Bees are busy and sister teams bring good things together. So The Bee Sisters was the perfect name for Newfoundland artists B (Margaret) and Bern (Bernadette) Whalen. Although between them they hold numerous university degrees, the creation of Newfoundland art is what makes the Bee Sisters buzz.
The two grew up in Stephenville Newfoundland in the twilight years of the American Harmon Air Force Base. Times were rollicking forward in the American satellite town, but deep Newfoundland traditions held strong.
Bern says, “Our nan (Mary) and mom (Annie) were strong, uncompromising women. They raised their families, cooked, baked, cleaned, sewed, served the community and amid all that there was always at least one project on the go.
Could be a patchwork quilt for the newlyweds, a crocheted christening gown for the next generation, and an afghan for the chesterfield. There was always something and they took pride in their work.
We took it seriously. We learned by osmosis. Almost.”
Mary and Annie made and created with skills honed by time and use.
From full-sized hand-stitched quilts to the tiniest newborn knits, the works were highly skilled labours of love and time.
B says, “We’re celebrating our history with colours, shape, and texture, built on a foundation of practicality. The women would approve.”
“There are many types,” explains Bern, “but a quilt is a very specific thing. It has components and processes that make it a quilt. Three layers sewn together with a longarm machine - the pattern of the stitching offsets the colours and design - and it's finished with binding. All this comes together to create beautiful, comfortable, warm and useful pieces of art."
There are many styles, fabrics and patterns - patchwork or scrappy, panel, postage stamp, log cabin, t-shirt/memory - and some patterns are proprietary.
The Bee Sisters can make any type of quilt but have a special love for the ‘scrappy’, which has bits and pieces of clothing and materials and memories as the top. Bern says, “In those days, waste was never an option, and now we’re realizing that all over again.”
They’re also sought after for the ‘t-shirts of childhood’ quilt.
“I’m a mother to three young men, and they had hundreds and hundreds of t-shirts and jerseys from one team or another. When they overgrew the clothes I used them to make them each a quilt. All those memories are stitched together as a practical and functional keepsake of their childhood.”
Like the quilt, the afghan has specific properties.
“Essentially,” says B, “it’s a blanket knit or crocheted with yarn. It can be squares or lines, or cables of wool or cotton or acrylic. While they can be simple straight knit, the patterns can get very complex.”
B knits rather than crochets, and she does the full range. There are bed afghans, chesterfield afghans, lap afghans and shrug afghans. They can be heavy, and afghan fans say that weight is a favourite feature.
B’s afghans take months to make. “But,” she says, “they last longer than a lifetime.”
Tiny perfect booties knit on the finest gauge needles fit tiny perfect feet, The Bee Sisters babywear lines are soft, warm, and feel great as they look on tiny humans.
They typically work on their own, but when they get together Bee Sisters quilt with a capital BEE. “That’s when the fun starts,” says B, “There’s no holding back on quality control. Nan would have liked that.”
The Bee Sisters bring out the opposites in each other. Bern is happiest at the longarm sewing machine or bringing together thousands of tiny pieces of material. B loves the cumberance of knitting up a 5 lb blanket, but also the delicate work of baby things.”
There is nothing off-limits to what The Bee Sisters will make next. B says, “We have hungry minds and there’s always something new - or old - to spark our interest. Bern recently started working rope bowls (bowls made from rope she worsted). We appreciate each other - we create things we love, and we push each other forward. It’s a great business model.”