• Giulia Pittiglio

Jacks from the Past: the Story of Jaqlin Byrne


Jaqlin Josephine Byrne was a French-Canadian artist and craftworker born in 1865 in Montreal, Quebec to an Irish-immigrant father Seán Byrne and a French-Canadian mother, Louise Garnier. Her father was a blacksmith whose family immigrated to Montreal in the 1850s and he began working for a local forge at this time. Her mother, the descendant of French fur traders, was a schoolteacher in Montreal before having children of her own.



When Jaqlin was nine years old, she would visit her grandmother every weekend for a year straight to learn how to sew. By the time she was ten, it became her job to make things like sweaters, warm socks, and fuzzy hats for her and her siblings to brave the cold Quebec winters.


By the time she hit her late teens, Jaqlin felt pressured to start thinking about her own path in life. Most Canadian universities were not open to women at the time, and her family could hardly afford a University education, so Jaqlin decided to start working at a local bakery to make some money. She would continue visiting her father’s blacksmithing forge in her free time. Jaqlin would watch as her father heated and pounded the metal into beautiful artistic shapes as well as functional household pieces. The intensity and precision of movement was invigorating to her.


It was this mentality which carried Jaqlin through her early twenties while she worked as an apprentice for several craftspeople in the city. Artisans, needleworkers, shoemakers, you name it. She would spend time with them, sharing with them her knowledge of business and sales which she picked up from her father and in return, they would teach her their artisan techniques for free. Jaqlin spent time working with quilt-makers, book-binders, glass-blowers, she even spent a couple weeks working in a shoe factory but quit because she couldn’t stand the fumes. This became Jaqlin’s norm. Each exchange would typically last about 6 months before she’d move onto the next, and she would always make sure to end her time with each craftsman and woman with gratitude and thanks for all the knowledge shared.


This went on until Jaqlin befriended one of her biggest inspirations, Mary Alice Peck in 1894, at the opening event for the Women’s Art Association of Canada. Mary Alice recognized Jaqlin from the bakery she used to work at, stating it was her favourite spot in the neighbourhood when she lived there and she recognized Jaqlin because of how delicious her pastries always were. Jaqlin responded to the praise with grace but was secretly imploding with joy for the rest of the evening. Jaqlin knew she was in the right place.


A few days after their initial meeting, Jaqlin received a call from Mary Alice, asking if she would join her for a coffee date sometime soon. Mary said she was reminded of Jaqlin’s artistry through her pastries and was interested in hearing more about it. The women discussed their experiences with craft work over coffee, almost ritualistically after that and it was not long before Jaqlin Byrne was invited to become one of the first official members of the Women’s Art Association. These trailblazing women went on to make incredible changes for the betterment of Canadian female artists and makers for generations to come.


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