Artisan broom company in Vancouver sweeps customers away with its traditional designs

Sarah Schwieger, pictured, and her sister Mary run Granville Island Broom Co., a specialty broom shop in Vancouver, B.C. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Sarah Schwieger, pictured, and her sister Mary run Granville Island Broom Co., a specialty broom shop in Vancouver, B.C. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

A quirky shop tucked away on Vancouver's Granville Island turns the heads of locals and tourists alike. Their unique handmade wares — while practical, everyday items — are a bit of a time warp, sending customers back to the days before mass produced plastic cleaning tools, and to tales of witches flying through the night.

We're talking about brooms, of course.

Mary Schwieger and her sister Sarah, owners of Granville Island Broom Co., use antique tools and techniques to create what could be considered traditional-style brooms, with long wooden handles and thick organic bristles woven together.

"It's something I just grew up with and learned from my parents" Schwieger said.

WATCH | Meet the Vancouver broommakers whose family business will sweep you off your feet

Her parents learned to make brooms from a friend who learned the skill from a Shaker village. The Shakers, formally known as the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, are widely credited with inventing flat brooms made with sorghum.

Also known as broom corn, sorghum is the strong fibre bristles of a broom that sweep dirt away.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Schwieger then learned to make brooms just by being in their parents' shop, on the East side of Kootenay Lake, as children, eventually working there to pay for university.

The sisters opened their own shop more than 12 years ago, where they sell several different types of handmade brooms, including cobwebbers, whisks, mushroom brushes and marriage brooms.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

History and folklore

Schwieger said brooms are a popular housewarming gift.

On the shop's website, they suggest a specific housewarming trio: bread, so "the house may never know hunger," salt "so that life always has flavour," and a broom "to sweep away troubles."

Brooms also feature in cultural traditions.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Sabina Magliocco, a professor of anthropology at the University of British Columbia, says brooms were used to symbolize marriage for enslaved African Americans, who were not afforded the right to marry.

"People developed their own way of marking a ceremony, of marking the start of a new family by jumping over a broom," she said.

"When you're stepping over something, you're crossing a threshold."

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Historically in West Africa, people waved brooms over a new couple for good luck, Magliocco says.

In Wales, stepping or jumping over a broom, broom straws or even a broom plant marked a common law marriage.

"Almost every culture has some form of broom."

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Of course, we can't talk about brooms without mentioning their connection to witches.

Magliocco says the first stories of witches flying on broom straws go back to the 1400s.

"We had mentions of witches before that, but not on broomsticks or broom straws."

Because everyone had a broom in their home, it was something witches, who were mostly women, would have had.

"The broomstick, the broom is a 'woman's tool,'" she said.

"Because it is associated with the home, with women, with women's work, it becomes something that then gets associated with witches in the very misogynistic witchcraft mythology of the middle ages."

She said today, among modern Pagan witches, the broom is being reclaimed as a magical tool to repudiate the memory of a time where any woman with a broom was suspected of witchcraft.