Needlework Guild of Canada Celebrates 125 Years | Toronto Star

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Little known organization with a big mandate: Ensuring Toronto’s most needy are properly clothed.

By JULIEN GIGNAC | Toronto Star
Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017

Mary Ethel Weatherseed has been a member of the Needlework Guild of Canada for 84 years, a little known organization with a big mandate: ensuring Toronto’s most needy are properly clothed.

“No one has heard much about us,” said the 96-year-old. “People are always surprised that we’re still around.”

The guild, a registered charity, celebrated its 125th anniversary Tuesday, but aside from commemorative cake and speeches, it was primarily about business. There was a din in the basement of Yorkminster Park Baptist Church, where scores of volunteers hurriedly worked to organize and distribute about 4,000 handmade articles of clothing to 21 local social service agencies. Some worked their way down checklists, while others helped locate desired items. Store bought garments were also being prepared to be carted away to serve underprivileged communities. Items included mittens, toques, socks and blankets.

President Susan Garskey said the original guild began in England in 1882 and was exported to Toronto about 10 years later.

Since its inception, its principles have remained the same.

“It’s about helping those who are less fortunate than ourselves,” she said. “It’s making sure they have clothing, an optional extra. To me, it’s an unsung hero that’s just gone on for years and so many people don’t know about it.”

Ont. Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell attended the guild’s distribution day — her first time, she said.

“I get to pick out things to give to several charities,” she said, which included Haven Toronto and Yonge Street Mission. “I have just found 30 hats for men.

“As we get into the cold weather season, we know how many are in need of warm clothing,” she said. “This is what makes communities come together, the fact that people care enough to work during the year and help make life a little easier for someone else.”

The guild has been carried down generationally, Garskey said. Her grandmother and mother were both members.

“We actually predate the Ministry of Community and Social Services,” she said.

There are about 300 volunteers. Each person annually contributes two handmade items or financial donations, which goes towards purchasing garments. It’s made up of Toronto residents, but there are some who send in their donations from outside the city, Garskey, who lives in Peterborough, said.

Sixty-eight layettes surround Joyce Hisey, an executive member — some are stacked almost as tall as she is. They are for single mothers and contain things like knitted toy bears, sweaters and hygienic products for babies.

“We have a lot of people who are short of everything,” she said. “The requests from the agencies keep coming in all the time.”

Other agencies include Children’s Aid Society of Toronto, Native Child and Family Services and Sistering.

There’s been a sharp demand for layettes over the years, she said.

“We used to do 24,” she said. “The agencies came and asked for double.”

Lieutenant Governor of Ontario Elizabeth Dowdeswell, centre, cuts a cake commemorating the 125th anniversary of the Needlework Guild of Canada on Tuesday. Dowdeswell said she got “to pick out things to give to several charities.”
Richard Baron, John Collins, Hilary Dore and Mary Lewis, left to right, help organize thousands of handmade clothing during distribution day of the Needlework Guild of Canada. The original guild began in England in 1882 and was exported to Toronto about 10 years later.

TORONTO – Canada’s birthday won’t be the only one celebrated this year.  2017 also marks the 125th birthday of the Needlework Guild of Canada (NGC), Toronto Branch, whose mission statement is “to provide new knitted goods and clothing to local social agencies which care for those in need”.

The Needlework Guild was originally founded in England in response to various needs and disasters, and similar groups were formed in other parts of England, Bermuda, the U.S. and Canada.

The Toronto Branch of the Needlework Guild has operated continuously since 1892 and agencies supported by this group include the Elizabeth Fry Society, Children’s Aid of Toronto, the Good Neighbours’ Club, Jessie’s Centre, Native Child & Family Services, the Scott Mission and others who benefit from the amazing work done by the Branch. From the gathering to the creating to the distribution, the volunteer-driven initiative is nothing short of amazing – from the most intricately knitted child’s toy to the lovingly handmade hats, sweaters, gloves and more, everything made is truly from the heart.

The message was powerfully brought home days before the holidays officially started, when the official NGC Distribution Day saw “volunteers unpack hundreds of donated clothing (mitts, hats, sweaters, baby layettes, adult clothing, etc.) for the 21 Toronto social agencies we serve,” said Yvonne Worthington, also a volunteer. The event took place at the Yorkminster Part Baptist Church at Yonge St. and St. Clair Ave. (build in the early 1900’s which has been home base for distribution for many years.

Worthington says the Guild’s history is as rich as the yarns used to create all the pieces of clothing and toys made by the volunteers, many who have been members for years – some decades. The oldest member, 95-year-old Evelyn Chipperfield, is still working hard not only making the items, but helping to sort and to give out knitted clothing to the 21 agencies served by the Branch.

Another member, Joan Woodland is also the Branch’s official archivist and has annual reports dating back 124 years, making for interesting reading especially when you happen upon the vastly altered names of some agencies such as “Home for Incurables” and “Home for the Criminally Insane”, not to mention the orphanages that pre-date today’s more politically correct titles.

In its heyday, the NGC was run by Toronto’s elite ladies – some with titles – before becoming the volunteer-driven organization it is today. No titles but plenty of dedicated people who want to make the community a better place one knit knot at a time.

Christmas 2017 is a good 12 months away, but already the Branch is hard at work to ensure another successful year will be matched. If you’re a knitter or looking to volunteer for a cause that’s not only worthy but steeped in Canadian history, check out the Needlework Guild of Canada’s Toronto Branch.

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