Aileen Mary Stace was born on 14 March 1895 at Stoney Creek, Manawatū, to Thomas Walter Stace, a farmer, and his wife, Harriett Matilda Bannister. She was the youngest of eight children. After catching tuberculosis of the spine as an infant, her back became hunched and her legs paralysed, and she received no formal schooling. Clever and artistic, she taught herself a great deal and read widely. She enjoyed the arts, especially ballet.
Aileen’s mother died in 1912, and from 1914 she lived with her father in Wellington until his death in 1921. She then went to live with her sister, Linda Girdlestone, and her husband, Cyril, in Nikau Street, Eastbourne, moving into her own cottage in their garden around 1926. She never married.
In her early years Aileen Stace earned an income by making decorative cardboard boxes and creating intricate patterns on glass plates, using gold bands from cigars. With helpers she also designed and made decorations for Plunket balls in the Days Bay pavilion. Her sister Linda helped Aileen to be mobile and active in the community.
During the Second World War, the East Harbour branch of the Women’s War Service Auxiliary knitted jerseys for the Royal New Zealand Navy. When their supplies of commercial wool ran out, the two sisters acquired a spinning wheel, and using scraps of wool gathered from farm fences taught themselves to spin. Others volunteered to help, and the Eastbourne Spinners first met in Linda Girdlestone’s living room in 1941. Coloured fleeces, usually of poor quality, were obtained from woolstores and skilled woodworkers were encouraged to make spinning wheels and smaller accessories. The group adopted the British warship Onslow that year and made handspun garments that were suitable for sailors in the North Sea and Arctic conditions. It also adopted Red House Home, an orphanage in Musselburgh, Scotland. Each Christmas members spun and knitted jerseys for the boys, often using Māori motifs.
In 1945 Aileen Stace had an upper floor built on her cottage, in which the Eastbourne Spinners continued to meet informally on Thursday mornings. Lunch was prepared by ‘Miss Stace’, as she was always called, who was an excellent cook. All her kitchen equipment was on the floor and she worked by crawling around. She had an electric lift installed, designed by businessman Len Southward, to enable her to get to the second storey. In 1956 the group gifted homespun jerseys to Sir Edmund Hillary for his Antarctic expedition. The spinners had a strong service ethic. Their motto was: ‘Spinning is something you do, not something you buy’.
Aileen Stace was a very good manager and organiser, and after her sister died in 1954 she kept the craft of spinning popular by arranging demonstrations and exhibitions, both in her own spinning room and at public venues; the last exhibition she organised and minded took place in 1972. From 1961, on Tuesday evenings, people of all ages came to her for tuition. She was renowned for teaching people to spin in three lessons. Materials and equipment were provided, but once proficient, the learners were expected to come to another six classes to spin yarn for the wool pool. From this jerseys were knitted for charitable causes. She is remembered by many pupils as a terrifying teacher, able to spot mishaps across a crowded room. Despite her small stature, she had a forceful personality and made much of her favourites. Some became well known in the fibre field. She taught about a hundred people a year; her most publicised pupil was Lady Laura Fergusson, wife of the governor general. The influential professional weaver Ilse von Randow paid her a visit, as did various radio personalities.
By the mid 1960s spinning was a widespread pastime, commercial wheels were available, and farmers were breeding quality coloured flocks for spinners. Aileen Stace had been a major contributor to the revival and in 1968 was awarded a British Empire Medal. In 1974 she published Twists to treasures, a manual for spinners. This sold well and was reprinted several times.
Aileen Stace had a three-wheeled electric car that she named Atalanta built for her. Steering it with a tiller, she travelled around Eastbourne, the Hutt Valley, and sometimes to Wellington to see the ballet, returning alone late at night to Eastbourne. Each year she made a day trip to the Palmerston North blossom festival by train, sitting in her car in the guard’s van. She loved to meet strangers, encouraging many to learn to spin. An entertaining and prolific letter writer, she had numerous penpals.
She died on 19 August 1977 at Lower Hutt. Afterwards, the Eastbourne Spinners continued to meet, and they gifted examples of her knitting to the Dowse Art Museum. Atalanta went to the Southward Museum Trust.