Nova Scotia Archives

Mary E. Black

Biographical Essay

Mary Ellouise Black was born on 18 September 1895 at Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. The eldest daughter of William M. and Ellouise (Eldridge) Black, she received her early education in the schools of Wolfville, N.S., and graduated from Acadia Ladies Seminary in 1913. From 1914 to 1919 she was employed first by the Town of Wolfville and later by the Royal Bank of Canada.

It could be said that Mary Black's career as a weaver started when she was aged eight in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, after she saw a picture of a Native loom. Left on her own one day, she built a small loom. By evening, she had woven a grass doormat and the family wiped muddy boots on it for years.

In June of 1919, at age 23, she was trained as a ward occupation aide at McGill University in Montreal under a special program established by the federal government for disabled soldiers. Her first assignment upon her return was to the Nova Scotia Tuberculosis Sanatorium in Kentville. From there she was transferred to the Nova Scotia Hospital in Dartmouth in 1920, where she taught crafts to men returned from the trench warfare of World War I, and subsequently organised an occupational therapy program there for civilians.

She once wrote that there was much more to be achieved through occupational therapy than had been realized, and perceiving no future for her own professional advancement in the province, she moved to the U.S.A. in 1922.

From 1922 to 1932 she was employed first at Massachusetts State Hospital in Boston, and later at the Traverse City State Hospital in Michigan, where she organised and directed occupational therapy programs for the mentally ill. In 1932 she was transferred to Ypsilanti, Michigan, where a new hospital opened that was the first on the continent to use occupational (and recreational) therapy as a standard treatment for the mentally ill. From 1939 to 1948 she did similar work at the Milwaukee Sanatorium. During these years in the United States she also found time to join a number of occupational therapy groups and to produce several articles and writings.

"By 1940 Black wanted to come home to Nova Scotia. Word of the movement to revive Nova Scotia's rural arts and crafts had reached her in Milwaukee, and she started to write letters to anyone in the province who might advance her interests." [Ian McKay, "The Quest of the Folk", p. 165] In 1942, she was asked by the Province of Nova Scotia to return to the province to organize a provincial handcrafts program. "On August 18, 1942, Harold Connolly, the Minister of Industry and Publicity and a tourism zealot, wrote to Mary Black, an expatriate Nova Scotia and authority on handicrafts: "It is important that we get our arts and crafts set-up into operation immediately and for that reason it is imperative that we secure the services of a director at once." [Ian McKay, "The Quest of the Folk", p. 164]. Perceptive and pragmatic, she recognized "...a distinct group problem to be dealt with - a problem of inadequacy and defeatism." Subsequently she became Supervisor of Handcrafts for the Department of Industry and Publicity (later Trade and Industry), a position she held until her retirement in 1954.

Under her guidance, crafts people in rural communities were encouraged to develop and market their work, and classes in crafts were held all over the province to assist fledgling artists. She organized centres to teach and promote weaving, ceramics and needlework. As a result, a more tourism-oriented crafts industry emerged in the province. During her tenure in the Handcrafts Division, Black provided valuable sponsorship for the development of the Nova Scotia tartan by Bessie Murray in 1953.

Realizing a need for instructional texts, Mary Black extended her teaching of weaving through writing. Among her best-known works was The Key to Weaving, published in 1945, and reprinted 19 times. During her lifetime it sold over 100,000 copies worldwide. Mary did revisions to her masterpiece and brought it out as The New Key to Weaving. This work became the bible of weavers internationally. A well-known weaver and author, Harriet Tidball, dedicated a copy of her own work Foundations for Handweavers to "Mary Black, a "Guiding Light" to all of us weavers".

Other well-known publications included "Weaving for Beginners (1953), Handweavers' Reference" (1954), The Sett and Weaving of Tartans (1954), and You Can Weave (1974, co-authored with Bessie Murray). From 1944 to 1955 she was writer and editor of The Handcrafts Bulletin for the Nova Scotia government, and, with Joyce Chown, she was co-owner and publisher of the bi-monthly Shuttlecraft Bulletins, 1957 to 1960. With Joyce Chown, she also wrote The Ready Reference Tables" (1956), the Colour Guide for Handweavers (1958) and the Thread Guide for Handweavers (1959).

She retired in 1954, but her 12 years' work in Nova Scotia had a lasting impact. Crafts people found pride and profit in their work; cottage industries arose which continue to thrive and still provide finely crafted goods.

During her lifetime, Mary belonged to a number of diverse organizations, including the Zonta Club of Halifax, the Nova Scotia branch of the Canadian Authors' Association, and the Canadian Crafts Council. She took a number of weaving courses, including one in Sweden and one at Penland, North Carolina, both of which were world-famous. She was also an accredited master weaver of the Boston Society of Fine Arts and of the Guild of Canadian Weavers.

Mary Black also helped to establish professional organizations: the Guild of Canadian Weavers, the Nova Scotia Craftsmen's Guild, and the Halifax Weavers' Guild. In 1971, the Atlantic Spinners and Handweavers (A.S.H.) appointed Mary their Honorary President for Life.

Her later life did not see a curtailment of her activities; in 1975 she was instrumental in establishing the Tideways Co-Operative Housing Complex for senior citizens in Wolfville, N.S. and sat on its board of directors for several years.

Mary E. Black died on February 11, 1988, at age 92. Her estate bequeathed to the Atlantic Spinners and Handweavers, a hand-made chest containing, in orderly sequence, the collection of superbly woven textile samples along with research notes and correspondence relating to her published works.



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