Standing in front of a long arm quilting machine that sews large quilts pieces together Dolly Harasym said she prefers sewing the finer and smaller pieces together herself. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)

Standing in front of a long arm quilting machine that sews large quilts pieces together Dolly Harasym said she prefers sewing the finer and smaller pieces together herself. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)

Heart of our city: Dolly Harasym

Prince Rupert’s Dolly Harasym is threading pieces together to create a blanket of hugs

Dolly Harasym is known in many circles in Prince Rupert. Business circles, gardening circles, friendship circles, and sewing circles.

The sphere of her life brought her to the North Coast region in 1975, when she came like many others ‘for just one year’ to work in the cannery. However, with the tides of time that one year turned into the present day.

With good humour, Dolly laughed when she told The Northern View that after working all summer, she hadn’t made enough money to return home, so she is still here.

Married with two boys she lived for many years out in Crippen Cove on Digby Island. It was around 1978 0r 1979 that Dolly first became involved with quilting in the North Coast Quilters.

“A lot of us women who lived not in Prince Rupert, but in the outer islands started making quilts for babies, marriages, or sickness,” Dolly said.

It wasn’t as easy then as it today to make quilts, she said.

“We never even had power in the beginning,” she said of her life in Crippen Cove. “I had my first sewing machine. It was a Singer sewing machine that had a crank handle on the side to power it. So, you’d have to sew one-handed while you are turning the crank.”

The women would use scraps of fabric or recycled material because back then no one had a lot of money, Dolly said.

“Because we lived remotely it was easier to do a round-robin where somebody would start a centre, take it by boat to the next community and pass it on to somebody else.”

Sometimes, Dolly said, you couldn’t get the quilt to the next person by boat, so it would be flown by floatplane or mailed.

A round-robin in quilting is where someone starts the blaket centerpiece first and other quilters stitch their interpretive borders or layers around the centerpiece working outwards. Sometimes are there are rules and guidelines to follow, but other times not.

When the last person to work on the quilt was finished the group would get together and present the quilt to the person it was made for.

“When you make a quilt for someone, you put a lot of love into it, and you think of the person that you’re making it for. You try to have the quilt relate to their personality,” Dolly said, giving the example of a comfort quilt that she was recently part of making where they used an ocean and coastal theme because that was all about the recipient’s life.

“The way to make somebody feel a little better — the way for people to help if they don’t know how to help somebody is to make them a quilt.”

That’s just what Dolly did starting in October when local merchant Sarah Ridway’s fabric store was destroyed in a fire. One of the well-known features of the shop was the display of several quilts made by locals for various reasons, hanging in the store. When the fire happened all of the intricate blankets representing the lives of others and their work went up in flames. Ridgway was devastated at losing such heartfelt pieces, Dolly said.

Dolly put the call out to the local quilting community and within a couple of days, quilt squares made by individuals were arriving in her mailbox. Many hands worked together to create a quilt for Ridgway to show their support in her resilience in overcoming the obstacle of rebuilding her business, Dolly said.

Dolly has sewn the threads of people’s lives into many quilts, such as for friends whose husbands have lost their lives at sea. She also has sewn quilts that were made by local ladies and sent to Japan in an international aid effort after the 2011 Tsunami’s killed more than 20,000 people. These quilts were sent in partnership with quilts from sewers in Houston and driven to Calgary to be sent to the citizens of Japan that needed vital items to rebuild after the natural disaster.

Dolly has even been on the receiving end of the quilt making.

“I have to tell you,” she said. “Because I had my children a little bit earlier than when we started making quilts for our friend’s babies. My friend Kristen Miller initiated a quilt for me. So my friends surprised me with this beautiful garden quilt because I love gardening. So I just love it. It’s a beautiful quilt. Everybody made a square to do with gardening and it’s just so lively and colourful.”

Sewing quilts isn’t the only thing Dolly has sewn. She has also sewn men’s shorts in Vanuatu. In 1984 Dolly and her husband moved the family to the Pacific Island nation for his job with an international aid organization. He went to teach fishing techniques to the villagers, and she made a job for herself teaching the women to sew.

Dolly would purchase supplies and travel to different villages. She became one of them leading their sewing circles, sitting on the dirt ground with the women using another crank turned sewing machine.

While sewing took the women away from their traditional role of working in the gardens to produce food. The men were not too happy about that, Dolly said. However, they did find a way to appease the men – through shorts. The women learned sewing skills by having new shorts made for them when they came home from fishing.

Dolly said it was hard when the time came to leave the pacific, especially for her youngest son who was just three when they got there as he didn’t remember life in Prince Rupert or Canada.

“When we first got back to Canada in March, the boys refused to wear shoes, even though there was still snow on the ground. They just didn’t want to put their shoes on.”

“We were supposed to be influencing (the people of Vanuatu) and teaching them something good. I probably came away from our two-year stint learning just as much from them and their way of life.”

When Dolly and her family arrived back in Canada, she went back to quilting and to gardening, and to open a fish market that has become a Prince Rupert landmark. Yes, Dolly Harasym is the original Dolly from ‘Dolly’s Fishmarket.’ It’s her face that still graces the signage.

“That business was like having three separate businesses under one roof because you have your sales. You have the restaurant, and then in the back was the custom processing,” she said. “So, when you’re finished your day with the restaurant and the fish sales, a whole other session starts with the guys bringing in their fish to get processed. It was like the day never ended.”

Dolly eventually sold the business and the name attached to it. Now living in Prince Rupert after having left the Crippen Cove so the boys could attend high school, she turned her attention to gardening and started to manage a greenhouse, which she had done before when she lived in the outer islands.

“I had two greenhouses – talk about doing things the hard way, I would have to haul all these plants into town in the herring punt. Then I would have to lug them all up the ramp, into a truck, and then take them to Home Hardware to my greenhouse and sell my plants from there.”

“Of course, I would have to recruit my two boys to help me haul all the plants up the ramp,” she said. But that was a way for me to have work while living outside of town.”

“Gardening is another passion. In fact, it’s my first passion before sewing,” Dolly said.

But, Dolly is still quilting despite not being able to meet in a group to sew. She said there are two quilting groups in Prince Rupert that she belongs to. One of the groups even now makes quilts for children who are displaced from their homes by fires or to be placed in care.

“When children are (removed) from a home and taken away, they usually have nothing. They can be bounced around from home to home, with nothing that belongs to them,” she said. “They are given backpacks where they have their own toothbrush, toothpaste, and hairbrush. (We were asked) if we would make quilts to include in these backpacks. So that’s what did.”

“This might sound kind of mushy,” Dolly said. “But when when you’re making something for someone else, you really put the thought of that person into what you’re making. I think that thought stays with whatever you’ve made. So, when that person has that quilt wrapped around them, they know they’re being hugged by all these people … the quilt brings comfort and makes them feel good. It’s a nice piece of memory.”

K-J Millar | Journalist
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Heart of our City