It was originally formed a century ago to support women and increase the supply of food to a war-torn nation.
Friendship and the sharing of skills have always been at the heart of the Women’s Institute and today it marked a hundred years of history with the opening of a Centennial Fair in Harrogate with famous visitors including the Calendar Girls, who famously discreetly bared all for charity, while taking part in traditional WI activities, such as baking.
The four day event, at the Harrogate International Centre, attracted women from around the country with many queuing to get inside, and features exhibitors and craft workshops, cooking demonstrations and lifestyle seminars from names such as Carol Smillie, Dr Hilary Jones and Bill Oddie.
Janice Langley, chair of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes said: “The WI was originally formed to encourage and support women during the First World War and now, a century later, it’s about providing women with the opportunity to take part in activities and build new skills, which is what this fair is all about.”
Among the visitors on the first day was Maureen Hancox, of Cookridge Crumpets WI, and senior vice chairwoman of the West Yorkshire Federation, who said the Fair, being held for the first time, was a reflection of its current relevance to a younger generation and broader audience.
She said: “The WI is really diverse because it gets so much publicity now.
“There’s been a massive surge in members recently. We have two new WI groups opening in West Yorkshire soon.”
Members of the Rylstone and District WI created the charity calendar in 1999 after John Baker, husband of Angela Knowles, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and later died from the illness. Today members of the Calendar Girls attended the event wearing their trademark black dresses, strings of pearls and a single sunflower.
“I just think that the WI is the backbone of the country,” said Calendar Girl, Tricia Stewart.
“It’s all about women and fun and friendship,” she said of the WI.
She said the girls had had the chance to wander around the Fair and said: “There’s some great clothes and crafts - it’s fantastic.”
At present preparations are underway for a musical - The Girls - which tells their story, with music by Gary Barlow. The Girls has been a long time in the making and will have its world premiere on November 14 this year at Leeds Grand Theatre.
“It’s so exciting,” Mrs Stewart said. “Gary Barlow is a great guy.”
The WI Centennial Fair, which runs until Sunday, is one of the major events taking place during a year of WI centenary celebrations. Open to WI members and non-members, the event is planned to become an annual one, with 18,000 visitors expected this year.
Inside the Create and Craft Theatre, experts will showcase skills from embroidery, knitting and crochet through to upholstery and photography. For fans of BBC’s Great British Bake-Off, live demonstrations are being offered by several of its finalists in the fair’s Live Kitchen Theatre.
As well as a wealth of retail therapy, the event also includes a number of guest speakers with broadcaster Kate Adie attending yesterday to talk about her book about the legacy of women in the First World War.