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  “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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Restoring a Varpapuu Tapestry Loom

Christine and FriendsYou really never know what a day will bring.  On a otherwise ordinary July day, a group of ladies arrived for lunch at Farmstead Creamery, led by Jane (pictured center) one of the authors who’d be featured in our Spoken Word series.  Along for the adventure was Christine Hensolt (pictured right), originally from Germany.  Farmstead Creamery is also my tapestry and textile arts gallery, and the pieces caught Christine’s eye.  This sparked conversation about our shared interests in weaving and fiber arts.

Christine taught home economics, but now that her husband has passed, she is ready to downsize and let some of her things go on to have new lives with other people.  “I have this loom,” she relayed eagerly.  “Well, actually I have two.  But I gave this one away once and the lady gave it back to me.  I just don’t have room for it anymore.  It’s so big.”

“What kind of a loom is it?” I asked.  “Do you have a picture?”  While I do already have something like 15 looms in my collection, scattered from studio to house to sun porch, I did share my long-term goal of having a smalls school to teach weaving, especially tapestry.

“You know what,” Christine announced resolutely.  “I’m going to just give them to you.  It’s hard to find young people who care about this anymore.  I think that these looms should go to you.”

Molly with varpapuu loom

The girlfriends conspired and decided to pack up the pickup truck with all the pieces and bring them over the next week, which also happened to be Fiber Fest at Farmstead Creamery.  As they pulled in, I backed up our old trusty Jeep, and we transferred the pieces from one vehicle to the next, despite the wind and light rain.

“You can tell them apart by the color of the wood,” Christine advised.  “The light-colored one is the tapestry loom, while the darker one is a floor loom that belonged to my husband.  Both are from Europe.  Oh, and you’ll need these,” she added, handing me a handful of heddle leashes.  “I really hope you can use these looms.”

I later transferred the parts and pieces onto palates in our garage, trying to make sense of the “who’s who” in all the jumble.  There was also a much-needed a thorough cleaning of the elements before I could get started.

I decided to tackle the tapestry loom first, which still bore the maker’s sticker of Varpapuu from Finland.  After some extensive research, I could still find no trace of the company, let alone any sort of manual or diagram for assembly.  So I headed to Google Image Search and came across a couple of immensely helpful images from Molly Elkind’s tapestry blog.  Based in Georgia, Molly’s an avid weaver and teacher of tapestry, as well as a fellow member of the American Tapestry Alliance.

two tapestry looms

Soon we were corresponding as I was slowly working out assembly and scrubbing through buckets of “Mop n’ Glo.”  Molly had, since the blog post from a few years ago, sold the loom to another weaver (Debra) in Maine.  From the pieces I had, comparing them with Molly and Debra’s photos, I could get a sense for what was missing or what needed replacing in order to bring the loom back into working order.

As the uprights went into place and the bracing was added, it was apparent that this loom had a sizable footprint–the same as my Gobelin tapestry loom and nearly just as tall.  The construction method, however, is markedly different, even though both have a vertical make and top and bottom rollers.  The Leclerc Gobelin loom is built like a box cage, with the tapestry stretching from warp to cloth beam in the center.  For the Varpapuu, the warp goes from the beam up over a top crossbar, then down the front of the loom, across another crossbar just above your knees (when sitting at the loom) and then to the cloth beam.  The Varpapuu also has a jointed, foot pedal-actuated heddle system, instead of the stick shed and leashes system of the Gobelin.  (At left is shown looking down on the two looms side-by-side, with the Varpapuu on the right.)

The Gobelin does have locks on both ends of both rollers and an extra screw-like tension adjuster on the cloth beam, plus additional corner bracing, as compared with the Varpapuu.  I’ll likely save larger or higher tension projects for this loom, but I am curious about what it will be like working with the new heddle system instead of picking up the sheds by hand.  It might help the weaving work faster.

Making sense of the leashes alone was quite the task, all piled and knotted together.  Instead of being formed like my floor looms of rigid metal with an eyelet in the middle, these were of string with a metal eyelet piece.  The strings thread onto two rods (one set for each shed), which then inset into slider bars that are jointed to the crossbeam that is run by the foot pedals.  The whole piece, when not on the loom, looks very marionette like.  So slowly, carefully, I began to organize the leashes and stringing them onto the heddle bars–all 401 of them!threading leashes

Sourcing nuts and washes, replacing bolts and missing wooden pegs, remaking the mount for the foot pedals with appropriate spacers, taking off the old, rusty chain and replacing it with strong nylon cording–bit, by, bit the loom was coming back to life.

As I worked, I wondered what pieces the loom had woven.  What was it’s story?  How did it make it all the way here from Finland?  I shall have to ask Christine more about its past, once I can share the studio with her and the fully-restored loom she was willing to give me.  More photos to come!

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Designing a Student Project

punch needle demonstrationI enjoy teaching fiber arts.  There’s that magical moment when things click for the student, and that spark of joy as the project comes together.  As I move towards teaching in the medium of punch needle rug hooking, I wondered for a while what would make a good project for a multi-day intensive class.  Personally, I’ve never been a fan of “sampler” projects–I always wanted to get right into making something appreciable as a finished work that was also a good learning tool.

Some instructors start students in punch needle rug hooking using an embroidery hoop as the frame.  But it’s hard to keep good tension on an embroidery hoop, which equals frustration and a less-than-desirable outcome.  I like for students to work with full-scale materials and equipment.  If you’re wondering whether it’s something you would like, come catch a demonstration!  If you’re ready to dive in and be a student of the medium, let’s get started.

So, back to planning a project that would be approachable yet interesting for students.  My starter frame (the Oxford gripper strip 18×18) works great for projects that are 14×14 inches (they stretch out to 15×15), which works out well as a pillow cover.  Why not!  Not only would students learn how to use a frame and punch with the tool but also how to finish the edges and attach it to an object (the pillow) in a way that transformed the project into a useful and aesthetic piece.  That’s precisely what fiber arts are so good at doing!

mandala patternWhen conceptualizing the design, I wanted to include straight lines, curved lines, points, and angles of different degrees.  Perusing my stash of adult coloring books (which are a great place for gleaning design ideas), I decided on a floral mandala as a great means for including all of these elements.  Now it was time to draft a design.

If you’re one of those who cries “But I can’t draw a circle!,” fear not, for here’s a design hack.  Go to the kitchen.  There’s perfect circles everywhere.  Here, I started by building out from the center, first outlining the border of the design.  Then I drew the design into quarters (like a window) and on the diagonals with the help of a yard stick.  Using this basic grid, I then started in on my circle guidelines–conscripting glasses, bowls, plates, and platters for the purpose.  Measuring from the outside of the plate or bowl to the established border, I could fully determine if the circle was centered.

mandala backing ready to punchFrom these layered grid markings, I then hand-drafted the petal shapes, laying a sunflower, forget-me-not, zinnia, and lotus style petals over each other.  With my pattern complete, I inked the “official” lines and was ready to transfer the image onto the monk’s cloth backing.  My favorite method for this purpose is to clear off the bakery case at Farmstead Creamery, layer the cloth over the paper, and have at the transferring.

Here the design is on the backing, which has been stretched over the 18×18 frame.  The gripper strip barbed rim is protectively covered with the flannel rim to keep wrists and arms safe.  Now the piece was ready for punching.  But oh, the color choices!  While the design requires a minimum of four colors for full differentiation, I ultimately chose six, playing with the idea of the layered flowers on top of water lily/lotus leaves floating on the water.  While I would have colored it more intensely and with greater detail if I was just making this for my own interest, I wanted to work the colors in a way that would be attainable and approachable for students.  Therefore, using variegated yarns in the selection added interest and shading that otherwise would have required manually changing colors and making lots more choices along the way.

punching the mandalaMy colors selected, it was now time to start punching.  Nicely, this design is worked from the center outwards.  The border is worked next and finally the background.  In this picture, showing the side you punch from (which ends up being the back), you can see the direction of the stitches as the punch is worked across the surface.  For most of these shapes, I outlined the edge and then filled them in to the center.

For this project, I’m using the Oxford Mini punch needle.  This gauge uses worsted weight yarns and leaves a 1/4 inch loop, which works great for a pillow top.  The smaller gauge also allows for more design detail than in my first piece, which was worked with rug weight yarn and a much larger punch needle.  The mini glides through the monk’s cloth backing much easier than a rug punch needle (because of the smaller shaft diameter) and there’s much less guesswork with the stitch spacing–every hole in the direction of travel, and skip a hole between the rows of travel.  (It makes more sense when you’re working it than a description, so don’t worry if that sounded confusing.)

more punching progressAlmost finished!  Now the full color scheme is appearing, with the last corner of watery background to go.  Along the way, I’ve been weighting the balls of yarn before working a color section and then weighing them again after working that piece of the pattern–making notes about how much each element of the design used.  This will help me estimate the amount of yarn each student would need in order to complete this project successfully.  It’s certainly no fun to work on a project and run out of a color part-way!  I did that on my first one…had to wait a couple of weeks to get the rest of the blue…oh, waiting is hard when you’re fully engrossed in a project!

More updates on developing this student project to come!  If you would like to learn how to make this, send me a message on the contact page.

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Needle Felting Kits are Here!

bluebird needle felting kitSharing the creative experience of needle felting with students has been both creative and rewarding.  But what if I could package these classes into accessible forms that fiber enthusiasts anywhere could take home, gift, or share with family and friends?  It has been a real journey developing this product, informed by my teaching experience and what I would like to see, if I was the student, in a needle felting kit.

Here are some of the qualifiers:

  • Fun projects with a cute result that can be completed in 3 hours or less.
  • Video tutorial(s)–not a page with pictures and written instructions, as is common.
  • Vibrant colors using wool from our sheep.
  • Everything needed to start and complete the project.
  • Light on packaging materials (who wants to buy a bunch of stuff that just gets thrown away?).

For instance, many needle felting kits don’t include the foam work base or the sewing needle and thread for adding glass eye beads.  But what if you’re up at your Northwoods cabin or staying at a resort and want a fun project?  You might not have things like this ready for you to use.  Result?  Frustration!  The idea behind creating the kits is to add inspiration and creative fun, not invite frustration.  Ergo, the only thing the student needs is their hands and a scissors.

felting kit partsA real part of the adventure for me was filming the needle felting process–breaking the material into lessons, setting up to Go Pro, editing the videos.  Big thank you to Steve Barnes for helping that process happen and getting the tutorials online.  You can view the finished lessons on the Tutorials page of this site!

Another unique attribute used in my needle felting kits is a soft foam ball, upon which the bird body is built.  I have really come to love this method because it’s easy to spend an hour making a felt ball of the same size, when instead I can wrap the ball with roving and then get a running start at the fun parts of my project.  Students have appreciated this jump-start method as well, and the softness of the finished project is no different in-hand than if we had started with all wool.  It might be non-traditional, but that’s how innovations happen.

The Bluebird is only the first in a whole series of planned needle felting kits.  And as we slowly edge into spring on the farm, I know that I am looking forward to seeing the bluebirds again.  But why wait, I can needle felt my own right now.  You can too, with the kits available on my Etsy store.  Cheers to this new endeavor to help share the creative fiber experience, and happy felting!

finished felted bluebird

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Joys and Challenges of Weaving on a Round Loom

seahorse tapestry in studioIt is statistically likely that highly creative people have at least 15 projects laying about in various states of incompletion.  (I heard it explained once that creative people don’t have clutter, it’s just great ideas lying about.)  I’m certainly guilty of that situation, and now and then I get the itch to pick up a languishing project and make a point to finish it.  There’s a real glow when starting off on a new project, and sometimes the grind that ensues after the rush of vision and setup gets sidelined by the enthusiasm of the next new piece.

But  tapestry is incredibly patient, waiting without complaint until I return.  Part of the sidelining of this particular piece was the sheer volume of focused energy required to complete the unicorn tapestry “Deceiving the Hunters,” which left little room for working on the other tapestries in my studio.  But now it was time to pick up this little gem and figure out where I had left off.

Weaving on a round loom comes from the Navajo tradition and a technique I was eager to learn from mentor Fran Potter.  In order to weave a round tapestry, a strong round frame must be found–in my case, the metal base of a swivel chair.  After removing the cross-bars, giving it a good sanding and paint job, the next step was to create the warping board.  Tracing along the inside of the loom frame onto a sturdy board, I then drew out the warp spacing.  At each intersection of warp with frame circumference, that’s where a small nail was pounded into the board.  Zig-zagging the warp across the nails created the right shape and spacing, twining was added around the edge, and followed by lashing the twining and warp onto the frame all the way around with wax linen (a tedious process that’s pretty rough on the hands and fingers).  Then carefully, oh-so-carefully, the loom is lifted off of the warping board and is now ready for weaving.

seahorse cartoon

I’ve made several round loom pieces, which are charming not only for their very unique shape but also for the extreme portability of the loom itself!  I’ve even woven on mine while sitting in the passenger’s seat with the loom propped between my lap and the dash board.  For the cartoons, I hand draw them on paper that I then attach to cardboard to hold up behind the piece for reference, rather than lash the cartoon to the back of the tapestry.  This is due partly because this style of tapestry requires weaving from both ends and meeting somewhere in the middle-ish for finishing.  For this particular cartoon, I was playing with variations on a traditional Celtic zoomorphic seahorse with knotted mane.

I had previously started the fishy tail and a little of the knotwork–enough to get a sense of the coloration I had in mind.  Along with using traditional lopi wool, I was also blending in novelty fibers for texture and sheen.  I wanted to get a sense of the sparkle of the watery world, of scales.  No shiny novelty fibers are used in the “shadows” where knotted parts weave behind each other, adding to the sense of depth that will become more apparent as the piece grows.

seahorse progress detailBecause the space is so tight in a round loom and there are no “sides” to the tapestry, the stick shed has been reduced to a strand of round elastic, and the pull shed has been abandoned.  I pick up each warp thread with the weft on a tapestry needle, one at a time, which makes the process feel almost like a tapestry version of embroidery.  But oh the fun when I get to take off all that waxed linen and the piece stands on its own, round and beautiful.  More progress notes to come!

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Mr. Rooster Complete

mr rooster needle tapestryThere’s a special dance roosters have when they’ve found a delectable treat.  They’ll drop one wing and prance about in a tight circle, calling the ladies in.  As the hens rush to eat up the juicy worm or grasshoppers or spilled corn or whatever yummy bit he’s found, the rooster will back off and let them have it all, gloating over his success.

It was this same dance that I endeavored to capture in the punch needle tapestry “Mr. Rooster.”  Made almost entirely with wool yarns from our sheep, the piece utilizes the Oxford punch needles “mini” and “mini with heels” to add three-dimensionality.  The variegation in the dyed yarns adds texture and the sense of layered feathers, while the background is the natural white of sheep, so as not to compete with the warm and cool tones of the rooster.  Framed in barn red and wood tones, he’s leaping out of the piece–defying the frame with his jaunty stance.

The face of any subject is always one of the hardest parts–it’s the element we focus on most (as the viewer) when deciding whether the character feels “right” or worthy of sympathetic emotion.  With a rooster, the balance of wattles, comb, eye placement (and sheen,) and the shading and shaping of the beak and nose become critical in believability.  I wanted the rooster to appear as though his face was closet to the viewer (therefore larger), which would also allow for the most detail within the constraints of the medium.

mr rooster detailBecause punch needle rug hooking accommodates curves much more naturally than tapestry weaving, I wanted to bring out that sense of movement in his dance, the sweeping arc of his tail, and the flex of his wing.  Feathers have a very rhythmic pattern to their placement on a bird (try plucking one sometime and notice the patterning of the follicles in the skin), and yet the bird itself is moving organically–twisting neck, lifting feet, flexing tail.  Feathers overlap and shift across each other to accommodate this movement.  All of this detail was worked while still using only wool!

While Mr. Rooster does not have the sense of depth of some of my other pieces, it’s a charming study of the nature and character of a handsome rooster (and you know he knows it).  Chickens have been close to my heart since I was 11 years old, so it’s not a wonder that they made their way into this medium.  Hello Mr. Rooster.  Welcome to my body of fiber arts work.  Keep on dancing for those ladies out there who would love to eat that corn you found!

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