to their farms, would find weaving a useful and satisfying occupation until they can be re-established in a permanent occupation.” [5]

Clearly the Searle Grain Company felt that weaving instruction had a place in the war effort, even though these benefits would seem to have come as an after-thought.

For initial advice the Searle Grain Company contacted Oscar Beriau, who had played an important part in revitalizing the handweaving of Quebec. Beriau’s daughter Renee, who was herself an extremely competent weaver and weaving instructor, [6] came to Manitoba early in 1942, to assist in organizing the endeavour. Searle Grain and Miss Beriau recruited four local farm girls to be trained as instructors, each of these girls being fluent in English and at least one other language: Miss Helen Boiley of La Broquerie and Miss Germaine Chaput of St. Adolphe spoke French; Miss Laura Muirhead of Carberry spoke Swedish and Mrs. Ann Yakimischak of Winnipeg was fluent in both Ukrainian and Russian. [7] After Miss Beriau had spent three months giving these four women an extensive course which prepared them as weaving instructors, they began teaching in April of 1942, [8] each of these instructors going to a community where her language would best serve. [9]

The first course in the program was taught by Laura Muirhead in Melfort, Saskatchewan and was soon followed by courses at Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan taught by Ann Yakimischak, at Legal, Alberta taught by Germaine Chaput, and finally a course taught by Helen Boiley at St. Paul, Alberta. [10] In Manitoba a French language Roman Catholic organization, la Societe d’Enseignement Postscolaire du Manitoba, had begun teaching weaving in rural areas and was continuing with a strong program of weaving education. [11] As a result most of the courses which the Searle Grain Company taught were in Saskatchewan and Alberta. The company did however offer instruction in some Manitoba communities and its base of operations was of course Winnipeg. Therefore, the Searle project does constitute a major contribution to weaving education in Manitoba during the 1940s.

The courses were taught in towns or villages which had a Searle Grain elevator, and the local agent assisted with the unloading and setting up of looms and other equipment, which had been shipped to that location by rail. A church basement or town hall was usually used for the instruction—anywhere that could be obtained for a reasonable rent.

Instructors asked the pupils in each community to form a weaving circle, the formation of which was to be guided by a set of explicitly stated rules and regulations provided by the Searle Grain Company. [12] These regulations provided the terms of reference for the courses themselves as well as a mechanism for continuation of the weaving program after the formal instruction had ended.

“Membership in the Farm Home Weaving Circles [and the weaving classes] was to be open to any farm woman or girl who is interested in the work.” [13] The wives of Searle Grain customers were given first choice at the courses, and vacancies, if any existed, were filled by other farm wives and then by townspeople. [14] Participation in this program was not limited by religious or ethnic affiliation.

The courses were offered completely free of charge, although a nominal fee of 50 cents annually was required of the weaving circle members. A secretary-treasurer was to be elected from within the circle, and this person was to collect the annual fee and use it for “paying incidental expenses such as postage, stationery, telephone calls and so forth.” [15] It was to be used strictly for the maintenance of the individual weaving circle and was completely independent of the Searle Grain Company.

Looms and other weaving equipment were provided for the use of the students during their instruction. Raw materials such as cotton, wool or linen yarns were also provided, although if a student wished to keep a finished article for her own use, she had to pay the Company’s wholesale cost for the yarns used.

Clearly, the Searle Grain Company made every effort to keep the costs incurred by individual students as low as possible, with the Company assuming financial responsibility for the instructor, equipment, place of instruction and such materials as were used in articles to be retained for demonstration purposes.

All of the instruction was to be given following a standardized format, where each course was to be of six weeks’ duration, running a minimum of two and a half hours per day, five days a week. One group of students would receive this two and a half hours of instruction in the morning and another group would be taught in the afternoon. The capacity of each section was restricted to six students (for a total of twelve students) so that each person had the exclusive use of a loom for the duration of the course. [16]

Mr. Augustus L. Searle
Source: Western Canada Pictorial Index

It is perhaps indicative of the corporate nature of the grain company sponsoring this program that the format for these courses was so specific and formalized. The hours of instruction were defined in much the same way as a work day and the maximum number of participants was defined in terms of the available resources. The commitment expected of the students was also a reflection of the business orientation of the sponsor. Participants were required to “guarantee to attend regularly five days a week” [17] and also to “agree to carry out faithfully the detailed instructions of the teacher, and to weave only during the period of instruction such materials and such designs as the teacher shall approve, and which form part of the teaching course.” [18]

Searle Grain felt that diligent effort spent on these courses would yield very positive benefits for the students.

It has been found from years of experience in Quebec, in the Maritime Provinces, in Newfoundland and in the United States that a five or six weeks’ course is sufficient to teach farm women or girls to be able to make almost anything in their homes in the way of blankets, curtains, bedspreads, tablecloths, towels, material for making dresses or suits and so forth. [19]

Although the period of instruction was relatively short, the courses were intensive. Many of the students were mature women who were highly motivated to produce attractive and useful woven textiles and who were willing to expend the effort necessary to gain a good grasp of the principles and skills. Me students met Searle Grains expectations and it was found that after completing the course, “pupils are quite competent weavers of those weaves, some thirty in number, that are necessary to produce most of the things needed in a farm home:—clothing for men, women and children; bedspreads, curtains, tablecloths, towels, handbags, scarves and many other beautiful and useful articles.” [20]

The Searle Grain Company, through the formation of the weaving circles, also tried to provide a means of keeping weaving active in a community after the instructors had left. One function of the weaving circles was to teach new weavers who had not attended the classes. “[O]ne single request is made of the Weaving Circles which is that because the members have been taught weaving free by the Searle Grain Co. that they in turn will teach free any farm women who desire to learn weaving.” [21]

The weaving circles were also to act as a focus for the weaving activity in the community. It is difficult, if not impossible, for weavers to maintain an interest in their craft when working in isolation [22] and the meetings of these groups were intended to provide a source of communication and inspiration. The circles, which were meant to become as autonomous as possible, were to form a social institution which would bring together women with a common interest and help to overcome the isolation and loneliness of prairie farm life. [23]

Although the public goal of the Searle Grain Company in undertaking this education project was “to assist in the revival of farm home-weaving because the Company believes it is a good thing for the homes of Western Canada,” [24] it was also true of course that the company recognized that an increase in the productivity and prosperity of the western grain farms would have its benefits for the company which handled their grain. In part to publicize its efforts the Searle Weaving Competition was held in 1944, to which almost two hundred pieces were submitted. “The entries were sent to Quebec where they were judged and placed on display,” [25] and then returned to be displayed in Winnipeg. H.G.L. Strange, the director of the Searle Grain Research Department, in an open letter to the weavers noted with some pride that

the judges in Quebec were most enthusiastic about the high quality of the workmanship, and the clever designs and composition of the various pieces. They said that these qualities were quite unexpected. We are told that the Supervisors and teachers in Quebec who have had twelve or more years of experience “examined this material not without some jealousy. [26]

But at the same time that such successes [27] were being enjoyed, the weaving instruction program came to an abrupt halt. As a result of the newly imposed gas rationing farmers could no longer spare the gas for their wives to drive to town for weaving lessons; a course in Two Hills, Alberta at the time could not even be completed. The instructors and looms were returned to Winnipeg and one part of the Searle weaving program was disbanded. [28]

The Searle Farm Home Weaving Service, which had been operated at the same time that the Company had developed the education program, was able to continue in the head office in the Grain Exchange Building, Winnipeg. This acted as a retail outlet for the equipment and materials necessary to practice hand weaving. It also had a staff consultant, Dorothy Rankine, who operated the Winnipeg Office, and gave advice and assistance to weavers.

One useful role the Grain Company performed was to act as a dealer for the Nilus Leclerc loom company which had previously had to sell looms directly from its factory through catalogue sales. [29] If a student of the program wished to buy her own loom, she could purchase from Searle a 45 inch Leclerc loom like the one that she had been using, at a cost, in 1942, of about $48.00, which included delivery from the mill in l’Islet, Quebec to the farm home. The customer also had the option of paying for her loom at the rate of $5.00 per month, with no interest charged. [30] Dorothy Rankine had been given clear guidelines to follow in the operation of her department by Stewart A. Searle (the son of Augustus Searle) and Norman Leach, who were two of the directors of the company at the time. [31] “Looms and weaving accessories were to be sold at no profit.” [32]

The Searle Weaving Office also stocked a large variety of yarns. Linen was brought in from Ireland and France, as were tweeds and fine wools from Great Britain and cotton and novelty yarns. The primary function of the weaving office was to assist the farm wife by providing a good selection of yarns at a reasonable price, but in order to make these orders economical, relatively large quantities of any particular yarn were purchased. Because these large stocks were maintained the Weaving Office did a mail order and retail business which went far beyond the range of the prairie farm wives. The Searle Weaving Office eventually shipped both yarns and equipment all over the world. [33]

It was the policy of Dorothy Rankine that one spool of every yarn sold by the company should be on display in the Grain Exchange building office, so that some weavers could actually feel the yarn and see it in its complete colour range before making a purchase. These spools or cones of yarn were displayed on large racks along one wall of the office. Another wall was hung with drapes woven in the patterns found in Oscar Beriau’s “Home Weaving” book. Looms were also set up in the office, both the Leclerc model and the “Hand Skill” invented by Elphege Nadeau and imported from the United States as an experiment. [34]

For customers who were unable to get to the Winnipeg office, a mail order service was established. Mimeographed sheets of yarn information were mailed out, as well as details of books and equipment. Along the left hand edge of the sheet were attached short snippets of the yarns described, in the complete colour range. [35]

In addition, the monthly invoices were accompanied by a weaving bulletin entitled “Searle Suggestions.” These newsletters covered a variety of topics and fulfilled a number of functions. They maintained a friendly contact between the weaver and the weaving department, through Dorothy Rankine’s inclusion of descriptions of exhibitions, discussions of other weavers’ activities, excerpts from poems, and smaller items of this nature. Also included was information about arrivals of new yarn and helpful hints for specific weaving tasks.

The newsletters often included small samples of actual hand woven fabric. Weavers would ask Mrs. Rankine for assistance with a project, either in person or by mail, and when it was completed would often on their own initiative send her some of the fabric left from the completed project. She would cut this up and include it in a bulletin, along with details of the weaving and the project, and an acknowledgement of the weaver. Contact of this type would certainly have acted as an inspiration for a woman in an isolated community without the benefit of other weavers’ company for stimulation. [36] This Farm Home Weaving Service continued for twenty years, until its demise in the fall of 1964. Yet “for three years afterwards,” Mrs. Rankine said, “letters continued to arrive from all over the continent. Authors of weaving books had recommended our dept. highly, in listings on back pages. Cheques [and] money orders had to be constantly returned.” [37] Dorothy Rankine was employed for two years on a part salary basis, working out of her home, attending to this correspondence.

The major factor in the decision to close down the Weaving Department was the changing buying habits of the weavers who had now turned to mail order of yarns in groups. One might also assume that by the mid-1960s the isolation of the prairie farm wife had been successfully overcome. It must be remembered, however, that the retail outlet had not been restricted to farm women but almost certainly derived a great deal of its business from Winnipeg weavers. By 1964, there were several Winnipeg based weaving organizations, [38] which were able to form the focus for much of the group purchasing. Although the farm women may, in many cases, still have been using Searle Grain’s Weaving Department to its full advantage, their numbers were not sufficient to maintain the economic viability of the department as a retail outlet.

There was also an additional factor which brought about Searle Grain’s decision to close its Weaving Department. In 1965 Searle Grain and Federal Grain amalgamated and, in preparation for this move, the Searle Grain Company streamlined its operation, closing down all its apparently peripheral areas, which unfortunately included the Weaving Department. [39] Thus ended the rather unusual connection, of nearly twenty-five years’ duration, between this commercial prairie grain company and the course of handweaving in Manitoba.


The author wishes to gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Profs. J. Friesen, M. King and P. Tyrchniewicz in the preparation of the thesis “Weaving Education in Manitoba in the 1940s,” from which this article was extracted.

1. H. G. L. Strange, Rural Home Weaving (Winnipeg: Searle Grain Company Ltd., July 21, 1943), p. 2.

2. Dorothy Rankine, consultant. Searle Farm Home Weaving Service, letter to the author, October, 1981.

3. Kathleen Strange, “Weaving is Back!,” National Home Monthly, August, 1942, p. 11. Some information regarding the Quebec experience is found in: Oscar A. Beriau, Home Weaving (Quebec: Department of Agriculture, 1939).

4. Alice McEachern. “Grain Firm Sponsors Weaving Instruction”, Winnipeg Tribune, April 18, 1942, p. 3.

5. Searle Grain Company, Ltd., (Weaving Department), Winnipeg, September 11, 1942.

6. H. G. L. Strange, op. cit., p. 2.

7. Dorothy Rankine, letter dated November, 1978 and K. Strange, op. cit., p. 11.

8. McEachern, op. cit., p. 3.

9. Dorothy Rankine, private interview, October 1981. Oscar Beriau himself was apparently most helpful in locating a collection of woven articles which the instructors could take to the rural communities to display and use as examples.

10. McEachern, op. cit., p. 3.

11. The first weaving course taught by la Societe d’Enseignement Postscolaire du Manitoba was given on July 27, 1941 at St. Joseph’s Institute and College in St. Boniface. Teaching of weaving by this organization in rural Manitoba then began in the fall of 1941. Institut et College St. Joseph, Chronicles IV (St. Boniface: July 27, 1941 and July 28, 1942).

12. Searle Grain Company, Limited (Research Department), Winnipeg, February 1, 1943.

13. Searle Grain (Research Department), op. cit.

14. Dorothy Rankine, private interview, October, 1981.

15. Searle Grain (Research Department), op. cit.

16. Dorothy Rankine, private interview, October, 1981.

17. Searle Grain (Research Department), op. cit.

18. Searle Grain (Research Department), op. cit.

19. Searle Grain (Research Department), op. cit.

20. Searle Grain Company Ltd., “Hand Loom Weaving: The Story of the Searle Grain Company’s Effort to Sponsor Hand-Loom Weaving Among the Farm Women of the Prairie Provinces” (Winnipeg: Searle Grain Company Ltd., July, 1944), p. 2.

21. Searle Grain (Research Department), op. cit.

22. Laura McHugh, 1940s Manitoba weaver, private interview, May, 1981.

23. Dorothy Rankine, letter to the author, October, 1981.

24. Searle Grain (Research Department), op. cit.

25. Searle Grain, “Hand Loom Weaving,” op. cit., p. 3.

26. H. G. L. Strange, open letter to weavers, June 19, 1944.

27. Searle Grain, “Hand Loom Weaving,” op. cit., p. 3.

28. Dorothy Rankine, private interview, October, 1981.

29. Robert Leclerc, Nilus Leclerc loom company, private interview, June, 1981.

30. Searle Grain, “Hand Loom Weaving,” p. 3.

31. Searle Grain Company Limited was incorporated June 27, 1929 under the Companies Act. The Application for Registration dated Dec. 17, 1932 listed Stewart Augustus Searle and Norman Lawrence Leach, grain dealers, as the first two of the five directors.

32. Dorothy Rankine, letter to the author dated October, 1981.

33. Dorothy Rankine, private interview, October, 1981.

34. Dorothy Rankine, private interview, October, 1981 and Greeting Cards with photo and text printed by the Searle Farm Home Weaving Service.

35. Searle Grain Farm Home Weaving Service, mail order price lists.

36. Dorothy Rankine, “Searle Suggestions,” Winnipeg (not always dated).

37. Dorothy Rankine, note to the author, October, 1981.

38. The Manitoba branch of the Handicrafts Guild was formed in 1928 and the Manitoba chapter of the Canadian Guild of Weavers was established in 1947.

39. Dorothy Rankine, private interview, October, 1981.

Page revised: 16 January 2016

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