One of the first occupational therapists in Canada

“I was born with crafts, among people accustomed to doing things with their hands.”

Mary E. Black was one of the pioneer occupational therapists in Canada who studied, developed and practiced in the early 1920s. She spent most of her professional career in the United States. It was during her 21 years across the border that she wrote a definitive book on weaving. This book has become a durable classic; it has been revised and updated three times. Owned by most handweavers in North America, it is regarded as the bible of weaving. Perhaps it was the analytical approach - which Mary E. Black learned in her practice of OT - that guided her in the mechanics of weaving to produce a book that has remained relevant for over 60 years.

Born Sept. 18, 1895, in Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, she was educated in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, and early on showed an aptitude for craft work. She taught herself as a child to weave a “coarse and crude mat” from marsh grass. Mary graduated from Acadia Ladies Seminary in 1913. In 1919, she took an occupational therapy course in Montreal. Run by the federal government, the goal was to train ward aides for the Soldiers Civil Re-establishment (SCR) program.

Mary E. Black had a long and varied career, training in Nova Scotia and continuing to practice throughout the United States. She began as a ward aid in Dartmouth, NS, helping soldiers who were returning from the war to reintegrate into society. Her career also led her to instructing student nurses in OT at the University of Michigan. Then she returned to Nova Scotia in the 1940s, bringing an OT perspective to her work with handcrafts, for example, while directing a program for the provincial government.

Practice areas

1919-1920: SCR ward aid at Nova Scotia Hospital in Dartmouth
1921-1922: organized and conducted OT program for civilian patients
1922-1923: lectured on psychiatry and crafts at Boston State Hospital in Blue Hills, Mass.
1923-1932: organized and directed OT program, instructed student nurses in OT procedures at State Hospital in Traverse City, Mich.
1932- 1939: organized and directed OT and Industrial Therapy programs at Michigan State Hospital in Ypsilanti; instructed student nurses in OT from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
1939- 1943: re-organized OT and set up program that valued OT for patients in specialized environments at Milwaukee Sanitarium in Wanwatosa, Wisc.; worked on manuscript for Key to Weaving
1943- 1945: organized and directed handcrafts program for the Nova Scotia government in Halifax
1956-1960: co-owner of Shuttle Craft Guild in Bedford, NS, published the Shuttle Craft Bulletin

Mary E. Black conducted extensive research in early developmental OT. Research for her most influential book, Key to Weaving, originated from material she collected while working as an OT at Michigan State Hospital in Ypsalanti, when a fellow OT requested weaving information for a patient. Mary E. Black spread out patterns and information she had and decided to write a book about weaving. In 1941, while approaching Bruce Publishing Company, of Milwaukee, to accept a book on knitted doll’s clothes written by her sister, the publisher said what he really wanted was a textbook on weaving. In 1943, she presented this manuscript, but due to the lack of paper because of World War II, it was not published until August 1945.

Books

Key to Weaving (1945): published by Bruce Publishing Co. Milwaukee, Wisc.
About 65,000 copies sold by 1979
Weaving for Beginners (1953): compiled by request for the federal department of Physical Education; published by the Canadian government.
Sett and Weaving of Tartans (1954): published by Lily Mills Co. Shelby, NC
You Can Weave (1974): published by McLelland and Stewart

Publications

1925-1955: wrote many articles on various phases of OT and handcrafts, published in OT bulletins, Family Herald, Weekly Star and Handcraft bulletins
1938-1943: assistant editor of the American Journal of OT
1942: wrote chapter on OT Treatment for the Acutely and Chronically Ill Neuropsychiatric War Casualty
1943-1960: edited and wrote much of the material for Handcrafts, the bi-monthly bulletin of the Handcrafts division, department of Trade and Industry

Mary E. Black’s most profound influence on the community occurred during the 12 years she served as the director of the Handcrafts division of the department of Industry and Publicity, which later became Trade and Industry. From 1943 to 1955, she used a community development approach, helping people to help themselves. Drawing from her OT background, she encouraged people to learn to make “simple and useful things” with excellent workmanship and good colours. She provided resources, education and showed how to improve quality and marketability. During this time and subsequent years, she was consulted nationally and internationally and received many honours for her contributions.

Lasting evidence of Mary E. Black’s influence on society is her Key to Weaving. If you mention her name to any North American weaver, most will have a copy of her book on their shelves. It remains the basic “bible” for technique and problem solving for weaving issues. Drawing on her OT background, she was able to analyze the tasks and present the information in clear, concise terms so that her book and name has stood the test of time.

Throughout her career, Mary E. Black was actively involved in OT associations, frequently holding official positions, such as the president of the Michigan OT Association from 1936-1938. She also actively participated in many handcrafts and arts associations in the United States and Canada. However, she will long be remembered for starting weaving guilds locally in Halifax, provincially, with the Atlantic Society of Handweavers, and finally collaborating nationally in 1948, to form the Guild of Canadian Weavers. In 1949, she was the honorary president of the national guild.

Mary E. Black died on Feb. 11, 1988.

Resources

Wendy Landry, professor at the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design
Public Archives of Nova Scotia
Joyce Chown, co-owner of the Shuttle Craft Guild in Bedford, NS

Bibliography

Autobiographical Resume: Mary Ellouise Black: 1980
Biography of Mary E. Black: Wendy Landry
New Key to Weaving: Mary Black (O.T.R)