Building a Tapestry Pedagogy

Laura with FranIt was late summer of 1998, and I was just about to turn 13, when my mom asked me if an enrichment course through the Madison Area Technical College on Navajo tapestry weaving might be of interest.  We had just begun our homeschooling adventures together, transitioning from Montessori schools to our own version of Montessori-infused unschooling.  We had recently spent nearly a year in Arizona, and I had been captivated by the art of the Southwest.  Mom had purchased a video on simplified Navajo weaving, and we had dabbled a bit, but I’m certain I had no idea the real extent of what such a course would entail.  Nevertheless, the idea of such an opportunity was captivating, and I eagerly said yes.

This launched what would be an intense but magical five-and-a-half-years mentorship with master weaver Fran Potter and a dear friendship that influences my teaching style today.  Her eternal patience, insight, and love of bringing historical and cultural depth to her students while allowing each to work at her (or his) own pace was the epitome of a nurturing unschooled environment.  After meeting with Fran and gaining special permission to attend the course as a minor, it was me and a host of delightful grandmas in a church basement every Thursday afternoon from fall through spring.

Laura WeavingMom and I built that first Navajo loom together, and I jumped into the immersive process.  Mom and Fran conspired to help me design projects that would focus on learning specific techniques that were foundationally important, while staying off my eagerness to weave more complicated pictorial imagery until I had more experience.  I was eager to plow ahead, but taking the process incrementally proved to be an excellent approach.

Each piece was quite extensive, taking several months to complete even with my class reputation of being a speed weaver.  The Navajo warping process is quite involved and arduous, requiring much meticulous patience and attention to detail.  As my yearning to weave intricate, realistic and naturalistic imagery continued, I found myself needing to reach beyond the world of Navajo-inspired tapestry and into European methodologies.  During my low-residency, self-directed college and grad school studies, this blossomed into new looms, new techniques, new ways of thinking about tapestry and its process.  Like a snowball rolling along, I gathered additional skillsets from many cultures and ways of working tapestry, building my own hybrid of methodologies.  After completing my MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts at Goddard College in 2011, I was thrilling to launch into teaching what I had gained through this journey.

But, the timing wasn’t right.  The audience for such a specific and rigorous medium as tapestry just wasn’t there in my rural, northern Wisconsin neighborhood.  I would continue honing my practice and developing my style and ongoing research, but teaching it would have to wait.  It would have to wait 10 years.

Much can happen in 10 years, including personal maturity and perspective.  With the building of our Farmstead Creamery, I utilized the upstairs space to host small fiber arts classes in mediums such as needle felting, crochet, and punch needle rug hooking, along with creative writing and Artist’s Way themed courses.  In late 2019 and early 2020, that teaching expanded to include a small handful of folk schools, with short classes in the quiet season of the year, so it could accommodate the rigors of full-time regenerative farming.  It felt like exciting momentum in my teaching schedule had just started when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.  In what felt like an instant, all my classes were cancelled, including the ones here at the farm.  What was going to happen next?

Sometimes it feels like things are breaking apart when they are actually breaking open.  Pivoting my teaching to the virtual environment of Zoom not only broke the isolation of quarantine but opened a whole new potential for audience—one unbounded by the constraints of travel for myself or the students who wished to attend.  At last, I could find my tribe, regardless of where we were.

intro to tapestryAt first, it was baby steps with small, affordable, portable projects in needle felting.  It was a program director at the Textile Center that encouraged me to propose a 6-part course in tapestry weaving.  The thought of such an opportunity (finally!) was outrageously thrilling!  I poured myself into the project with everything I had, including asking tough questions about how I wanted to teach tapestry, what students would need to know, how would it fit into a 6-week block, and how would that translate to Zoom?  In essence, how was I going to offer it as a Laura-style experience, rather than a replica of the experience I had received from Fran?

The smartest place to begin was to determine how to simplify the process.  Instead of the upright Navajo loom Mom and I had built for my first class, or the large format tapestry looms I use in my studio space, I went back to the simple 18×18 inch frame loom we’d built as part of watching that DVD so man years ago.  It doesn’t get much simpler than that.  Instead of a 20 by 40-inch piece, I chose to focus on something that was 10 x 10 inches.

The thought of creating something that was just a sampler was not appealing.  What do you do with it then?  Put it in a drawer, after all that work?  But expecting your first piece to be a beautifully composed, finished and balanced work was also a setup for heavy expectations and potential disappointments.  What if, instead, it was somewhere between a sampler and a composed piece—something that allowed you to taste test different techniques while still creating something lovely enough to hang on the wall?  The idea spoke to my unschooled heart—a guided but not regimented dip into the world of tapestry that was extensive enough to let the student see if this medium spoke to their heart and left them wanting more.

tapestry yarnI mapped out the steps, wove a mockup, held a road-test version of the course with a dedicated pair of students, and sent in my proposal.  It was rejected.  They didn’t think, after all that work, that there would be enough interest in an online 6-week tapestry course.  I was crushed.  But again, just as it felt things were breaking apart, they were actually breaking open.  A few other student fans wanted to take the course, and we banded together enough of a Canadian and American cohort to run it, and I had shared the project with the folks at Vesterheim Folk Arts School as it was being developed.  As a long shot, I sent all the proposal materials I’d prepared for Textile Center to them, and they took me up on running the course.  It was the start of something that has grown and blossomed from the original course to now a series of courses, skill builder kits, and endless ideas for developing “what’s next” in the curriculum.

This month launches the release of “Introduction to Tapestry Weaving, Level 3,” which takes the process far beyond any techniques I learned with Fran and into divergent fields of pictorials.  The fact that courses now have extensive waiting lists and often I’m teaching two or three different tapestry levels in any given week is a transformation in my teaching journey I’m so honored an exhilarated to midwife.

In celebration, I wanted to share with you some of the guiding principles I’ve developed for creating incremental tapestry curriculum.

Many Ways Up the Mountain

When I was studying with Fran, my access to her knowledge was during the weekly afternoon sessions.  Between those sessions, I was on my own.  No email, no book, no handout beyond the one-page notes on building the loom.  I had what notes I had taken, my memory of her instruction, and intuition, but that was it.  If I got stuck, I had to wait for the next week.  But what I did have was her eyes and hands on my project, guiding me through.  The lack of support material could use improvement, but the hands-on assistance would need alternate support for an online learning environment.

I also knew that different supporting materials would work better for different types of learners.  For instance, learning tapestry from a book is not my favorite method (though, admittedly, sometimes the only option I had for certain techniques).  I’m much quicker at picking up the skill by watching someone’s hands.  However, some folks absorb written instructions better than oral explanation.  As I became more practiced at teaching this medium, it became apparent that I would need to straddle the many ways of learning to best support my students.

The combination I’ve grown to use I lovingly call the “many ways up the mountain” approach—utilizing pre-recorded video tutorials, detailed photo essays with explanations, and live Zoom time where I weave the piece with them and offer ideas and troubleshoot their projects in real time.  These sessions are typically recorded as well, offering students the ability to replay the live experience as needed between sessions.  Students are also welcome to email me pictures of their work between classes, to troubleshoot problems or check in.  The combination of all these elements has been a pillar of the type of learning environment I craft for my students and appears in course evaluations over and over as being critical resources for their successful experience.

The support materials take a tremendous amount of time an energy to create, and I’m thrilled that they are so helpful for students!  I also see them as important legacy work.  My teacher Fran now has advanced Alzheimer’s disease, ending the era of her ability to impart knowledge to her students.  Living in a global pandemic has made me think about my own mortality as well, and extensive documentation feels like the best way to capture and preserve the lessons for students now and in the future.  May the option of many ways up the mountain of learning tapestry weaving be tended and preserved for learners and weavers I have yet to or may never meet.

Interdisciplinary and Multicultural Approach

tapestry level 2Another way to think about “many ways up the mountain” is to recognize that there is more than one way to create a tapestry.  Different cultures around the world developed tapestry technique, in part by learning from each other and in part by creating their own traditions.  Each is influenced by the materials available and the intended purpose of the textile.  There is no unified “one-way” to make a tapestry, and traditions that claim they have a “right way” or the “only way” to work tapestry technique are taking a narrow-minded approach to the medium.  All tapestry traditions are entirely legitimate and worthy of study.

Instead, I invite my students to walk in the many worlds of tapestry—both in cultural and historical backstory as well as technique.  Not only do I offer a variety of techniques for students to explore, I also unpack the “why” behind the technique, when it tends to be used, and how its strengths and weaknesses influence the finished piece.  This is not how these techniques were handed to me, and I can look back on previous work and realize that if I had known then what I known now, I would have made different choices.  Instead, I strive to offer students as many tools for their toolkits as possible up front, so they can feel empowered to make those informed choices in future work and not be held back by the methodologies found in a particular subset of traditions.

Process Discipline

There are modes of tapestry weaving that are very free-form, experimental, and happy to press at the boundaries of what can be called a tapestry in comparison to other forms of textile arts.  This is not my style.  All those years working with Fran grounded my work in the rigors of process discipline, in having good technique, and in creating pieces with balance and precision.  There is merit in learning good form, as there is in any artistic endeavor, even if that’s not where you choose to stay with your work.  Breaking the rules works much better once you know what the rules are!

Throughout the process, however, I take time to help my students understand that precision is not the same as perfection.  Tapestry weaving has a way of gathering the perfectionists.  Perfection, however, is not achievable by mortals, and its illusive pursuit will forever leave us unhappy.  Precision, on the other hand, utilizes attention to detail, process discipline, and keen observation combined with skill to create a piece that is well made and pleasing.  Learning how to weave with precision is not the prison of perfection—it is a path to liberation of expressions.  With the mastery of process discipline, the weaver is no longer held back by the flaws of what has come before.  For instance, no amount of adroit weaving can compensate for a sloppy warping job.  That is why we take the process slowly, in a measured way that pays attention to the details of the process.

Being a Montessori student helped me build the skills to take a larger, complex process and break it down into specific, manageable steps.  It trained me to explain processes clearly and in order, so that they could be shown with comprehension to another person.  Unpacking specific vocabulary, illustrating each step (sometimes by drawing the step bigger on a whiteboard during class), and finding different ways to explain a process are all integral to this methodology.

Infused with Storytelling

canoe trip progressHumans are naturally drawn to stories.  It’s how our minds understand our world, ourselves, and each other.  My tapestry pedagogy is not solely focused on teaching technique—it also gives ample space to the long threads of the making tradition.  Weaving was often a communal process, and where people gather, so do stories.  I weave these stories into our Zoom time, as well as in the recorded tutorials, offering students a chance to think about how interlaced this process is with folklore, mythology, balladry, and characters both obscure and well loved.

Storytelling also invites a different part of our brain to engage with the process—the imaginative and social side.  These stories are strategically placed to offer a focus break during the session (think the 45-15 rule for concentration optimization), adjusting the flow of the class.  This is also where many cultures come to intersect with our own story—from ancient Greece to northern Scotland, rural Norway to Navajo country, remote Appalachia to King Arthur’s Court.  I’ve watched references to the stories and their characters travel with my students as they talk to me about their work.  We all have been “visited by Penelope,” and we all know what that means!  If you don’t know what that means, sign up for a class!

Permission, Permission, Permission

In order to make the process more amenable to virtual learning, my courses are based on pre-designed projects.  These projects each have specific, incremental learning goals.  However, I make a habit of inviting students to adjust or adapt as necessary, reassuring them that each piece will be unique, and that this is part of what makes tapestry beautiful.  If a student falls in love with a particular technique and wants to work on it more than is in the original design, that’s great!  If they run out of room for the other elements, they can always take their current piece off and add more warp before continuing.

It’s always exciting to see the work students create that is their own twist on the theme, rather than always being lock-step with the original concept.  I take time to celebrate this creativity.  That’s part of the flexibility of unschooling methodology because I know that this process is about the student’s personal journey, and my course is offered as the midwifing of that process.

When making corrections, I make it a habit to offer more than one solution, with the option of choosing this to be a learning moment.  In my own tapestry journey, the counsel was to take the error out and rework it.  Sometimes that meant a LOT of unweaving (and usually some tears).  However, a 4-6-month piece is a serious investment in time and materials, so having a finished result that was correct and pleasing held more weight.  For the smaller pieces I teach in the Intro to Tapestry levels, if pointing out an issue helps you know what to do better or differently next time, that is a legitimate learning outcome.  Obsessive unweaving to “get it right” can cause students to freeze and not allow themselves to move forward.  Through permission, I seek to find a balance in the middle, reminding students to continue the journey towards precision (like straight edges) without turning it into such an overpowering goal that the process loses all joy.  Some aspects of tapestry only come with practice, and we should avoid holding ourselves to too high of standards with our very first pieces.

Equally, students have full permission to take out the part in error and correct it.  I leave it to be their choice, depending on what they feel best meets their learning goals or what they hope to achieve with the project.  Some sessions begin with a student admitting that they had quite a week with Penelope!  That is ok too, so long as we keep learning and moving forward.

Encouraging Practice

Over and over in my classes, I speak to tapestry weaving being a practice, or that “this gets easier with practice.”  Often, I use learning an instrument as an illustration for learning to weave tapestry—where at first it feels like there is an incredible amount to remember all at once, and it can feel overwhelming.  But, with practice, playing that instrument becomes second nature, and there is flow and a Zen quality to the experience.  Weaving can be that way too, with practice.

I also encourage students to weave between the course levels, to gain more practice before biting off a new set of skills.  An exciting way I’ve chosen to help facilitate that is in the development of skill builder kits.  These lean on the tutorials of the level they’ve completed but include a project-specific photo essay that walks them through the steps.  Instead of biting off all the new skills learned in the level, each skill builder kit focuses on a specific subset of techniques—helping the student to focus on a handful and gain better mastery.

While the projects for the tapestry levels don’t have a specific intended purpose, I wanted the skill builder kits to create something that was both beautiful and useful in some way—bringing tapestry into our everyday lives.  This includes transforming the pieces into zippered pouches, pencil holders, pillows, totes, and more, as well as decorative wall pieces.  Students have been so proud to show off their skill builder creations they’ve made with my kits, and the sense of pride they feel in their accomplishment is so rewarding to witness.

Part of that success is due to the project being specifically designed to be accomplished using the skills they’ve earned at that point, with perhaps a few small stretches added to keep the material interesting.  That is how a practice is maintained:  repetition mixed with variety to build mastery while cultivating curiosity for what comes next.

Project-Based Graduating to Process-Based Learning

Currently, Intro to Tapestry levels 1-3 and their accompanying skill builders are modeled on project-based learning.  We have a physical “thing” I’ve designed that we are making together.  That object has been crafted with specific learning goals in mind.  This frees students from the often paralyzing process of having to make up their own designs AND learn how to weave them from the starting gate.

As a perpetual drawer, coming up with design ideas was never the holdup in my tapestry journey.  I have more design ideas than I’ll ever have a chance to weave in my lifetime!  So having Fran Potter’s approach being that each student makers her own design for each project worked well for me.  It didn’t work well for other students, who agonized over design ideas (or lack of ideas) for weeks.  Some of this is the fault of nasty old perfectionism, and some of this is the trauma our society has wrought on our creative souls.

That is why, in my own work, I chose to start students with projects I had designed.  This made it possible for me to pack kits with all the materials included and send it to students.  I could sit down to class knowing they had good materials, a good design, and a weavable project.  But as students grew in their knowledge, skillset, and acumen, eventually my designing skills wouldn’t be needed.  Students at this level would be ready to graduate from project-based learning to process-based learning.

This is where I see classes on design and color theory for tapestry being the next step, as well as coaching sessions to help students create successful concepts and designs for their future projects.  This could then branch into sessions focused on working with other types of tapestry looms beyond our simple frames, with pros and cons and specific considerations.  This is when the Fran Potter method of everyone working on her own design at her own pace could really flourish, even via an online platform.

Living Tradition

Ultimately, my hope with this pedagogical endeavor is to meaningfully add to the living tradition of tapestry weaving.  This is not a dead thing that lives in an archive somewhere—this is a practice, a living thing.  Also, I want to be a part of helping to increase awareness and valuation of tapestry weaving as a legitimate, esteemed method of creative expression.  This practice takes just as much skill and time and attention as painting or sculpture or any other medium and deserves respect and admiration.  Explaining that is not the same as experiencing it.  And even if many of my students are not on the journey to mastery, they are in a journey of awakening to what it takes to make a tapestry, which will change how they perceive and experience tapestry going forward.

I also hope that my efforts may serve to preserve and carry forward the tradition as I have learned it, that it might be yet one more effort to keep it from being lost.  Just as stories do not die because they continue to be told, the traditions of tapestry weaving stay alive by the continued interest and work of weavers.  I want to take how my mother and Fran believed in me and supported my journey and be able to pass that on to my students, that they may be empowered and liberated in their creative pursuits through tapestry weaving.

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A Mountain of Wool

our sheepChris’ telltale greenish-gray truck pulls into the barnyard early in the morning as we’re doing chores.  Shearing season once again has arrived on the farm, and the 120-odd sheep are ready.  As the temperatures tentatively climb out of the deep freeze, their heavy wool coats will soon be too intense for their comfort.

In the wild, sheep naturally shed their fleece in the spring, rubbing on trees and rocks and anything else that will help them peel off winter’s fibers, just as the bucks do to rub off their antlers after the rutting season.  Wild sheep and goats look rather shaggy through this phase, much like when your dog blows its coat in the spring.  Our English Shepherd herding dogs will be going through that annual phase soon, and goodness there is fur everywhere for weeks!

Ancient peoples would have to gather up these shed fibers from bushes and fences in order to harvest and use them, having to beat all the nest-builders of the wild in the process.  This meant that much of the fibers shed by early sheep were lost, so the process was inefficient, as far as the people were concerned.  With selective breeding, sheep were preferred that did not shed their coat, which meant that people would have to trim off the wool on behalf of the sheep.  This increases the labor involved, but the trade-off was that now ALL of the wool was harvested by the humans, who were becoming reliant on this resilient and versatile fiber for clothing, shelter, and comfort.

The process from shearing to yarn is quite involved—from clipping the wool off each sheep to skirting the fleece and removing any hay or dirty parts.  Then the sticky wool must be washed and combed (carded), then spun and plied into yarn.  If the wool is dyed, this adds another layer onto the process as well.

Laura with woolAfter shearing, I face off with a mountainous pile of raw wool for skirting.  For a cute video on this click here.  It’s a sticky, smelly business, and I usually head straight for the laundry room and the shower when finished.  The lanoline oil the sheep secrete from their skin to help repel water from their wool coats my exam gloves a tarry black as I work, sorting colored fleeces from white ones, and bagging the wool into 50-gallon drum liners.  I pack and press, trying to use the bags as efficiently as possible.

It takes more than one session in the garage, with the wool piled on palates.  I clear one pile, only for Kara to bring another painter’s drop cloth bundle full of wool from the barn.  But while the work is tedious and laborious and my back and hands are sore, I am grateful for this wonderful gift from our sheep.  Wool is captured carbon—energy from the sun and the rain and the grasses all summer.  This wool kept our animals safe and warm all winter, and now it will become beautiful yarn to keep us warm and to create works of creative expression.

Back at Farmstead, I’ve been going through our yarn inventory, picking out which colors need replacing or should be added to the inventory, tying bundles to a cue card for the mill.  We use Ewetopia Woolen Mill in La Farge, Wisconsin.  Kathryn, the owner, has all the specialized equipment to wash, card, and spin—transforming these sticky fibers into gorgeous, hand-dyed product I can use.  It’s a process I am more than happy to delegate!

bagged woolThis morning, we pulled the cargo van up to the garage where I had been working, and Kara climbed inside so we could hand her the stuffed drum liners.  Pushing and cramming, we managed to pack all 15 of the bags into the van, and now Mom and Steve are off to the mill.  When the yarn is ready, it will be like Christmas, seeing how each of the colors turned out and admiring the skeins. Oh, so many future projects to create and kits to make!

Amazingly, the yarn will be much less voluminous than this raw wool.  The lanoline and dirt accounts for nearly half of the weight of the current load of fiber, and even thought I packed the wool tightly, there is still a significant amount of air in the bags.  Yarn, thankfully, is a denser product, making it much easier to pack up when we fetch the finished product to bring home.

I love how we work so hard to honor each piece of what our animals offer—the meat, the milk, the fiber, the poop, the hides, the grazing capacities, and so on.  For some shepherds, wool has become an annoying waste product of raising sheep.  The market value of raw wool—once prized as immensely valuable—is at an incredible low.  Some folks just burn it to get rid of it.tapestry yarn

Instead, we save it and have it transformed into a beautiful and useful product, which we use right here in our own creative practice and through my teaching outreach.  This week, I sent tapestry kits across the country and to Canada, preparing for upcoming courses.  All the yarn included for the weft is from our sheep.  That’s local love in every inch of fiber.

If you love working with fiber, find a way to share that love this week by sourcing local wool for your next project and celebrate the season of spring shearing.

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The Art of Repurposing

crochet basketThere’s an old green trailer on our farm, reworked by some creative soul from the back end of an old pickup truck.  It hangs out next to the garage, out of the way of the snowplow.  A few years ago, we had the idea to load it up with the various pieces of scrap metal from the farm, to take it in for recycling—bits of tin, an old nesting box, mangled fence wire, etc.

Then the pandemic hit, and plenty of other issue rose well above hauling the trailer’s contents to the scrap yard.  So, there it sat as we slowly piled more bits and pieces on top.  And then, we’d be in the middle of a fix-it project, and Kara would go, “You know, I could really use a…wait a minute…” and off she’d go to the trailer and pull out this or that, cut it to size, and carry on with her project.  The supposed scrap heap in the trailer was no longer that—it had transformed into a potential repurposing collection.

I shouldn’t be surprised—finding new uses for old items is a honed skill on the homestead.  Puppy collars become makeshift gate hinges, pallets become pig winter housing, cardboard boxes become chick brooders, and so much more.

In an era where waste has become an epic problem on our planet, and planned obsolescence of products and equipment encourages us to throw away instead of fix things is pushing our planet’s tolerance for our irresponsible behavior as a species.  Mom remembers a moment from when she was a kid growing up in Platteville, Wisconsin, how she had gone with her dad (Grandpa) to the town dump.  The eccentric fellow who worked there had pointed to all the piles and debris, saying, “They’re gonna come back and mine this someday.”

Well, you can mine yours right now, before having the go to the dump!  So many items that might typically be thrown out can be reclaimed and reworked into something different that is useful, even beautiful.  Upcycling is even trendy in some regions.

trimming fabricWe like to joke on our farm that once fabrics become a “rag,” they never die.  They just keep showing up for different purposes.  When we first started our market gardens, we would use old sheet to cover sensitive crops during a frost.  As the gardens grew, so did the need for more old sheets and blankets!  We raided the rag closets, we raided the thrift stores, we asked for donations.  We had boxes and boxes of sheets and blankets!  When they were out hanging to dry after a frost, it looked like we had a laundry.

And then, we discovered the product Agribon, which comes in 100-foot rolls, dries quicker, stores easier, and is actually better suited to insulating plants from frost than sheets.  The rags had been demoted, but we didn’t throw them away.  Instead, over the years, they’ve found a host of uses—draft shields draped over the jug pens during lambing season, woven rag rugs, padding when moving precious cargo.  Some eventually disintegrated, aged by the sun and worn through with use, while others have remained surprisingly rugged.

The other interesting aspect of being a repurposer is that when folks learn that you reuse the stuff they were going to throw away, suddenly lots more of it comes your way!  A family member is moving?  Here comes boxes of all the textiles they no longer want.  You used old rubber mats for pig house doors?  Here, have some more!

Most recently, I’ve been experimenting with some interesting new crochet stitches and landed on a technique that worked quite well to make a sturdy little bowl or basket out of yarn.  Curious, I wondered if I could scale up the experiment with something much thicker.  Using the strip-making technique I utilize for my rag rugs, flannel sheets from the old stash were rip-rip-ripped into long pieces, and I had my enormous size Q crochet hook at the ready.  Within a couple of evenings, the pile of torn discarded sheets was transformed into a sturdy laundry basket.

crochet basket

From that first laundry basket have sprung others in different sizes, medium-sized bowls, and more.  I’ll be offering this as a class, as well as a photo essay pattern for digital download, so you can try it too!

What equips one well for repurposing?  Mostly, it’s the ability to imagine what something could become even if it’s nothing like the object’s current use or appearance.  This divergent thought process is essential to creativity and ingenuity.  A coat hanger is reworked into a Christmas wreath base, a plastic jug has its top and bottom removed and the ring in the middle is used to protect seedings from voracious cutworms, or old sheets become a basket.  All three are uses of common objects the original manufacturer certainly did not have in mind.

How might you find creative ways to repurpose items you aren’t using or were planning to throw away?  Spend some time this week creatively exploring the possibilities.  In the process, you might even transform the mundane into something useful and beautiful.

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Healing Through Our Hands

felted sheepRecently, my indigenous friends on social media have been sharing a beautiful sentiment from their cultures.  As a creative maker, gardener, and tender of the earth, these thoughts resonated with me personally, and I wanted to share them with you.

“Grandma, how do you deal with pain?”

“With your hands, dear.  When you do it with your mind, the pain hardens even more.”

“With your hands, grandma?”

“Yes, yes. Our hands are the antennas of our soul. When you move them by sewing, cooking, painting, touching the earth or sinking it into the earth, they send signals of caring to the deepest part of you and your soul calms down.  This way she doesn’t have to send pain anymore to show it.”

“Are hands really that important?”

“Yes my girl. Thinking of babies: they get to know the world thanks to their touches. When you look at the hands of older people, they tell more about their lives than any other part of the body. Everything that is made by hand, so is said, is made with the heart because it really is like this: hands and heart are connected. Masseuses know this: When they touch another person’s body with their hands, they create a deep connection. Thinking of lovers: When their hands touch, they love each other in the most sublime way.”

“My hands grandma… how long haven’t I used them like that!”

“Move them my girl, start creating with them and everything in you will move. The pain will not pass away. But it will be the best masterpiece. And it won’t hurt anymore. Because you managed to embroider your essence.”   ~ Elena Barnabé

We all face pain during our journey on this earth.  The ongoing pandemic has made that sit much closer to home.  In one of my fiber arts classes via zoom this week, a student shared that a good friend of hers had gone to the hospital for surgery.  The surgery was not successful, so she had to return to the hospital for rehab and more work, and while she was there, she contracted COVID-19 and has now passed away.

Our tiny group offered our deep condolences and held the caring, sacred space for her in her openness of sharing her loss.  I then added, “I think that having fiber projects like the ones we are working on right now—soft, comforting, the gentle process of creating—has been the greatest island of sanity I’ve found in all this chaos and heartbreak.  It is a tremendous honor to offer that to you and to share that in this space together.

Nods, “mmm-hmmms,” and sighs ensued.embroidery heart

When the pandemic first loomed its harrowing figure over our lives two years ago, I found myself often unable to sleep at night.  I was agitated, worried, uncertain about what was going to happen to the people I loved or our ability to survive as a farm and business.  I tossed and turned, tried focusing on calmly breathing, but nothing seemed to be working.

Perhaps channeling the same sentiments about dealing with pain (or fear) as shared above, I decided an action antidote was most necessary—something I could immerse my whole self in until the wave of distress subsided.  Digging through my arsenal of art supplies, I found my stash of embroidery materials.  This is a medium I hadn’t touched since a teenager.  I’d learned embroidery from my mother when we were homeschooling, and over the years I’d worked many projects.  But then I’d set it aside for other, new projects.  The materials had waited patiently for me, and I had not forgotten the skillset from years ago.

Propped up with pillows, I mindfully drew the needle and floss in and out of the fabric, slowly transforming the design into a colorful flower garden of stitches.  My mind could refocus and calm itself, and after a while I could turn off the lights and go back to sleep.

My weaving, crocheting, and felting practices also offer this same grounding, with the healing repetitive motions and the birthing of simple materials into beautiful form.  It’s a process I delight in sharing with others in my Zoom classes, as we safely tune in from our homes across the country and even in Canada.canoe trip in progress

Pain might be an inevitable part of life on earth, but there are many ways in which we can alleviate or channel the suffering incurred from that pain into paths for healing.  Through that journey, we can soften, instead of harden our hearts.  And we can create beauty around us—in objects, in a meal, in a garden—and share that beauty with those we love.

This week, spend some time working with your hands towards healing, or sharing a skill with someone.  Mending something can be as healing (or even more so) as making something new.  Take care out there, everyone, and engage the work of healing with heart and hands.

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The Joy of Making Christmas Presents

felted dogShopping…it has never been a family favorite.  As far back as I can remember, Mom would remark how she loathed shopping.  We’d even challenge each other to see how fast we could breeze through a store for the items we were after!

Our holiday gifting to each other is customarily ever-so-practical:  new chore boots, insulated work pants, warm socks or slippers.  Instead of a whole fanfare of wrapping, we spontaneously shout “Merry Christmas!” when opening the package and promptly put the useful items to work.

When it comes to gifting for the rest of the family and friends, we love making presents.  Over the years we’ve made wreaths, cookies, corn husk dollies, hats, felted ornament version of beloved dogs who have passed on, prayer shawls, and more.

There’s a real joy in the process of making holiday gifts, where we think on the recipient throughout the creation process—sending warm thoughts that infuse into the item in hand.  A homemade gift might not be shiny or trendy, but it’s entirely one-of-a-kind and precious in its own way.

This year, when decorating the miniature tree that stands in the window at Farmstead Creamery, I had to pick and choose which ornaments to display.  What immediately rose to the top of boxes and boxes of choices?  All the homemade ones!  The tiny counted cross stich pieces Mom had made, the macrame snowflakes we made in abundance one Christmas many years back, the cornhusk angel on top, the tiny carved wooden reindeer Grandpa had made in his shop.  Each has stories and character that cannot be found in commercial products.christmas tree

This morning, after chores, I headed to the woods to collect boughs for our annual wreathmaking tradition.  The sun shone brightly, slanting through the pines across the western field.  The frosty-furred Kunekune pigs grunted at me as I passed, up meandering about even before the neighborhood crows had risen.

I trudged through the deepening snow, pulling my black toboggan sled for gathering the fragrant balsam boughs.  Snap, snap.  My arms laden, the sled became piled high with delightful greenery.

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree
Your faithful leaves unchanging…

Tonight, we’ll cover the table with plastic, bring out the boxes of bobbles and ribbons, turn up the holiday music, and enjoy a family session of making and storytelling.  The whole room will smell magical, and we’ll deck our doorways and send some to friends and family—a small piece of the farm arranged to remind us that the wheel of the year will continue to turn, and that spring will come again.

We’ve also been busy making presents for others—spending evenings by the wood stove knitting hats, felting doggie Christmas tree ornaments, and making needle felting kits.  Each day as I package the boxes to ship, I am warmed to think of the delight of the recipients.  Handmade joy travels well.

Yesterday, during my Zoom needle felting class, where we were making adorable gnomes, a student remarked how her project was going to nestle into her Christmas tree.  She shared that it was a family tradition to make small gifts for each other, going back to her grandmother, who would make little ornaments for everyone each year.  She still had several of them from her childhood, that she held up to show us!  These were not just decorative objects—these were talismans to memories of her childhood, of her grandma, of Christmases over the years.

I have a host of more Zoom needle felting classes over the holidays coming up that you are welcome to explore!  They are part of our farm’s dedication to fostering creativity and community, even in these challenging times.

Explore Holiday Classes

Do you have favorite Christmas memories of making or sharing homemade gifts?  This week, spend some time sharing or recreating those—dusting off Grandma’s cookie recipe, teaching a youngster how to fold and cut paper snowflakes, or bringing out the knitting project.  Whatever type of creativity brings you joy, find a way to share it with the people you love.  Both your hearts will be warmed.  Stay creative and Happy Holidays!

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Creativity Vs. Productivity–Yin and Yang

yin yangI was a bright-eyed fourth grader the summer we stopped by the gift shop in Wisconsin Dells where my mom’s younger brother had a summer job.  I had a tiny bit of spending money, and I picked out a necklace for myself—a silvery yin yang pendant embedded with shell inlay dyed maroon and a bluish teal.  It was one of my favorite childhood accessories for a time, well before studying Eastern philosophy and the origins of this symbol.  I mostly liked the colors, and the swirling semi-paisley forms looked fun and cool.

The necklace has long since fallen apart and the pendant reworked into an art piece, but the symbol has stayed with me and ironically immediately came to mind when thinking about discussing the relationship of balance for artists when considering creativity and productivity.  Sometimes, it seems we confuse these very different concepts, especially as the corporate world has found encouraging creativity to be helpful in its workforce’s productivity, so I wanted to spend a moment peeling the onion of what each mode is and is not and how, as artists and creative persons, we need both.

Creativity is not a thing—it is a flow. 

You know that you’ve stepped into that flow when all experience of everyday measures of time evaporates.  Hours rush by, and you’re not even exhausted.  In fact, you’re exhilarated!  Creativity is an energy, THE great energy of the universe or divinity or however you wish to put handles on it that calls us to be the conduit for that which is seeking form and expression.

Creativity is boundless and endless, infused with divergent thought.  Ideas are everywhere—even really outlandish and crazy ones that are probably never going anywhere, but that’s ok.  This mode is exuberant and joyful and full of discoveries and puzzle pieces.

Yet, creativity is shy.  You have to build a relationship with it.  You have to show up for this invisible wild horse without any ropes or bridles and show that you are trustworthy.  When you ride the wild horse of creativity and imagination, the thrill makes you want to never get off, but at length you must.  Creativity also needs times of rest, of contemplation, or letting ideas simmer in the back of your mind without forcing them.  The horse must graze too, and you must sleep and let the dreams work their magic.

Abuse or neglect the wild horse of creativity, and it vanishes for long, dreary, drought-like periods.  Coaxing it back is a soul’s effort of building trust, healing, and re-learning how to be playful (or un-learning to be so adult) that is no task for the introspectively squeamish.

Productivity, on the other hand, is quite concrete.

packing kits

packing needle felting kits

We are all familiar with the world of productivity, which has dominated our Western culture since the Industrial Revolution.  It’s deadlines and quotas and releasing the next product or filling the next order.  It is measurable, tangible, and marketable.  It lives and breathes the schedule of the weeks and months, the days’ emails and to-do lists.  It is deductive thought—paring down from many possibilities to find the “right” answer.

Many artists bemoan productivity mode, wishing they could instead be with their creative wild horses all day, but I want to focus on why we need both and how they interact with each other, just like the symbol of yin and yang.

This ancient Chinese circle shows yin (female energy) in relation to yang (male energy).  One is white and the other black—opposites of pigment coloration.  Both are the same size.  All yin, and life is out of balance, as it would also be with just yang.  All creativity with no productivity and there’s lots of ideas, but nothing gets done.  All productivity with little or no creativity, and the work becomes dull and lifeless, chasing only what sells.

If, instead, we focus on the balance of the two, we can lift both our creative practice and our effectiveness of that practice.

For example, creative mode tends to come in waves.  These waves are not always at moments when it is feasible to chase after them!  Write/draw/jot them down.  I mean it!  I always carry a notebook with me everywhere, and it’s full of sketches, notes, design concepts, etc.  It’s horrible when a flash of a wonderful idea comes that you can’t later recall.  The wild horse has rushed off again, and you didn’t snap a picture.  Snap that picture!  Jot them on the nearest scrap of paper and tape them into your notebook if necessary, so that you don’t lose that spark.  These notebooks are goldmines later when I have the time to revisit them.

dragon sketchesBut a flurry of a thousand ideas is not useful in itself—it must be honed and winnowed.  This is where turning on productivity mode helps.  For instance, which of these ideas is actually feasible?  All concepts have pros and cons, and this is the work of productivity mode, which also has a strong sense for what might have the best results with audience (e.g., market appeal, gift-ability, etc.).  These are not small concerns when embarking on turning ideas into form.  I switch from creative mode to productive mode and back again all the time when designing projects for classes.  Here might be an internal monologue between the two modes.

C:  “Ooh, I think we should make a dragon!  Wouldn’t needle felting a dragon be fun?”

P:  “Sure.  But let’s also make it approachable.  There can be lots of complex parts on a dragon.”

C:  “Painting with wool style, with some beadwork!  It could be so pretty!”

P:  “This sounds like a two-session class.  I’ll research helpful beads and get some on the way for a prototype.  The folk school needs sample images for this class before next month.”

C:  “I love Celtic/Nordic zoomorphic designs, where the animal and knotwork are blended together.  It should feel enough like the Old World imagery and yet enough recognizable elements we associate with dragon today that it draws from both modern and ancient sensibilities, with lots of powerful flow.”

P:  “I’ll do some image research and compile a file of ideas to draw from.”

C:  “Sorry?” looks up from busily doodling in notebook.  “Oh, yeah, that would be great, thanks.”

Another example of the interrelationship between creative and productive modes is during what we call “the creative process.”  Everyone who lives the artist’s life knows that your relationship to a particular piece changes as the work progresses—especially works that are quite involved and take considerable time to complete.

punching unicorn rugFor me, creativity infuses the initial rush of the project—concept sketches, design, color choices, etc.  This infuses powers through typically the first third of the work before seriously waning.  I hit a snag, and the project sits for a while as I percolate the solution.  Quite easily, creative mode can be wooed by the next new idea and bounds off, leaving the previous piece behind.

This is where I need to switch to productivity mode, which is the “get ‘er done” powerhouse.  It thrives on deadlines (real ones!), goals, and breaking a complex process into manageable, measurable steps.  Yes, creativity handed off a fantastic idea for a tapestry class and a marvelous mockup, but now how many tutorials will that break down into, what should they be called, and how should they be organized?  Which materials and how much of each need to go in each kit, and what would that cost?  That’s where productivity mode rolls up its sleeves and gets to work.  Harness this, and you’ll find out in the end that the wild horses of creativity adore the euphoria of the full fruition of an idea and visit more frequently and regularly than they did amidst a mess of orphaned concepts.

Neither of these modes, however, are purely their own.  Notice that the swirl of yin has a spot of yang in it, and the swirl of yang also contains a spot of yin.  This is critical.  Creativity without a spot of productivity won’t yield results that are fully actualized or even workable.  Productivity without a spot of creativity is dull and lifeless—“the grind.”  Cultivating balance and agility at toggling between modes becomes the great dance.  As with all things, practice makes it easier.

How might cultivating the yin and yang of creativity and productivity in your practice shake things up and bring your work to a new level?  Pay attention to what mode you are in when, consciously shift when necessary, and see what happens.

Happy creating!

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Inheritor of Stashes

fiber loftThe stash.

I wish there was a prettier word for it, maybe something that sounds a bit more French?  Even horde sounds at least medieval or fantasy oriented to describe an assemblage of art or craft supplies, but “stash” seems to have become the term of choice.

On the other hand, I don’t want to think of it as hoarding, as that implies having the supplies just to have them, gradually accumulating more and more until the house bursts.  Instead, I feel that I am a half-way house for fiber arts supplies, with raw wool heading off to the mill, a vanload of finished roving or yarn coming back, boxes and boxes of kits and class supplies heading out in shipments, and finished goods heading off to gift shops or special orders.

My stash might be sneaking towards warehouse proportions, with running inventories and numerous shelves and bins, but I haven’t invested in a forklift yet.  Some of the influx and outgo is predictable and managed, but some stash events come as surprises.

These usually include gifts from other makers’ stashes.  Terry, one of my very first needle felting students called me up about a year ago asking if I’d like some wool fabric.  It had come to her from the stash of a friend who was a quilter, and she was looking to clear the space these boxes were occupying.

“Sure,” I said, thinking I could certainly find a fun project for the fabric, “It might work well for rag rugs.”

Terry was not joking about these boxes taking up space—there were quite a number of them!  The colors were lovely—intense reds, greens, blues, and purples—but the actual pieces of fabric were quite small (cut-up jackets, coats, remnants, etc), which would make stripping for rag rugs not as ideal.  All the pieces were washed, so they had felted a bit.  What to do with this unique stash?

arctic crittersAnd then as I was designing needle felted critter kits with wintry themes, I thought to cut up some of the fabric into small strips to give the arctic foxes, snowy owls, and polar bears little scarves to wear.  It made them so cute!  Now these small, felted fabrics had a perfect use, and I’ll have a source of tiny scarves for life!

Other times, I become the recipient of stashes of the deceased—bags or bins of yarn, a box of crochet hooks, old lace, buttons, and more.  Family members want to see these stashes go to someone who will use them, and receiving them is an honor.  Sometimes, the stashes are of elderly friends or relatives of friends who are downsizing.

Lisa, a musician friend of mine, was preparing to move to another state, and she was working to sell her mother’s McCumber floor loom.  I made a trip up to see it and agreed to buy it, and she decided to include all of her mother’s weaving stash in the bargain—yarn, thread, bobbins, shuttles, books, winders, and more.  I’m still working through many of the supplies!  Perhaps, eventually, I’ll make and sell enough goods from the stash to offset the cost of buying the loom.

spools of warpMost recently, my friend and fellow fiber artist Christine has been continuing to divest and downsize.  Her beautiful varpapuu tapestry loom that Grandpa helped me restore currently holds my Zen Cranes tapestry project in my studio yurt.  Christine is in our farm’s CSA program, and occasionally she sends home more yarn, hand tools, or dye materials.  The other week, she called saying she had wool for me.

“It’s a lot!” she offered, “But some of it I brought over from Germany.”

“Of course,” I answered.  I always have a good use for wool.  Lately, I’ve been making so many felting kits that the wool from our sheep isn’t keeping up.

Christine decided it was too much wool to send on a CSA route, so she brought them down to the farm herself.  She arrived in her little car, and the bags of wool came out like clowns—they just kept coming and coming and coming.

“How did you fit this all in here?” I asked as she handed them off to me a couple at a time.

Even when she was about ready to drive away, she realized there was more in the passenger foot compartment, and she had to come back.  The bags filled our cargo van!

“I thought I would use this for spinning, but I’ve decided I’m not going to get to that now, and someone needs to use it,” she offered as she shared the stories about each of the bags of cleaned wool.

“I certainly will find beautiful ways to use them!” I promised.

wool on wagonThe bags were a bit musty from being stored so long, so I unbagged the collection and laid it all out on one of our hay wagons, to let the air and sun work its magic.  There was lovely natural grays and browns, which will work perfect blended with our wool for gray yarns that I need for upcoming tapestry kits.  Other fun includes merino roving in a delightful array of colors, which will work perfect for future projects I’m already dreaming about.  What a wonderful gift from one fiber lover to another!

What do you have in your stash, and what project is it inspiring you to create?  Have you, too, been an inheritor of stashes?

I recently saw a meme going around on social media encouraging folks to create their own dragon titles.  This included one’s first name spelled backwards, followed by some help from predictive text.  My dragon name would likely be:  Arual, hoarder of wool and looms, though my farm version might be hoarder of chickens and lettuce—depending on my dragon mood!

As the year slowly turns towards the colder months, I’m looking forward to having a bit more time for stash-inspired projects.  Are you?  Happy creating!

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New Exploration, Added Skillsets

sunflower and beeBeing an interdisciplinary artist means that I’m not married to one medium or methodology.  Creative projects for me typically start as an idea seeking form–which might eventually become a song, a tapestry, a story, or any number of options for making.  Adding to my toolset for creative expression keeps things fresh for me as an artist and allows me to broaden my options.  This is not unlike adding a new color to a palate or learning how to play new notes on an instrument.  It’s also exciting when I bridge or blend mediums, drawing on the strengths and possibilities of more than one method of expression (such as this image of a punch needle rug hooked sunflower piece with a bead embroidered bee I recently finished).

The fact that this COVID-19 pandemic has pushed more creatives to teach online (including myself!) has made it possible for me to partake of some new-to-me mediums and methodologies.  These include Anishinaabe style bead embroidery with Marcie McIntire and wet felting with Elise Kyllo.  While I’d been dabbling with adding beading to some of my felted creations, I knew I had a lack of process discipline and experience with what made a piece “work,” so the three sessions with Marcie were immensely helpful and have since exploded into a host of small projects.  Recently, these have blended with my love of fiber and my grandpa’s new love of wood turning.

beaded shawl pins    cabled shawl with pin

In the class, Marcie had us working on deerskin, which was very hard on my hands.  So afterwards, I’ve been experimenting on thick felt, which has by comparison been immensely satisfying.  I wanted to make objects that were beautiful and useful, and the creation of a barrette made me think of the potential for shawl pins!  How fun to have small projects that would allow me to experiment with concepts and techniques that would also ornament some of the lovely wraps and shawls I make using wool yarns from our farm’s sheep.

With Elise’s class on wet felting bowls and berets, I was ready to create a new experience with wet felting.  Many of my needle felting students have heard the story that my teenaged experience with wet felting was a “felt a slipper on your foot” class that turned out making slippers that sasquatch might wear!  At the time, I was severely disappointed, but now I was ready to give the experience a new try.

While not nearly as precise (or tidy) as needle felting, wet felting with Elise proved to be much more enjoyable and successful, and I can certainly see it as a base process for additional expression, including my long-term goal of creating my own felt hat blanks using wool from our sheep.  The bowl proved quite sturdy and lovely, and I was itching to try some beadwork on it.

felted bowlThe feathers and little bird add some lovely charm as well!  In the second class, which was the beret, the structure is softer and lends itself to shaping.  Yet again, I found myself looking at the wet felted creation as a dimensional canvass for additional work.  When showing off my decorated bowl, Elise offered, “I’m surprised you didn’t needle felt it,” which felt like a collegial challenge for envisioning what to do with my beret, which looks more like a cross between a beret and a Scottish tam in shape.  The large, flat area felt inviting for a painting with wool expression, but I was also having so much fun beading that I wanted to try a hybrid.

Inspiration came from an old love–the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, housed at the Musee du Moyen-Age in Paris.  I’m on a long-term project to recreate some of the gowns worn by the women in these tapestries (that could and likely will be a whole other blog post!), especially the hand maid from the piece known as “Taste,” whose wardrobe is subdued compared to the central figure.  However, wouldn’t it be fun to use that central figure as a motif on a hat that could be worn!  The challenge was on.

lady taste     lady felt phase 1

First, I spent time studying images of the original–drawing a feel for her posture as she feeds her parrot a treat.  Needle felting with wool roving from our sheep, I used my painting with wool technique to rough out the shape and add the main elements of color.  This was done freehand without drawing on the felt base.  I purposefully left the yellow of her gown slightly transparent to allow the blue background to show through to mimic the brocade of the original gown.

But I was yearning for finer detail than I could achieve with the wool alone, so I brought out my embroidery floss.  Embroidery is a skillset I learned from my mother as a pre-teen, and recently I’ve been returning to the medium as a way to self-soothe when feeling stressed during the pandemic, which has really been good therapy.  The embroidery layer allowed me to add details and definition to the piece as it emerged.

lady hat embroidery phase      lady hat beading phase

Then it was time for beading! First the hem and cuffs, as well as adornments to her veil and circlet began transforming the softness into sparkle.  I paid close attention to the choices in jewel colors and placements in the original tapestry while also having to minimalize for the small scale of the piece.  Decorating the hat took significantly longer than felting it, but the journey of the process felt so rewarding.  I’ve been in love with the unicorn tapestries since I was a homeschooled high schooler, and my work often circles back to a conversation with these magnificent pieces.  The women and animals have such a presence to them that speaks across the centuries.

lady hat jeweld

At last, she was fully adorned, complete with freshwater pearls and golden rosettes.  Talk about a lady showing off her bling!  I then gave the hat some bling as well, leaning on my costuming skills for the brim and adornments, including some peacock feathers.  This piece is truly wearable art, and it felt so good to give myself an aesthetic and technical challenge.  I’ll certainly look forward to wearing this for a festive occasion!

hat side view    other side view

Since taking these pictures, I’ve also crocheted a delicate beaded snood (decorative hair net) in yellow thread with red, blue, and gold glass beads to wear with it–a perfect compliment to the piece.  Now I’ll have to find some time this winter to circle back to the gown project!  Alas, I suspect that I never shall manage to transform all of my many ideas into form, but I keep jotting them down in my journal with sketches, hoping not to loose the inspiration in my busy schedule.   I am grateful to have learned these new skills this year, and to have had the time to create this lovely piece that speaks to my heart.

As a creative, I’ve noted that sometimes my best pieces start with “I wonder if I could…”

Lean into the adventure when you hear that small voice calling your creative skills to the next level.

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Facing Your Project UFOs

projects in studio

For many of us, the term UFO conjures images of disk-shaped alien space craft with blinking lights and eerie music, but for creative makers, we have a different use for this acronym—Un-Finished Object.  A creative UFO is a different critter from the other acronym WIPs, or Works In Progress.  A WIP is something you’re actively working on—you know where you’re going, and you have some momentum.  But for project UFOs, well, there might actually be some mystery and eerie music involved.

If you are a prolifically creative person, like me, you have your share of both WIPs and UFOs in your collection. I once had a student ask me how many different pieces I had in progress at the moment, so I started running through the inventory in my head like I was going down an invisible checklist.  When I reached 35, I decided to call it quits.  That was just getting too daunting or depressing, or a little of both!

It’s not that I don’t finish work (my binder of itemized gallery inventory sold or for sale is a testament to my prolific finishing as well), I just often have too many new ideas that start new projects all the time.  My family is very gracious about accommodating my plethora and diversity of projects, and I’m grateful that our farm’s pets live with Kara in the old farmhouse!  Projects are, quite literally, everywhere at our house and in the Fiber Loft of Farmstead Creamery, which has been converted to my virtual classroom and project kit manufactory.

In the recent virtual instructor’s retreat hosted by North House Folk School, lead instructor Laura Ricketts shared about her quarantine adventure of facing her UFOs.  She asked, “Have you ever gathered them all up, put them into one room, and looked at them?  It’s quit the accountability exercise!  You should try it.”  Admittedly, she is a knitter, so her projects likely could be herded into one room, but it did paint quite the picture in my mind of what that might look like with my own work.

Since then, I’ve been reflecting on my own practice of rebuilding momentum in the creative process and wanted to assemble some tips and tricks for transforming project UFOs into accomplishments you can celebrate.  Let’s break down what turns a WIP into a UFO as well as ways to disrupt that cycle transform languishing projects into completed objects.

First, it’s helpful to acknowledge that the creative process is cyclical.  Enthusiasm for a piece will naturally ebb and flow, and this is not related to laziness (though we might project this self-image onto the work).  Enthusiasm for a piece tends to be in the early phases (think of this as your honeymoon with your project) that gradually fades as the “grind” of the work towards completion sets in.  That fading can cause us to set down a project and simply not pick it back up again.

This is where I hear my students lament that they have to finish a piece in class or it never gets finished at all—they need the accountability of the group setting to carry them through the grind to the finish line.  If you see yourself in that statement, find a few friends who also feel this way and set up an accountability group.  Zoom together and work on your pieces, so you have designated time for your WIPs—encouraging each other and celebrating the wins along the way.  This can also be a great way to guide you through bumps if you can help each other troubleshoot problems that arise in your work.

The bumps that appear on the journey of creating are another way that WIPs get derailed.  You’ve put it in and taken it out so many times, you’re frustrated, the directions make no sense, you can’t see a way forward, and the project goes in the bag and into the closet.  And it’s still there.  You know it’s there.  Know it’s there and being ignored doesn’t help your sense of ability because you gave up on it.  You gave up on the project because you couldn’t make it work and that feels like (whether you’re ready to openly admit it or not) you’ve given up on a little part of yourself.  This cycle goes round and round until it feels insurmountable to ever get back on that horse again.  I’ve been there!  Stop, take a breath, and step outside that gnawing circle for a minute.

seahorse progress detailFirst, be kind to yourself.  All creatives hit snags.  Instead of this piece being a tool for inflicting emotional pain, see it as an invitation to find an ally to help you through the sticking point.  Or you could see it as project archaeology, a window into a former you.  What’s going on in this bag?  What was happening here, and how can I restore it?  If that project has been languishing for quite some time, it may take some deciphering to figure out where you were.  Be curious about it, rather than judgmental, and see about picking up the pieces.

For me, setting up real deadlines can be very helpful.  Not deadlines with myself because those can easily be re-negotiated, but deadlines that involve others.  For instance, I might decide to finish something from the UFO stack so that it can be a gift for someone else by a certain time (Christmas, a birthday, Mother’s Day).  That urgency gives me enough umph to overcome the inertia that holds me back from getting motivated.  I’m accountable to that deadline now, so it’s time to get working.  I once submitted a large tapestry for a juried show.  That tapestry wasn’t finished yet.  I had hit a bump technically with the work and let it set for months.  Now I had to get off my butt and get it done!  The piece was not selected for the exhibition, but the tapestry is now complete and beautiful.

For some, deadlines are toxic and not useful.  I recently read an article that spoke to procrastination not being laziness but a deep attachment to success and productivity as representative of self-worth.  In this situation, the thought of a piece being finished, judged, and deemed poorly made would be so personally crushing that putting off finishing it becomes the favored option.  If you find yourself in this scenario, again, please be kind to yourself.  Every creative makes flops and flubs.  That’s part of experimenting and growing.  Your creation is not you.  It is an expression wrought by your time and attention, but you and your self-worth exist regardless of what you have or haven’t created.

Some pieces, however, have different emotional reasons for not being finished.  We are not static—we change as we grow and experience life.  What once spoke to us now seems flat or reminds us of a former self no longer meaningful.  Sometimes that means that an unfinished piece needs to discover a new life, reworked into something else, or it might serve as an invitation to unpack the emotions ensnaring the abandoned darling.  Sometimes we just find ourselves blocked creatively, unable to put a finger on why.

Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way offers some useful journal prompts in her section on breaking down blocks.  The most seismic of these in my own practice was completing the sentence, “What do I gain by not…..” and then answering it for yourself.

the lady's face in progressReturning to that large tapestry piece, not only had I hit a technical bump (weaving the intricate challenge of the lady’s face), but I was also emotionally entangled.  Doing the work of sitting with this writing exercise helped me see that this piece at the time represented what felt like my last connection to my grad school self—a happier, more care-free me that wasn’t embroiled in my then current situation of broken friendships, lack of creative kinship, and host of adult responsibilities.  Finishing it became symbolic of officially ending that flourishing chapter and closing that book forever.  Being able to write this out made the ghost real and yet fully that—just a ghost.  Grad school was over, whether this piece designed during that time was finished or not.  The association was just a perception, and emotionally I gained nothing by allowing it to remain uncompleted.

Doing the work of breaking through that block, studying what I needed to study to gain technical acumen, and giving myself the real deadline of the exhibition submission turned the UFO into a WIP and then a finished piece.  I cried as I cut it off the loom.  A part of me in that moment grew up and felt immensely accomplished.  It’s a catharsis that returns (albeit usually in smaller doses) as other UFOs in my stash work through this transformation to completion.

Where to start?  Give them some air and some sunshine.  Fist, pick one that’s less daunting—that really is pretty close to completion already, or one that still speaks to you.  Pull it out of the closet, the bin, the bag, the drawer, and let it enjoy your living space.  Let the stagnant smell air out, and (most importantly) make yourself look at it.  It’s easier to pass up working on something that is an ordeal (even a tiny ordeal) to get to.  For me, I even make it a habit to lug it around with me everywhere I go, if it’s a small enough piece.  If the project is omnipresent, then I really have no excuse if I find myself in a situation with time on my hands.  Even small amounts of time add up.

Another important set in this process is unlearning unhelpful ways of thinking.  Here are some toxic notions to let go about finishing projects:

“I won’t start a new project until I get this one done.”

Working in strict series is not mindful of the creative process, which is cyclical.  It’s a sure-fire way to block yourself creatively.  Our brains need the spark of novelty, and starting a new project may be the umph we need in that moment.  Your mind can handle more than one project at once, trust me.  Creative variety never hurt anyone.

“I’ll wait until I feel like it.”

Oh boy, then you’ll be waiting a long time!  Experienced creatives know that waiting for inspiration or motivation to arrive gets nowhere.  Instead, start some good habits around making.  This might be a good place for the group of friends that meet (safely) to work on projects or designating some wind-down time in the evening or early in the morning before the day starts specifically for WIPs.

“I don’t have enough time right now.”

The dream that somehow you’ll suddenly have a large chunk of time appear for a project is…well…probably just a dream.  If you do want to tackle some of your UFOs, then it’s about making time.  Pandemic quarantine has certainly been an invitation for new time management!  Christine, a fellow artist has taken up that challenge and has been excavating the bins of UFOs in her basement and systematically finishing them.  She posts the completed project pictures on her Facebook page, for all of us to adore and compliment.  I’m sure she enjoys the social connection her journey of finishing has created, and she has likely inspired others as well with her “Finishing Fridays” theme.

Clearing out some of your creative UFOs can be exhilarating!  Just like how clearing out the clutter in a room can help you feel free and at ease, reworking those abandoned projects and enjoying them in their completed form can help your own sense of ease and accomplishment.  Amidst the grinding, dulling apathy that is settling in from this long pandemic, challenging yourself to face off with some of your project UFOs might be just the right creative medicine at this time.  Besides, what do you have to gain by not…?

cranes tapestry progress

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I Made a Thing, Now What?

dala horsesCreating can be so much fun–invigorating, stimulating, and able to make hours disappear like mere minutes.  If you’re like me and a prolific creator (or you’ve been taking a host of my Zoom classes lately), you are probably creating quite a collection of items you’ve made.  Now, what to do with all this creative wonderfulness?  The answer is that there are so many delightful options, I thought it worth trying to capture a few to share with you.

To begin, let me share my philosophy of utilizing handmade items.  I was recently on a social Zoom gathering of makers and one knitter admitted that she has a whole closet full of things she’s made that she isn’t using or hasn’t given away because too many people aren’t “knit worthy.”  She added, “Folks can give it away after I’m dead, and then I won’t care.”  I have to admit that my heart broke a little when hearing this sentiment.  If you don’t allow your pieces to be enjoyed until after you are dead, how will you see those pieces touching others, brightening their lives, or bringing comfort and joy?  There is no hygge in a closet full of hand knitted gifts not given.  If it’s too precious to be worn, make it into a wall installation–but still find a way to enjoy them!

When I design my class projects, yes I’m building in steps that are critical to learn, but I purposefully integrate those steps into projects that have aesthetic interest, rather than just a sampler that will end up in a drawer and never be looked at again.  How much more fun to make a painting with wool Dala Horse instead–learning the steps and technique while also creating a lovable finished object with a story and references to cultural heritage.

And yet, when class finishes, what will become of the felted Dala Horse?  Not the dreaded closet, please!  Let’s explore how you can invite your creativity on the journey of “now what?” once you’ve made your project.

A painting with wool project makes a great illustration, as students often wonder how to use these pieces (whereas felted critters usually have a predestined home adorning the office desk, gracing the mantle, or bringing a smile to a younger family member of choice).  I’ll use examples of ways I’ve taken this type of project (and a few others) and transformed it into different, enjoyable items, along with student examples.

Framing

Sometimes you just want to put it up on the wall and marvel at what you made!  This is especially true of pieces that have taken a long time or include rather fragile elements.  The embroidery hoop can make a nice frame, or I’ve used commercial frames but left off the glass, so that you can still enjoy the textural and dimensional qualities of the piece.  You can use a steam iron to take out the distortion in the backing from being stretched on the hoop if needed and trim off any excess fabric after framing.

Kris Kringle

Framed version of Kris Kringle, showing off the beadwork and bobbles.

pair of felted roosters

Pair of felted roosters with real chicken feathers mounted in round frames.

student roosters

Student project:  Two felted roosters with real feathers in painted embroidery hoop frames.

Pillows

Pillows can make delightful home accents that show off your wool painting.  Trim the backing as desired and blanket stitch onto the pillow with embroidery floss in a harmonious color.  If you’re making a pillow from scratch, you can attach the piece to the fabric before making it into a pillow as well, using all sorts of creative stitches or applique methods of your choice.

Owl Moon pillow

Owl Moon stitched into a pillow.

dala horse pillow

Student Project:  Dala Horse on a pillow.

punch needle pillows

Student Project:  Punch needle rug hooking on pillows (needle felting shouldn’t have all the fun!)

Book Covers

I find something just delightful in crafting fabric book covers–the kind you can slip on and transform an otherwise mundane journal or sketch book into something truly special.  Again, you can use a blanket stitch or whip stitch, and be as simple or as creative as you please!  Add a ribbon book marker, button and tie clasp, and more.  These also make excellent gifts.

unicorn journal

Unicorn at Rest sketch/art book cover on upholstery fabric.

felted journal

Dala Horse and Flower Fantasy journal covers on black felt.

tapestry journal

Small tapestry on a book cover with wood and metal adornments–the possibilities are endless!

Stuffed Ornaments

Smaller or shaped pieces can be cut out, along with its double in felt of a complimenting colors.  Stitch the two pieces together (blanket stitch with embroidery floss works great), add a decorative loop and stuff before finishing off the last of the stitches.  This can create a charming home accent or gift.  Embellish as desired!

dala horse ornaments

Dala Horse felted ornaments, showing back and front.

round Kris Kringle

Seeking greater rigidity, this Kris Kringle is stretched over a cookie tin lid, then backed with felt.

What other ways might you explore enjoying your project?  Please use the form at the bottom of the Student Project Showcase page to share what you’ve made!  Bring your creations out of the drawer or closet and find ways to enjoy and use them, or turn them into a lovely gift.  The smiles are so worth the effort.  Be inspired!

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