Growing Craft in Community

Manitoba Craft Council new arts initiatives bridging communities

Spools of colorful thread and pelts of beaver, mink, and muskrat are piled up in a cozy, sun-filled room. Sheila Cailleau, a workshop instructor for Manitoba Craft Council (MCC), leads a group of volunteers in constructing fur mittens for Winnipeg’s homeless community.

“I wish I had a magic wand so I could make it so people didn’t need them. They could have them because they wanted them, instead of ‘oh my gosh, my hands are purple, I suck on my fingertips so I can get blood back into my hands’,” says Cailleau. “I’ve been there, done that, and it’s horrible.”

Many years ago, Cailleau experienced homelessness firsthand, spending a brief but challenging period on the street. Today, as leather worker and founder of Magpie Chiq, Cailleau says she looks back on those difficult times with gratitude, knowing it has given her a perspective that few others possess and through her lived experience she is reaching out to help others.

A woman with blonde hair and glasses with thick, dark frames smiles while holding a pair of black leather mittens with fur cuffs.
Sheila Cailleau with a pair of handmade mittens destined to keep a pair of hands warm this winter.

When pulling up to a traffic light, Cailleau says she would ask people what they needed; sometimes it was food, sometimes money, but often it was something to keep their hands warm. So, her journey began with a simple act of kindness—giving away mittens that she crafted for a living. Instead of selling the mittens, which retail for between $300-$600, she started distributing them to those in need on Winnipeg’s streets.

“I started to give away mitts that normally would have put food on my table, but this was just more important,” Cailleau explains. “I wanted to do it on a much larger scale, but I couldn’t afford to continue to give away the stuff that I would normally sell to support my family.”

Her determination to continue distributing her handcrafted mittens to those in need led her to a unique idea —repurposing fur coats that would otherwise end up in landfills.

One coat could yield multiple pairs of mittens, with the number depending on the coat’s size and type of fur. For instance, a midsized coat could produce up to six pairs of mittens, a full length coat up to nine pairs. This transformation not only provides much-needed warmth but also honours the animals and the owners these coats once belonged to.

When word got out, Cailleau’s project, Warm Hands Warm Hearts, received overwhelming support from the community, including from MCC who, with a grant from The Winnipeg Foundation, created two new partnerships through the Growing Craft initiative. The first project, Warm Hands Warm Hearts, helps support Cailleau’s work through a series of two-day workshops over the summer, each session with nearly 12 participants. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, with full sessions and a waitlist of hopeful volunteers. The first session is spent deconstructing the coats and cutting out the patterns, and the second is used to stitch together the pieces, transforming them into warm mittens.

The second Growing Craft project is with MOSAIC Newcomer Family Resource Centre. MCC offered four Métis beading workshops to English as an Additional Language (EAL) learners, with more than 70 people attending.

We want to have a way for people who just love making to be involved. They don’t have to be professionals.

Tammy Sutherland, Director, Manitoba Craft Council

“A lot of our communities’ kind of exist in their own little places and they do their own kind of thing, and I think that being able to use craft as a means of building community and connections is a really beautiful commitment,” said Tammy Sutherland, director of the MCC.

While most of the work the MCC does involves the professional craft sector, Sutherland says it is equally important to get involved in the local community.

“On an organizational level we’re always trying to reach new communities and new audiences – our goal is to support and promote crafts. Most of what we do is in the professional craft sector, but we also want to be part of the local community,” Sutherland explains. “We want to have a way for people who just love making to be involved. They don’t have to be professionals.”

A woman with glasses, a bandana and long earrings works on a pair of mittens.

Although Cailleau is an expert, not all the volunteers are, and what started as a personal endeavor has evolved into a community effort. Cailleau says everyone played a part in Warm Hands Warms Hearts, either by donating fur coats or helping with the transformation process.

“I’m so grateful for everybody coming in to help. Every single thing they did, no matter how great or small they thought it was, was tremendous,” Cailleau exclaims. “It was tremendous because it helped put a pair of mittens on a pair of hands.”

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