Preserving the past with felt: Ruth Ost Towner

Ruthie untwists her thread, straightens her shoulders, reaches for a cup of coffee, and calculates her felt-making outcome.

Alaska felt artist Ruthie Ost Towner holds an example of her work in this undated photo. Towner’s work is on display at the Soldotna Visitor Center through September. (Photo courtesy Naomi Gaede-Penner)

Alaska felt artist Ruthie Ost Towner holds an example of her work in this undated photo. Towner’s work is on display at the Soldotna Visitor Center through September. (Photo courtesy Naomi Gaede-Penner)

By Naomi Gaede-Penner

Author’s note: Ruthie Ost Towner brought her felt craft from Nome to the Kenai-Soldotna area in 1967. In 1987, I interviewed this intriguing woman, who passed away on May 1, 1994, at the age of 77. This September her work will be displayed at the Soldotna Visitor Center.

It has been said that “Home is Where Your Story Begins.” If a book were written about Ruth Ost Towner, there would be a fascinating backstory of her life. Her mother, Ruth Elin Hall, was an American-born daughter of Swedish immigrants. Her father was Reverend Ludvig Evald Ost. On July 18, 1910, in Ashland, Wisconsin, the two married. The honeymooners arrived in Nome, Alaska, on Aug. 1, 1910, to work as missionaries for the Swedish Covenant Church. Ruth Elin Hall Ost is in the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame.

The Ost’s daughter, Ruth Evangeline Christine, met Earl Towner in Nome, and they were married in December 1939. The couple raised four sons and one daughter in Nome before moving to Kenai, Alaska, in 1967.

It was at Soldotna Bible Chapel that the Gaede and Towner families became friends. In 1987, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ruth Evangeline Christine Ost Towner at her modest home in Kenai. Given her background, there were many trails to run down, but what intrigued me the most, and compelled me to ask questions, was her felt craft — the trademark of her openhearted gift giving.

Come with me to that winter day. Sip a cup of tea. Look around. Listen.

Ruthie is a solid woman who has lived the story of an Alaska pioneer. Her soft gray hair is plaited neatly away from her patient face, and her braids make her look like an overgrown little girl. Steeped in Alaskan heritage, Ruthie translates her nearly 70 years of Alaskan life into felt scenes of blanket tosses, dog sleds, caches and ice fishing. As we begin our conversation, Ruthie secures the first of approximately 5,500 stitches onto a 155-piece aurora borealis-colored felt banner. If she works on it continuously, she will finish the banner of fireweed pinks, lupine blues and birch in 12 hours.

Sitting in her living room, surrounded by pictures of her five children, 19 grandchildren, and 101-year-old father, Ruthie explains how these visual textile accounts began. “My husband and l lived in Nome, and in about 1963, our church women began to sew felt jackets. Each jacket was uniquely designed, lined, and had ivory buttons. They sold quickly to tourists. We made enough money to support our Native missionaries in western Alaska.”

Unlike the Alaska crafts of beadwork, ivory carving and basket weaving, the interest in felt jackets diminished. Also, unlike other Alaska work, the medium for this artistry was not obtained from the natural resources around them. Felt was not easy to come by.

“We used to order felt from California and Connecticut, but we never knew what we’d get!” Ruthie chuckles and adds, “Occasionally, they’d send material resembling cardboard! I started sending felt samples to accompany my orders and wrote notes: ‘This is what I want.’” Later, washable felt was available from local merchants.

The felt jackets, which served such a worthy purpose, became as rare as the Alaskan musk ox. Their extinction, however, produced a new line of felt items. “After a while, we tired of the jacket project,” she says. “I encouraged the making of felt pillows, and on Thursday afternoons or evenings, the Native women would spend hours helping with this new project. Then, when we moved our family to Kenai, I carried on the pillow project by myself. Only occasionally do some of the women in Nome still make pillows.”

One of the most unusual requests for a pillow arrived from the junior high girls’ basketball team in Valdez. After winning the state tournament in 1969, the girls wished to present their coach with a special gift. How did Ruthie know what to make? Her eyes twinkle. “I usually lay awake at night and think up what I want to do. Then, the idea becomes visible in my mind.”

This time, the special gift idea was a pillow for the Valdez coach featuring cheerleaders on a dogsled, a fish bucket for a basketball hoop, and huskies chasing basketballs.

In addition to finding their way to almost every state, her pillows journeyed, via friends to South America, Africa, Europe, Iceland and Turkey. Their theme never varied but always portrayed colorful Alaska traditions, often against a backdrop of moss greens, glacier blues, Nome gold or black winter darkness.

“I sent a pillow for a wedding gift to Sen. Stevens in Washington, D.C.,” she recalls. “Then I went to New York City in 1975, as Mother of the Year for Alaska; I took along 51 small felt pillows to exchange as gifts with the other mothers — at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.”

Over the years, designing banners found its way into her felt work. Again, from Valdez, a request reached Ruthie — this time for a special wedding banner. With minimal guidelines, Ruthie once more used her imagination to complete the custom-made motif. “I so enjoyed that!” Ruthie says, her face beaming.

In the planning for a centennial celebration in Minneapolis, Ruthie’s Covenant Church commissioned her to create a 3-by-6-foot banner. She cut felt representations of an Alaska map, a cross, the 15 Covenant churches in Alaska at that time, Alaskan wildlife, Alaska Natives, and a Missionary Aviation Repair Center (MARC) plane.

Just as the pillows traveled the world, so also banners made their journeys. “One even found its way into the Peruvian president’s office,” exclaims Towner. She is excited yet a bit bashful with that revelation. Smaller 18-by-24-and-a quarter-inch banners rapidly grew popular with her increasing clientele of friends.

Ruthie untwists her thread, straightens her shoulders, reaches for a cup of coffee, and calculates her felt-making outcome. “In 1986, I sewed by request or for gifts, 890 banners, 82 pillows, 14 hoop pictures, six handbags, four Christmas stockings, and three mini-pillows with only one scene.” Within this bountiful collection, each felt product is as unique as the myriad of Arctic Circle lakes.

Why doesn’t she sell to stores? “I have enough orders as it is; besides, I have other things to do: mending, sewing, playing with my grandchildren.” And, everyone knows that when there is a wedding shower at church, Ruthie can be counted on to design and complete a just-for-that-couple felt gift.

“Who knows what I’ll try next?” She says teasingly. Rest assured, the “next” will continue to preserve the great Alaskan past.

In the same way Alaskan artist Jon Van Zyle applies brushes and Robert Service manipulated words, Ruthie Ost Towner, Alaska’s felt historian, binds seams and threads to ensure Alaskan sagas do not fade from view.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ruthie Ost Towner died on May 1, 1994, at the age of 77. No one carried on the felt craft tradition. Those who are privileged to have one of her pieces treasures it — and sees Alaska stories sewn into it, as well as personal stories of the craft-maker. Ruthie crafted friendship-history into hearts and homes.

Remaining in the Soldotna area are her grandsons Mark and Michael Burton. Her grandson, Shaunn Burton, lives in Anchorage.

Alaska felt artist Ruthie Ost Towner holds an example of her work in this undated photo. Towner’s work is on display at the Soldotna Visitor Center through September. (Photo courtesy Naomi Gaede-Penner)

Alaska felt artist Ruthie Ost Towner holds an example of her work in this undated photo. Towner’s work is on display at the Soldotna Visitor Center through September. (Photo courtesy Naomi Gaede-Penner)

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