A new guild and its intrepid founder keep old handmade traditions alive.
Karen Puracan’s love of the fiber arts goes back to her childhood visits to her grandmother’s house in Battle Creek, Michigan.
“Whenever we would go over to see Grandma on the weekends, she would be crocheting something,” Puracan reminisced.
These days, the Ocala-based fiber artist, naturalist, educator and historic preservationist deals with one of adult life’s most arduous undertakings as a caregiver for her mother.
Weaving on her own or with others gives Puracan solace and a social outlet.
“These are crafts that go back hundreds and thousands of years,” Puracan expressed with pride and reverence. “Spinning goes back to Old Testament times and before, from 5,000 to 6,000 years ago—and that’s just spinning and weaving.”
Although crafting rugs, clothing and crocheted items is no longer necessary for survival, Puracan maintains that the tradition of fiber arts is a way to celebrate history, work with one’s hands and engender a sense of community.
She conducts demonstrations in pioneer dress at local festivals and at the Barberville Pioneer Settlement, a village of preserved historic buildings constructed around two centuries ago, located at 1776 Lightfoot Lane, Barberville (a block off State Road 40 in Volusia County).
Puracan also formed the Schoolhouse Fiber Guild, which meets from 1-3 p.m. on the third Saturday of every month in the schoolhouse at the settlement. You don’t have to be a member to attend, but you must pay the admission fee to the settlement.
The guild officially gathered for their first meetup on May 21 this year. “I think 20 chairs were set up initially, but we had to get more out!” Puracan posted on her Facebook page.
“All sorts of artisans showed up—some spinners, a weaver, knitters, crocheters, basketry people, a talented felter and even a tatter!” (Tatting, by the way, involves crafting with knots and loops to make lace edging, doilies, collars, earrings, necklaces, and other decorative pieces.”
“We’ve got teenagers on up to senior citizens,” Puracan said of the group’s age range. “One of our two teenagers has her fingers in several crafts. … We’ve also got professionals, retirees, a really good mix of people. A really nice cross-section.”
Later on, life took Puracan in new directions. She attended Silliman University in the Philippines, received a Bachelor of Science degree in biology in 1993, and met her husband in the Pacific Island nation. They share a daughter who is about to start college.
The Puracan family moved to Ocala from Michigan in 2010. Since then, Karen worked at the Discovery Science Center and at the ranger station at Silver Springs State Park.
Her love of spinning arose from “the dusty corners” of her brain.
“Growing up as a little girl, I’ve always been fascinated with a spinning wheel, Just the pictures of a spinning wheel would sound off something in the back of my head, and I’d think, ‘Oh, I would love to learn how to use a spinning wheel,’” she said.
In 2013, while teaching a Florida Master Naturalist class, her dream would be realized.
“I was the instructor and I had about, oh, a dozen or so students, adult students, and we had to have an icebreaker every meeting,”
Puracan brought up a discussion question: “If time and money were no obstacle and you could learn anything in the world, what would it be? What would you like to do?”
When it was her turn, Puracan blurted out. “I want to learn to use a spinning wheel!’” She said it without forethought as if possessed by a ghost from the past.
At the following week’s class meeting, a spinning wheel appeared.
“One of the students had a spinning wheel that she gave up on,” Puracan recounted. “She told me, ‘I don’t have the time, I don’t have the patience, I don’t have the skill level to do this here—take it.’”
Puracan’s spinning skills didn’t develop overnight, and her wheel stood neglected for a few years, but the opportunity to learn how to spin from an expert, like the wheel, was serendipitous. While conducting a quilting demonstration during the annual Ocali Country Days at the Silver River Museum & Environmental Education Center inside Silver Springs State Park in 2016, she overheard some passersby mention a woman on the spinning wheel.
“My ears perked right up,” Puracan recalled with zeal. “I abandoned my post right then and there and hightailed it over to the cabin, where there was this older lady, Annie Stumpf, who was spinning away on the most beautiful spinning wheel I’d ever seen. I asked her, ‘If I bring my spinning wheel tomorrow, will you teach me?’ And she said yes.”
Sadly, Puracan never saw Stumpf after that, but she followed her advice to “spin every day for one hour, for one year, rain or shine.”
Now, Puracan makes shawls, socks, blankets and just about anything that can be woven, stitched or knitted by hand.
“I now do demos all over this part of Florida, and have my own yarn shop,” Puracan shared. “Just goes to show how far taking a few moments of one’s time to teach someone something can go.”
For more information on the Schoolhouse Fiber Guild or the Barberville Pioneer Settlement, call (386) 749-2959 or visit pioneersettlement.org.