Inspiring generations of spinners, weavers, and knitters

Lydia van Gelder at the Oakland Museum of California, at their Samplings textile festival 2006. Photo: Susan Sullivan Maynard.

Susan's ikat vest made from a scrap fabric, left over from an upholstery job that attracted Lydia's attention.

Lydia's ninetieth birthday party where we all wore handspun, handknitted socks. Lydia is second from the right. Photo: Nancy Alegria.

Happy birthday, Lydia van Gelder!

Every region has their own inspiring teachers and active guild members, Maggie Casey is both here in northern Colorado—we are lucky to have them to push our craft. Susan Sullivan Maynard of the Spindles & Flyers guild, in Northern California, wrote a couple weeks ago alerting us to the 100th birthday of Lydia van Gelder. We invited her to share Lydia's story here with you.

Susan Sullivan Maynard:  Lydia van Gelder, weaver, spinner, dyer, knitter, tatting expert, author, and teacher, turns 100 years old today. She has been a major inspiration for us in Sonoma County and Northern California. Her favorite expression is "it's not what you know, but what you do with it."

I first met Lydia at a textile gathering because she was following me closely, tracing the treads in the ikat vest I wore in order to figure out how the wedge shapes were tied and dyed. Ikat normally has parallel sides. It was a scrap of Laotian ikat silk designed by Jack Lenor Larsen. I did not know when I first met Lydia that she had written a book on ikat or was friends with the fabric designer. The next time we met, she had researched the fabric, found a design book with a photograph, and could explain how to tie ikat into that unusual shape.

Lydia taught textiles for decades, most recently at Santa Rosa Junior College, and therefore influencing decades of local textile practitioners. Her classes included spinning, weaving, dyeing with natural materials, tatting, knitting, sprang, and many other techniques. She wrote two books on ikat and many magazine articles, including one in the first years of Threads magazine that explained how to dye threads for self-patterning knitting.

Lydia's first major exhibition piece was her Houses on a Street tapestry on display at the 1939 World's Fair on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay; now in the Cooper Hewett National Design Museum in New York. A favorite blouse she wove of handspun cotton singles was ikat indigo striped and started as cotton lint. I suspect she may have grown some of the cotton in her back garden. Another favorite garment is a handspun qiviut sweater, but there are many lovely handwoven coats and dresses in her closets from the 1940s through 1960s when formal outfits were in style. Her house is filled with art and textiles: rugs, cushions, framed sculptural pieces, blankets, looms with work in process, spinning and knitting workbaskets by chairs. Her small front yard was planted with a pair of eucalyptus trees, producing different shades of orange dye.

At Lydia's ninetieth birthday party and spinners gathering, we were asked to wear handknitted socks in recognition of Lydia's knitting handspun socks for her three sons (with size 13 feet, no less) all their lives. One woman admitted that Lydia transformed her from a horse woman to a shepherd because Lydia taught her to spin and encouraged her to breed a flock of exceptional colored Romneys.

One quick handspun knitting project Lydia regularly kept at hand were gloves. But they weren't your typical gloves—they were knitted with bracelets, wedding ring, pinkies, green thumbs, and dirty fingernails! Another item Lydia knitted in the thousands were far-from-ordinary cotton pot holders, double-knitted with checkerboard colors and tatted edgings. This is the only knitted item I saw of hers in which she used millspun yarn.

Needless to say, I am in awe of Lydia, for her talents and her generosity. She still attends "Tuesday night group" as her students would not give up their class night when Lydia retired from teaching about twenty years ago.

Susan Sullivan Maynard

Books by Lydia.van Gelder:
Ikat, Techniques for Designing and Weaving Warp, Weft, Double and Compound Ikat (Watson-Guptill, 1980).
Ikat II, Ikat with Warp, Weft, Double Compound Weaving, Shifu and Hand and Machine Knitting (Unicorn Books, 1996).

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