Needle Felting at the Duluth Folks School

In addition to keeping this blog, I write a weekly column “Down on the Farm” that appears in several local newspapers.  Last week’s theme was inspired by teaching a “Needle Felt a Cute Cardinal” class at the Duluth Folk School.  Below is the full article, along with some amazing photos by the school’s director Bryan French.  I will be returning to the folk school April 26th to teach a little fox needle felting class.

cardinal demo

Photo by Bryan French

Transforming Wool with Needle Felting

There is a magic to making things with your hands.  Potters, carvers, and knitters know this well.  You begin with the most basic of materials (clay, wood, yarn, etc.) and in the end create something that was not there before—something that previously only existed in the conceptual.

Human hands, along with a few basic tools, are all that is needed for this process—that and patience.  So often, patience is lost today in the desire for instant gratification.  But is it really gratification?  How much more satisfying is it to hold something which took your time and effort than that which was gained easily?  How self-affirming to stand back and be able to say “Hey, I made that.”

Traditional hand skills used to be taught at home, even at school, but many are disappearing today.  And yet, even in the face of our love affair with technology, folks are yearning to reclaim and keep these hand skills alive.  At Farmstead, we utilize our Fiber Loft for classes and workshops, hosting students from eager 9-year-olds to adventurous retirees for afternoons of hands-on projects.

lady making cardinal

Photo by Bryan French

This winter, the needle felting classes took off virally through our social media presences, with classes filling well in advance.  So here, technology actually spurred connection with Old World skillsets.  Even in the depths of winter and impending snowstorms, people were willing to get into their cars and come out to make a cute snowy owl or chickadee, even if they had never felted before.

What is needle felting?  It’s a dry felting method that uses a sharp, barbed needle to transform fluffy, carded wool (in our case from our own sheep) into nearly any shape or critter you can imagine.  As the wool is repeatedly poked by the needle, the barbs rubbing against the scales of the wool fiber causes the wool to rachet tightly together.  The more pokes, the firmer and denser the wool becomes.

It’s a surprisingly simple process that works magic when you learn how to layer, twist, and add pieces and colors to build a critter.  Each one turns out a little different—unique to its maker.  Yesterday’s “needle felt a puppy” class was riotous with youth, a grandma, and a mom as we each tried to mimic a different breed of dog.  There were Labradors, Retrievers, Scotties, Terriers, and Border Collies.  And, of course, then there had to be collars with tags, and some imaginative students also decided to felt hats for the pups!  We were all laughing and telling stories about the dogs that had graced or wrought havoc in our lives.

This last week, I ventured north to the Duluth Folk School to teach needle felting.  In this class we made cute cardinals.  Everyone was new to felting, but they soon were feeling the magic of stabbing wool with our tiny dagger needles (yes, this can be very therapeutic) and watching the red fluff on the table transform into cardinals of varying chubbiness.

Everyone went homeward with their own finished cardinal as well as their felting needle and foam work surface.  Some of the students also purchased additional wool roving to continue the adventure.

“This was great.  I had no idea this is how we were going to make these birds,” one student remarked.  “It’s really quite incredible.”

Yes, any hand-made process is really quite incredible.  It is the manifestation of thought into form, through the hands and heart.

Curious?  Here are some upcoming needle felting classes I’m hosting.  Please remember to pre-register, as they can fill up.

felting class

Photo by Bryan French

At Farmstead Creamery (on our farm), 2-4 pm

3/16  Needle Felt a Little Fox

3/23  Needle Felt a Cute Cardinal

3/30  Needle Felt a Rabbit

4/6  Needle Felt a Spring Robin

4/14  Needle Felt a Chick

4/20  Needle Felt a Lamb

4/27  Needle Felt a Teacup Pincushion

 

At the Norther Great Lakes Visitor Center, 10am-noon

3/26  Needle Felt a Cute Cardinal

Here’s to all those who create with their hands.  Let’s keep these traditional skills alive so that generations to come can sit back with a satisfied smile and be able to say, “Hey, I made that.”  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

cardinals

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The Lady in Green

notionsIt’s been two years since my last costume creation, and the stitching itch finally got the best of me.  That and the season of St. Patrick’s Day with its Celtic performances reminded me of my dwindling inventory of handmade gowns to wear–a signature part of my music performance presence.

Most of my previous collection of Celtic/Renaissance gowns I had made during my college work, and many of them no longer fit my rib cage (an inherited family trait, which might help with singing but not with fitted garments), so I had sold most all of that inventory through my Etsy shop.

Remembering Julia Cameron’s remark in The Artist’s Way that a closet full of clothes does not invite new ones, it was time to let the beautiful but unwearable dresses go.  Some of the gowns have gone to children’s Shakespearean theaters, some to private collections, some to Halloween parties.  It was rewarding to hear the stories and see these wearable pieces of art find new lives and appreciators.

fabric detailBut now with a roomier closet, the invitation was waiting for fresh work.  With St. Patrick’s on my mind, I went to raid the stash.  But instead of bolts or yards, my stash is made of repurposed materials–curtains, bed spreads, other large garments that can be taken apart and reworked.  This time, a swirling green damask table cloth caught my eye, along with a piece of crushed green velvet given to me by a grad student friend who had purchased it for sets in a Shakespearean play she directed.  “I’m not going to use this anymore,” she had said.  “But I know that you could!”

When I think about building a gown to support my performance work, I’m interested in the overlap.  Many of the ballads and tunes I play are quite ancient and require a breathing of new life into them.  Transforming cast-off fabrics like a table cloth from the thrift store and hand-me-down set pieces mimics the same process and shows how even that which has been discarded and forgotten can become quite beautiful beneath the artist’s hand.

This process can create serious challenges, such as having to craftily plan out the cutting process in order to avoid using heavily faded parts of the fabric.  But just when the artist is faced with new challenges, ingenuity ensues.  It’s like building a puzzle where the finished product is in the mind’s eye–transforming flat fabric into a three-dimensional object meant to be worn by a three-dimensional object (the human form) that will move in it.

ribbon trimIt turned out that almost everything I would need for the gown was in my stash–fabric, thread, zipper, lacing.  But I wanted to give this one something special, something that would make it pop.  Searching online, I found a “Middle-Earth inspired” Jacquard trim in beautiful swirling greens and ordered it immediately.  The shipping time was oddly vague and indicated that it might not even arrive until after St. Patty’s Day, but I decided to trusty my gut and the process.  Two weeks later (well ahead of the celebration day), the ribbon arrived stamped by customs in Turkey.  Goodness!  Is that where the ribbon was made?  Now even this element possessed an interesting story.  I cut off the stamp as a keepsake, taped in my journal.

Unlike any of my other previous costume projects, I decided to stitch this piece entirely by hand.  Winter evenings for our family are a treasured time for sitting by the wood stove, reading a book out loud or enjoying a documentary.  Instead of holing up in my studio with the sewing machine, I could spread out on the couch, stitching away while still enjoying conversation and camaraderie.  This method certainly made the process take longer, but the slowing effect actually brought a therapeutic element to the project.  Not only was I stitching an elegant dress in a lustrous color, but I was also stitching together a new chapter both in my performing practice and costuming process.  There was healing happening, and there was also no grumbling at the old, sometimes cantankerous sewing machine!

Just two days from my first concert this month, the gown was finished–complete with all the trim, velvet accents, laced front, and a matching necklace I made from a pendant that was also in the stash.  This was a perfect pairing with one of my beaded snoods and a velvet slouch hat made by Christine Lendved.  Here are some images of me wearing it at last night’s Duluth Folk School performance.  (Photo credits for the following images, Bryan French).

Welcome to the collection, lovely green gown.  There will be certainly be more to come!


playing harp

singing

playing guitar

 

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More Hummingbird Progress

1st quarter back sideThe first quarter is finished!  And not just the first–the largest and hardest quarter, filled with all the color and texture decisions that will then replicate into the other quarters of the commissioned tapestry.  Hooray!  And I’m very happy with the results.  Here it is shown on the working side (which will actually be the back side of the piece when it’s finished).

For a large piece with this many different overlaid images, it’s important to give enough differentiation between the elements without creating too much visual competition.  Hence the background colors are subtle and muted, while the foreground colors are more vibrant.  In a visual composition, the eye will be drawn to the highest contrast in the piece first, such as white against black.  Keeping this in mind, even though the hummingbirds are green and the background is also green, they are the only element in the design that utilizes white and black–hence they hold the most contrast.

Let’s flip the piece over now and look at the front side.

1st quarter hummingbird front

Now we can see how all those delicate yarn choices have worked out on the front side of the piece, including the wood grain mimicry, veining in the leaves and flower petals, individual wing feathers, shading, and so on.  When the full piece is hanging on the wall, this will be the lower right portion of the punch needle tapestry.

male hummer detailOf course, I want the hummingbirds to really shine in this piece–literally.  An interesting fact about birds (and butterflies) is that while colors such as red, black, brown, and yellow come from pigments in the feathers, the colors blue, green, and purple can only be achieved via prisms within the feather structure.  In the shade, these feathers appear black, but out in the sun, they glisten beautifully.

Dyed wool, however, is made with pigments, not prisms.  So I had to find a different way to bring in that sense of glisten.  Combining a kettle-dyed green wool with a crimpy wool-blend yarn with novelty metallic thread, the hint of shimmer comes through on his back, head, and wing.  These were not the easiest fibers to convince through the punch needle, but they were worth the extra effort.  A super-saturated variegated red brings to life the sense of individual glinting feathers on the ruby throat, each refracting the light depending on its angle to the viewer.

girl hummer detailThe female hummingbird is a little more subtle, though she has her own style of shimmer via a metallic thread carried on a dusty green wood-blend.  Even though she is at rest among the greenery, she still has her to stand out from the background.  When a hummingbird male is busy making his U-shaped courtship flight, I always look for the female in the bush.  Even if you can’t find her right away, she’s in there.  And he knows it!

Another element that helps the objects of focus stand out (literally) in the arrangement is the use of different length punch needles.  The sky, background greenery, and wood border are all made with a shorter punch needle, while the flowers, foreground leaves, and hummingbirds are made with a longer punch needle.  The lengthened shaft leaves behind longer loops, thus allowing for some actual three-dimensionality within the piece.  Here is an angle shot to help you see how this technique plays out.

hummer side view

And now it’s time to move the backing on the frame and begin a new quarter of the tapestry!  Stay tuned for further updates.

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The Making of a Woven Shawl

autumn shawlTapestry weaving works tightly back and forth in short rows–each strand staying within its own color area.  This has its own rhythm and joy as the design slowly builds and takes form, but sometimes I just yearn for large strokes and soft textures.  This means it’s time to bring out the triangle shawl loom.  Yes…I have 15 looms.  But each one is for a different finished product, so each has its place.  Read on to see how this one works.

I was first introduced to this method of weaving while giving a demonstration in Navajo tapestry technique at a local fair.  An alpaca owner had brought one, and she let me make a small shawl on it.  How fun!  Unlike other types of looms, there is no warping–you build both the warp and the weft as you go.  Instead of rollers or beams or other tie-on methods, nail or screw heads along the face of the triangle frame act as the tension support for each thread.

Once the weaving is complete, you cut and add the fringe, crochet around the perimeter, and then gently peel the piece off the loom.  There is no loom waste, and now the completed, draping shawl is in your arms.  It was like magic!

But this is not the type of loom you can hop to a local store to find (at least not in Northern Wisconsin!).  The lady was kind enough to let me borrow her loom patterns, and John Sorensen (a local carpenter) built an adjustable loom for me, which stands on its own collapsible easel.  While it can take up quite a footprint on its own, nestled amongst my other looms in the studio, it fits quite nicely.

shawl yarnsWorking with this type of shawl loom lets me utilize loftier, furry, kinky, or otherwise quirky yarns that would not work well in tapestry or punch needle rug hooking.  Blending shades and textures is one of the most exciting part about prepping for making a shawl.  I want it to be warm enough for sofa cuddles yet light enough to feel a little delicate and maintain a nice drape.  I also want the piece to feel like you could use it to dress up or dress down an outfit–pulling in enough color to make it wearable with many attires yet not too busy.

Some of the yarns selected are from our sheep, but many are also found on travels, where a chanced-upon yarn shop is a must-stop for me.  Never feel guilty about having a stash of yarn.  Can you imagine a chef without a cadre of ingredients at hand and a fully-stocked spice shelf?  The perk for a fiber artist is that my ingredients never spoil or outdate!  And you never know when that skein of something interesting discovered five years ago makes the perfect pairing with what you found yesterday.

The other element that I love to bring to my shawls is, instead of plain weaving, to work the warp and weft as a twill.  Twill means that instead of weaving over-one-under-one, the finished textile is over-two-under-two.  The twos are then offset so that the next row splits the previous pair.  In a stole, this would create a sense of drift to either the left or the right.  But for this type of weaving, which works its way to the middle, I want to create a sense of cascading towards the center.  shawl progressThis takes some planning when establishing the pattern, or it can head upwards instead of downwards!

Here you can see the transformation of the pile of yarn shown above as it is being woven on the triangular shawl loom.  I start in the upper left-hand corner, then draw across to the right.  With each row, it works down and towards the center another step.  There are no foot pedals or leashes–all is worked with the fingers by catching up the individual threads and drawing the new row through.  You actually make two rows at once!  In this picture, I’ve pulled the yarn through on the left side of the piece, I’ll then draw it across the bottom, and it will come up on the right side of the piece.  Each row is gently pushed into place with the fingers–no combs.  In fact, the only hand tool used is a crochet hook for adding the fringe and finishing the edge.

This is a standing loom, and not unlike working on a canvass, the movements are back and forth, up and down.  Here is a full image of the loom with a piece is progress.

shawl loom

Time to head back to the studio to finish this shawl.  You can purchase some of the finished pieces at my gallery space at Farmstead Creamery & Cafe, or via my Etsy shop.  Let’s bring back the beautiful, elegant shawl!

 

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A Festival of Needle Felting

mother daughter needle feltersI remember the interview for Vermont College, when I was asked what I hoped to be doing in 10 years.  I remember enthusiastically relaying that I wanted to have my own folk school, teaching traditional skills and keeping them from becoming lost arts.  That was in 2004.

Ten years later, classes and workshops  were part of our initiatives at Farmstead Creamery & Cafe, with limited success.  There was wreathmaking and pumpkin carving and a few fiber arts classes.  But the events just weren’t kicking off as I had hoped.  In 2017, I started offering afternoon fiber workshops through the local technical college.  Some classes were well attended, while others struggled to have enough enrollment to run.  But the audience was widening and so were the diversity of classes I was offering.

Then something changed this winter.  As with other years, I put together a slate of classes, posted them on the farm’s event calendar online, and made events for them on the studio Facebook page.  At first, attendance was small (as usual) but enjoyable.  It was December, and the weekend classes were themed as needle felted ornaments.  We made cardinals, Santas, and angels, but the last class before Christmas was a needle felted snowy owl ornament.  The project looked cute and fun, and I’d hoped folks would sign up for it.

holding felted crittersLittle did I know how much the cute and fun factor would have an affect!  I’d heard about pictures or videos going viral online, but I’d never heard of classes going viral.  I was certainly not expecting one of them to be mine.  First the Saturday afternoon class filled, so I added a Saturday morning class.  Then that filled and I added a Sunday class.  As the weekend approached, I madly tried to contact the several dozen people who had marked themselves as “going” online to finalize the reservation so that folks wouldn’t simply show up to find a full house!  Over 70 more had marked themselves as “interested.”  This list was almost entirely filled with people I didn’t know.

The trend continues into the New Year, with two fully-booked cardinal classes last weekend and a rematch on the snowy owl next week.  Almost every student is new to needle felting, but they couldn’t resist because of the cuteness of the project.  So even in the depths of winter, when the snow and wind and darkness keeps folks at home–cuteness is a motivator that breaks through.

Some students come as mother-daughter duos, others are on their own or come with a group of friends.  Many have never visited the farm before.  How wonderful that the desire to make (cute) art was enough to transition from “yeah, I want to check that place out sometime,” to “I’m going!”

felting classPrepping for more classes also builds ideas for new needle felting kits–an option that works great for potential students who can’t make the class.  It’s also a great way to use the beautiful, hand-dyed wool from our farm.

While a back-to-back day of needle felting classes can be exhausting, it’s also a joy to be sharing the skills with others so they can add needle felting to their palate of creative expression.  There is no end to the magic of creating something with your own hands, especially when it starts from amorphous ingredients like fluffy wool or a pile of yarn.

My hope is that the trend will continue and that, eventually, students will be interested in additional, more complicated classes–weaving, punch needle rug hooking, tapestry.  The space is built, maturing, and gaining reputation.  Now it’s building the audience and interest.  Who knows, maybe that folks school really will happen someday.

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Progress Towards Hummingbirds

backing readyDesigning a project is a critical phase, but the leap from design to execution can be daunting.  When faced with the blankness of the raw warp or, in this case, the bare monk’s cloth with traced outlines, I know that jumping in will take some artistic encouragement.  This includes building the right environment–one that is conducive to doing the work, which often must be balanced amongst the many other rigors of the day.

My large-scale fiber artworks thrive best in environments where they can settle in, instead of needing to constantly move about because they are in the way of other daily activities.  It’s also important to be comfortable while working and have adequate light.  There is never any joy in finding out what you thought was yellow last night is actually too orange by morning!

work stationCreating the right studio support for “Hummingbird Haven” included refitting an office desk with organizational baskets for sorting yarn, an oversized ceramic yarn bowl, an ergo kneeling chair (love this one), an Ottlite (as introduced to me at the folk school), and a vase for holding punches and scissors.  The Ottlite casts a light that mimics daylight, instead of the yellowish glow of nearby lamps.  The head and boom are also adjustable, helping to bring light to where the work is actually happening.

Though minimal (especially compared with the space occupied for large tapestry production), this setup is serving as an excellent work station for punch needle tapestry.  Vibrant colors begin their entrances, adding splashes of life to the black-and-white line drawing of the design.  Beginning with the iris, I then moved towards the leaves and stems, the hollyhock blooms, and the tiger lilies.

flower progressInstead of embarking on the birds right away, I wanted to set the scene and introduce critical colors.  As each new element is brought to life in yarn, this involves important choices in coloration and shading.  I may have eight colors of yarn I’ve set aside for a particular object (say, the tiger lily) but ultimately use five of them.  The range of colors that make it past the finalist round of selection and are integrated into the punch needle tapestry ultimately adjust the tone and color mood of the piece as a whole.

Because the hummingbirds are the stars of the show in this tapestry, I want to be certain that the colors I choose for them are especially stellar against the context of their floral environment.  Next in line is the wood-toned border.

flower progress frontPunch needle rug hooking is worked on the back side of the piece, leaving the loops that make the front-face of the artwork on the opposite side.  Periodically, I will turn the work over to see how it is coming together on the “front,” adjusting as necessary and trimming ends.

How different the front side appears!  That is part of the magic of this medium, laying down the image and texture one loop at a time.  Stay tuned for continued progress as the “Hummingbird Haven” commission comes to life.

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Hummingbird Haven Commission is Launched

drawing hummingbirdsI am certainly happiest when I am able to freely make art.  And it is especially rewarding when this can be overlapped with the gleeful appreciation of my work by discerning viewers.  When someone asks me to make a piece just for them, there’s that special feeling of warmth and eagerness that ensues.  Whether that be weaving a rag rug with colors to match their sofa or stitching the costumes that will make a Shakespearean play come to life.

It takes a unique type of art appreciator, though, to spontaneously request the production of a large textile just for them.  But such was Carole’s reaction to seeing the smaller works on display at my gallery presence at Farmstead Creamery.  A pictorial Navajo-style tapestry with songbirds at the feeder caught her eye, and she promised to go home and measure her space.  A few months later, she was eagerly sending images of her living room and sofa, with its mounted aging textile she was interested in replacing.  The directions were straightforward yet restrained:  40 x 35 inches, hummingbirds, and I trust your artistic style.

I put together my quotes–3 to 4 months for a punch needle tapestry, 3 to 4 years for a woven tapestry of the same size.  “At my age,” she laughed, “I’m not sure I should wait four years!”  So punch needle it was.  Throughout the design and planning phase, Carole’s enthusiasm has been infectious and fun.  I wanted to create a textile that not only captured that vivaciousness and her love of hummingbirds but also bring the colors of summer into her room.

sketching the hummingbirdsAlas that all our flocks of buzzing hummingbirds had long since left the farm!  Time to search for quality photographs of these amazing animals as my “models.”  I began by sketching the hummingbirds individually, in nine distinct poses.  I then cut these out to make bird models that could be moved around within the frame of the piece.  Being nearly square, it made creating a satisfying composition trickier than if the piece had been either taller or wider.

For the background, Carole had voted for flowers instead of feeders, so I drew from the blooms in our butterfly garden that pleased our own hummingbirds the most:  hollyhocks, iris, and tiger lily.  These also offered their own delicious color palates to interplay with the greens, whites, reds, and grays of the birds.  With the blooms sketched, I then shifted the birds around on the scene, trying one here and there, making small vignettes of mated pairs dancing or juveniles catching a sip of nectar.  A few of the bird poses were nixed right away as too adversarial for the idyllic scene.

Lightly taping seven to the paper, I then tacked up the arrangement on the wall, and the whole family team had a chance to think on the design and help tweak a few positions–removing one last bird that just didn’t seem to “fit” the scene.  And then, at last, it was like the composition “clicked,” and it was time to take a photo to send to Carole for cartoon approval.

hummingbird cartoon

She was delighted!  No edits.  She even shared the image with her sister, who also complimented the arrangement.  This may not happen for a commissioned work again, so it was cause for celebration.  With the down payment secured and the cartoon approved, it was time to move forward with the production of “Hummingbird Haven.”  The first order of business, of course, was to order the monk’s cloth backing and begin assembling colors.

picking colors“Let us know how it goes!” Heidi of the Oxford Company encouraged.  “I love the drawing and can’t wait to see how it turns out.”  She took my cutting order, and the backing was shipped off the next morning.  Amy Oxford was also excited, offering advice on ways to keep the large amount of background interesting visually and texturally.

Originally, Carole had wanted the background in beige but then changed her mind.  There is plenty of beige in her home already, and some added color would bring more life to the space.  Mimicking the soft blues of the accent pillows, I pulled a variety of indigo wool Kara and I had hand dyed together as a wintry day project.  Alongside this on the big table were oranges and golds for the tiger lilies, blues and violets for the iris, and pinks and deep reds for the hollyhocks.

Brighter reds were set aside for the throats of the male hummingbirds, along with a great variety of greens, including some with sparkle threads mixed in with the yarn.  I’ll have to try some test runs of these to make certain they will feed through the punch needle, but they would add that shiny luster that would help the birds “pop” from the middle- and background of the composition.

transferring to backing

Since the design was approved in the form above, I transferred the drawing through to the back side of the cartoon before transferring it onto the monk’s cloth (using our bakery case as my light table).  Punch needle rug hooking is worked on the back side of the piece, so the composition must be flipped.  This is critical when there are words in a design!  The hummingbirds could easily be punched in either direction, but it appears that most of the flow within the room (of the future home of this piece) is from left to right, which is the same natural flow of the composition.  It felt better to have the viewer drawn in along their direction of travel, rather than be pushed back against it.

Transferring takes care not only in accuracy but in working to make the design as close to “on the straight of the fabric” as possible.  My light table was smaller than the design (this is my largest punch needle piece yet), so I had to periodically move it to re-draw more of the pattern, careful not to distort fabric from paper in the process.  Rubbing the felt tip across the bumpy monk’s cloth is usually the demise of the Sharpie I’ve grabbed, but it’s well worth it for the ability to make distinct, permanent renderings of the design onto the “behind-the-scenes” stricture of the punch needle tapestry.  After completion, the monk’s cloth will be entirely hidden from the viewer, but it’s critical role lives on.

backing on frameAfter transferring the design, it was time to stretch the backing onto a frame.  The piece is much too large to work all at once (alas!), since it would be impossible to create enough tension in the middle.  Instead, I’ll be working the design in four quadrants, completing one section before moving the work.  This presents unique challenge points, especially in regard to complex shading areas that overlap between the different quadrants.  In “Trout and Swallows,” this came right across the head of one of the rainbow trout!  I had to keep saving bits of yarn of the different colors to then use to finish the fish once it was moved on the frame.  But that piece only required one move, and this will take three–so the challenge is on.

Jumping right into that challenge, I chose the most difficult quadrant to stretch onto the frame first.  This will include many color choices that will then replicate into the other parts of the composition.  No putting off those decisions with this area.  A flying male and a seated female area also within this frame, making a nice mix of birds, flowers, and background for punching.

Now it’s time to break out the punch needles and begin the journey of transforming a line drawing into a color-rich textile.  Check back for updates on the progress of “Hummingbird Haven.”  What a joy to know that this piece already has a good home as its own haven at the end of the journey.

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An Adventure in Hats

blue north at folk schoolAs an interdisciplinary artist, it’s important to keep adding to the toolbox–discovering new techniques, fresh alternatives, and new mediums to explore.  Otherwise, even the most engrossing work can grind down to tedium and boredom.  And I don’t do boredom.

So each winter season on the farm, we make a concerted effort to tag each other out in order to create the space for “filling the well”–venturing out to learn, explore, recharge, and grow.  This year, I was after one of my bucket list items: attending a course at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, MN.  The school had started up just a couple years before we moved north to the farm, but it had just never worked out for me to go previously.  Now it was time, and I scoured the newspaper-like catalog filled with offerings with a mix of intense purpose and glee.

Months later after registration, with rolling suitcases and therapy harp packed in the PT Cruiser, I was heading north along the shores of Lake Superior, off on a weekend adventure in beginning millinery.  It was a hybrid of at least two of my of creative interests (costume and felting), brought together in a medium that has been a mode of personal expression across the ages:  the felt hat.  Yes, I had made plenty of hats before–shaping buckram, snitching plastic from ice cream buckets, pleating and stitching.  But I had yet to try blocking felt hats.  I had visited Swan and Stone’s studio in Vermont and was much intrigued, but a brief observation is never the same as getting one’s hands fully immersed into the process.hat blocks ready

I had my “materials list” fully populated (stashed in a cheerful fabric tote with an ample supply of pockets), my mandatory hair dryer, and much eagerness as I stepped into the classroom at “Blue North” on a campus that looked like it could have just as easily been perched on the coast of Maine as on the shores of Lake Superior.  Friendly Millennial staff and interns were busy checking in students and stoking the wood-fired pizza oven for that night’s potluck festivities.  Every room of every building had a class in session–from rosemaling in the room next to ours to Damascus knives in the blacksmith shop to the north, antler baskets across the street to beaded leather mittens in an upstairs room, liverwurst in the kitchen and twig furniture nearby, plus yurt building and wood carving.  Everywhere you went, someone was eagerly working away at a project and happy to share their progress story with you.

c;ass in processIn our classroom, instructor Emily Moe of Moe Sew Co Millinery laid out two tables full of carved wood “blocks,” each one unique and full of character.  Some were newly made and stackable, some weathered and stained.  Each block, just like each hat, had its own sense of self and style.  Previous to coming to class, we had each picked out the color of the wool “blank” for our hats and whether we were making a cloche or a brimmed hat.  But because no two blocks were the same, no two hats in the class could be the same–which actually made the process much more delightful, since we could learn from each other’s projects as well as our own.

Mary's hatI had spent time searching for the right inspiration hat to try to emulate and soon found myself perusing images of the famed hats of PBS’s Downton Abbey.  The jaunty angle, creative brim work, and multi-textural adornments on the crown of one of Lady Mary’s blue hats caught my eye.  I didn’t have a way to know if this hat was approachable as a beginning milliner, but it seemed like a beautiful piece to strive towards.  Emily, however, was encouraging of the pursuit.  It didn’t take long, though, to see that I was making the hardest hat in the class (surprise, surprise), replete with having to form the crown separate from the brim.

In deference to Emily’s request not to broadcast a play-by-play of the class’ process, I’ll stick to some highlights.  If this leaves you curious, take a class!  It was a wonderful way to enjoy an immersive weekend off-farm.  It grew especially immersive when I put an extra hour and a half into my hat at the end of the first day, so I could be ready for the morning’s next step in the process!

forming the velvet topPart of my own unique challenge in the hat class was not only learning the felted blocking process (which works up amazingly quickly) but also building the particular adornments that made my hat distinctive.  This included reverse-engineering the textured velvet over-cap.  In my classic repurposing methods, I had brought an XXL velvet shirt (thrift store find with original retail tags in tact).  Using the same wood block on which I had formed the crown of my hat, I draped one side of the shirt over and began tacking it into place to play with creating the right elements of drape and fold.  Cutting part of the hem from the other side of the shirt, I used this to create the band at the base of the over-cap.  After hand-stitching the drape into the band, I could then trim off the remainder of the shirt.

I had brought some beautifully long tail feathers from Buddy, a Barred Rock rooster, as well as a mother-of-pearl butterfly pin from my grandmother.  Emily had just enough lovely navy blue veiling with white speckles, and a light teal beaded set of leaves in her stash, which came together in a stunning arrangement, completed by a soft rose I stitched out of trim extras of the felt from making the brim.  By that evening, when I finally called it a day, I had all the elements pinned onto the hat.  I thought, “There are a lot of components here!  I’ll leave it like this, sleep on it, and see if I still like it in the morning.”

pinned hat progressI did.  But they all had to come back off the hat for the moment, so I could stitch in the ribbon on the inside of the crown.  Then, layer-by-layer, stitching and tacking, the hat came together as a whole.  First the velvet over-cap, then the veiling, then those lovely feathers, then the beaded leaves, then the rose (to which I had added some needle felting of yarn into the crevices), and finally the pin.  Even with using a thimble, my fingers were incredibly sore by the end of the day!  Stitching on that rose (which involved pushing and pulling the needle through five layers of the hat felt) could really have used a pliers!

With the decorating part of the hat making process, though, I was completely in my element–posing, stitching, troubleshooting.  I could seriously get into decorating hats!  Now if only I could find a way to make the blanks using wool from our sheep, wouldn’t that be amazing?  But that piece of the puzzle had to wait, as our learning felts were made from the under-fur of rabbits (apparently a friendlier beginner material).

family of hats

By the end of the two-day intensive, everyone had created a unique and beautiful hat!  We brought them together on one of the work tables for a “family portrait.”  As my sister commented when I was sharing photos from the adventure, “Everyone made hats, but you made A HAT!”  I think that Emily may have secretly wanted to keep it, but she did let me have it back after trying it on and posing for the mirror.  I was so proud, eager to get a photo in the mirror back at my vacation rental right on the shores of the big lake.

finished hat

Where will the hat-making adventures lead next?  Check later as the journey continues.

 

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A Challenge in Miniature

yarn for projectThis month, I entered a piece fresh off the loom for Small Tapestry International 6–a biennial event hosted by the American Tapestry Alliance.  The theme was “Beyond the Edge,” and the size limit was under 100 square inches.  In tapestry, that is TINY!  What could I design and make that would fit the theme, the size restraint, and be a creative challenge?

I was interested in trying out a concept–one I had learned originally as a Navajo tapestry technique.  Known as “tufting,” when the textile is being woven, pieces of wool lock are laid around a warp thread such that both ends of the strand drape onto the front of the textile.  Then the next rows are woven on top, locking the fluffy wool into place.  Originally, tufting was worked across the whole of the textile, creating something rather like a full-fleece sheep hide.  This would serve as a very warm sleeping blanket or mat for its owner.

round sheep rugMore recently, tufting using locks has been utilized in pictorial tapestry weaving.  I saw images of tapestries depicting llamas or alpacas with locks on their bodies, adding texture and three-dimensionality while still in Fran Potter’s weaving classes in Madison.  I even tried the technique out myself, using our springy wool from our then Hampshire sheep flock–trimming the locks with a scissors to mimic the shape of the sheep it depicted in relief.  It was fun to work the technique and freed tapestry from being a fairy flat medium into involving more depth and touchable character.  And yet, though it was fun, I put away that technique for years after the one experiment.

But now I was curious.  Was there a way to engage the concept of tufting but use it with other materials?  Could, for instance, feathers be laid in and duly sandwiched between packed weft, like the locks?  How might this change the expression abilities of the medium?

chicken cartoonThe feathers I had at easy disposal for the experiment were saved up from my own flock of chickens.  So I went looking for a cartoon idea in photos of my own bird friends.  I settled on cropping a view from a sunny morning, snapped during chores of these two cheery chickens.  There was great color contrast, highlights, a sense of motion, and visual interest–a great starting point.

But staying in the mini scale meant that some of the elements would not be “weavable” in any believable way.  These included the fencing in the background and the eyes of the birds.  Editing out the fence was easy enough, but what about the eyes?  You can’t have chickens as the “subject” of a tapestry and punt on the eyes!

Time to think outside the usual toolkit box once again, and this time I went to Amazon.com.  “What did you just order?” Steve asked, as he was checking his email.  “Taxidermy eyes?”  Well, yes, mini glass taxidermy eyes.  “Chicken” was not an option, but 7mm “Red Tailed Hawk” was, so I went with that.  And they duly arrived in tiny packaging in the mail the next week.  Now, how was I going to add these to a weaving, with only flat, smooth backs to work with?  I think it would be great if they made these as buttons!  That would have been very helpful.  Still, I had so much fun with these, once I figured out how to make them weavable.

weaving startsThe tufting challenge came first.  Unlike wool locks, feathers have a stiff core, and there was no looping it back to the front of the piece.  I would have to press that hard part out to the back side of the piece, trimming it off once the tapestry grew in height enough to prevent the feather from accidentally falling or pulling out during the weaving process.

I used one of my small “study” looms, which made the work portable and easy to set up for weaving a project with a fast approaching submission deadline.  In fact, I grew so engrossed in the project that I didn’t take any more pictures of the process beyond this one, so it’s hard to see how the feather “tufting” process proceeded.  It was a great learning piece for testing out the concept before applying it to larger-scale projects in the future.  I’ll have to get better process pictures next time!

For attaching the eyes, I glued string onto the back using Mod Podge, pulled them through the tapestry, and then pulled them through a button on the other side, tying them tightly.  This secured the eyes onto the piece without gluing them on top, but they still stuck out like stationary bobble eyes.  What to do about this situation?  There was no woven answer, but there was an embroidery answer.  In fact, with a piece at this tiny scale (10 x 6.5 inches), embroidery became the answer for many detail issues.  Layer by layer–feathers, glass eyes, embroidery accents–the piece was taking on a textural life of its own that was both challenging and fun, intriguing and experimental.  And it was freeing to simply ask, “What happens when I try…” and not feel burdened by the tradition of form or the magnitude of needing to get a large piece “right.”  Artists need experimental breaks like this to keep their work fresh and infused with life.

were watching youAnd then it was time for mounting the piece.  Since I had left off the fencing from the image, I decided to incorporate actual chicken wire fencing between the frame and the piece, almost like it was matting but more like a shadowbox with the raised nature of the wood of the framing, which we constructed in our farm’s shop from scrap lumber found in the shed.  The framing part was a full-family team project, with rounds of troubleshooting and specialty tools I’m happy to let more experienced hands operate.

So now you can see the interplay of tapestry weaving, feathered tufting, glass taxidermy eyes, and embroidery technique, framed with a real farm theme.  Here is what I wrote about the piece for submission to the tapestry exhibit.

–My early art teacher Madeline Sattler encouraged me to think beyond placing the whole subject within the frame.  “Let it spill beyond the edge of the page,” she offered.  “That way, the viewers must make up the rest of the image for themselves.”

“We’re Looking at You” seeks to continue the conversation with that idea, as well the challenge the typical roles of viewer and viewed in tapestry, with glass eyes that follow the human spectator.  The cartoon for this piece came from cropping a photo I took of my laying flock on a sunny summer morning.  It was time for their breakfast, and all eyes were on the bearer of the bucket!

Playful experimentation continues with the adaptation of the Navajo tapestry technique of tufting—utilizing feathers from my own chickens instead of the customary wool locks.  Embroidery textural accents finish off the subtle three-dimensionality of the imagery at this tiny scale.

Barnyard elements are extended into the mounting, with rustic wood and chicken wire.–

Submission is complete, so now I have to wait to see if it is selected in the juried process for the two gallery exhibits this coming summer.  Stay tuned for the announcement!

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More Images from the Varpapuu Loom

loom piecesThe adventure continues in the restoration of the Finnish tapestry loom, gifted to me by weaver Christine Hensolt.  There were so many bits and pieces, and trying to determine what went where was quite the engineering adventure.  Fortunately, the beams had been labeled in pencil to note which went where and right and left.  But some pieces were a mystery or were simply missing.

My Grandpa is currently working in his wood shop to turn new handle pegs for the two rachet tensioners (like the one shown at left).  My dad Steve helped with cutting threaded rod and even bolt spacers for rebuilding the structure.  And Mom helped me make sense of the jointed elements that actuate the heddles, as well as troubleshoot what to do about the missing threaded rod in the upper right structural beam.

So, in all, it was a team effort to bring this loom back to life.  Here are a few more images as the process unfolded.

warp beam

Here, the frame is roughly set together, with the warp beam at the top.  You can see the holders that will carry the jointed heddle system.

setting heddles

Now the heddles are being threaded onto their rods.  The reed and beater bar are in place, as is the cloth beam below.

finished heddles

Finally, the heddles are finished and tied to the foot pedals.  It’s a little stiff, so I’ll grease the skids with some beeswax and see if that helps.  It should be nearly ready to weave again!

 

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