Gwen Handler & Winnie Dreier
Learning to knit as a young child from her own mother, Gwen Handler is now a master wool worker, an occupational tradition that has been practiced in Maryland for several centuries.
Brought to the region in the 17th century from the British Isles, wool work was practiced throughout present-day Maryland and passed down through the generations. It is believed that prior to the Industrial Revolution, every household in the state had three spinners and a weaver. This work was typically done by the women and daughters in a family, each having their own unique techniques and characteristics for spinning the wool, much like secret family recipes that are handed down.
Nearly four decades ago, Handler bought Hill Farm, located in Westminster. At her home, Handler not only raises her own sheep for shearing but also hosts gatherings wherein she teaches weaving, spinning, and dyeing workshops in her studio, doing her part to teach the next generation. Much of the current interest in the practice can be traced to the “back to the land” movement of the 20th century, with wool work falling into the growing cottage industry among farmers and artisans in Maryland’s agricultural counties. Winnie Dreier, with whom Handler is working through the Maryland State Arts Council’s (MSAC) Folklife Apprenticeship Program (2021-22), is one of those who took an interest in the classes being offered. Dreier, a former special education teacher and now faculty member at Towson University, uses hand weaving as a teaching tool and an example of arts integration for her student-teaching interns.
At the National Folk Festival, Handler, along with Dreier, will demonstrate the traditional methods of wool fleece as a functional textile through spinning and weaving. Known for her skill and winner of several awards and recognitions, Handler is also chairman of the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, which received a Maryland Heritage Award from MSAC in 2008. This national event is hosted annually, and, as Handler explains, “teaches, celebrates, and promotes all things sheep and wool, and is a testament to the rich culture and wool work in Maryland.”