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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A Fiber Journey into Rosemaling

rosemalingIn November 2018, I was a student at North House Folk School in Grand Marais, MN, taking a multi-day course on millenary (find that full story here).  We were stationed in Blue House, in the smaller of the two rooms.  Next to us was a large rosemaling class, with the tables formed in a wide U-shape to accommodate everyone’s projects.  During lunch breaks, I would wander into the sunlight-filled space to admire what students and instructors were creating–from studies on paper to full-blown projects on wooden plates, panels, or key racks.

To me, the carefully wrought curving lines looked like a painting form of decorative calligraphy, with its attention to the shape and angle of the brush and the amount of pressure applied.  I had worked with paint in acrylics and oils throughout my art training enough to appreciate the skill involved in the stylized scrolls, leaves, and flowers.  Brushes dipped in more than one color looked fascinating, and here, like calligraphy, adherence to form and traditional also melded with the maker’s own taste and style.  It was a visual conversation with the past manifest in the present.

At the time, I certainly had no idea that rosemaling was going to come to my own practice as a fiber artist.  Perhaps, however, there is a natural lineage between the Swedish side of my heritage, my childhood propensity for doodling scrolling floral patterns into the margins of notebooks, and my developing repertoire of “painting with wool” needle felting projects and kits–a meeting of mediums meant to happen.

felted Dala horseIt began with a request from a North House student for a needle felted Dala Horse project, which launched me on a mini research project to learn about the story of Dala Horses and rosemaling as a greater art form.  I loved finding tales of the Nordic version of lumberjacks carving small wooden horses to bring home to their children on the farms and villages at the end of the timbering season as the humble beginnings of the Dala Horse.  I, too, had prized my own childhood collection of miniature horses, though they were not of the hand-carved sort.

But the internet-wide assertion that rosemaling comes from the Baroque decorative arts interpreted through guilds and then the folk arts lens felt less nuanced to me.  As a medievalist and ancient histories enthusiast, I saw the long fingers of this artform stretching even further back and across European cultures–connected deeply by trade and the migration of people and iconography throughout all these periods.

medieval manuscriptI finally put my finger on it when discussing my latest project with Patti Goke, rosemaling gold medalist and instructor for Vesterheim Folk Arts School.  “It feels like manuscript illuminations!” I exclaimed, thinking on those carefully crafted borders and head lettering with its scrolls and vines, flowers and adornments that added to the massive expense of bookmaking at the time.  Even the same colors are shared–a keen love of blues, reds, greens, and goldens.

The scrolling motifs in medieval illuminations can be found in similar form in Greco-Roman mosaic floors, showing just how concepts inspired by nature become recycled and re-interpreted with each generation.  It also speaks to how enduring these floral, scrolling motifs are to human consciousness and our desire to beautify our spaces–whether as large as a room or as small as a book or a plate.  Especially where winter prevails half or more of the year, the desire to add color and the flowers of spring and summertime to one’s living quarters run deep–perhaps even as deep as the oldest symbol of all–the spiral of creation and regeneration.

But now that we have walked rosemaling all the way back in art history, let’s return to the present and my needle felting practice.  After the release of the Dala Horse project, Kirsten of Marine Mills Folk School requested a painting with wool project for February with a Swedish heart theme.  She sent me pictures of favorite colorwork mitten patterns, and I sent her images from embroidery, and eventually a traditional design was selected as inspiration for the project.  But the original colors seemed loud, with a strong emphasis on orange (not my favorite color), as well as primary colors.

felted folk heartInstead of these loud, competing colors, I drew on a subtler, more Erindale Tapestry Studio style palate with heathered tones of teal, lavender, burgundy, rose, and sunshine.  The symmetry of the design speaks of harmony, while the verdant leafy vines and flowers remind me of the motifs on family hope chests brought over from the Old Country.  It was a perfect Valentine’s project with a heartwarming twist.

Seeing this project inspired Josh of Vesterheim Folk Arts School to request a themed class of their own–this time inspired by rosemaled pieces from their historic collection.  He sent me a variety of images of plates from different eras and regions of Norway as inspiration.  After thoughtfully sitting with these colorful pieces for a few days, I knew it was time to consult a subject matter expert and reached out to Patti Goke.

Vesterheim rosemaling plate

1990.035.001, Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, Decorah, Iowa

“I feel like I’m being asked to represent another art form,” I shared with her over the phone.  “And I don’t want it to look like bad plagiarism.  I want to do the medium justice.”

Patti's designShe laughed, offered, “I get it,” and off we dove into our exciting collaboration.

Studying the historical pieces, we discussed what would and what would not work in a painting with wool needle felting project.  Patti had taken one of my Dala Horse felting classes, so it helped that she had experienced the process as well.  We both knew right away that the designs would have to be simplified.

“I’m looking for a strong central motif and a sense of movement.  But when I look at these pieces, I don’t know which elements are essential and which are decorative,” I relayed as we compared the plates and narrowed down on two that spoke to us.  “That’s where your expertise would be so helpful.”

Patti Goke

Patti Goke painting

“Tell you what,” Patti concluded near the end of our conversation, “I’ll put together a sketch, then you start to play with it.”

When I work on tapestry cartoons, I think about the “weavability” of a particular image.  There are constraints within the medium that make certain elements highly workable while others become nearly impossible.  For this design, I was considering feltability within the constraints of an 8-inch circle, which is the size of the embroidery hoop I use for student painting with wool projects.  To start, I traced along the inside of an embroidery hoop on pieces of paper and began playing with redrawing Patti’s inspired design.  I’d photograph a sketch, send it to her, she’d virtually draw on it with annotations, sending it back for a rework.  I’d take another stab, and onward we went.  Through this process, I began to learn how a rosemaling design thinks–which elements are primary, which are secondary; which are essential and which can be dropped without losing the design.

design on backingAnd then it was time to begin rendering the design-in-process onto a felt backing, and this is when the discussion of color arrived.  Previously, my rosemaling-like projects had been on a white backing.  This does not compete with the other colors and makes it easy to transfer the design by using a light table (aka Farmstead Creamery’s bakery case at night).  While rosemaling is certainly alive with colors, they’re not the loud types typically available in craft felt.  Originally, we thought to use a salmon-ish background like the plate we were studying, but all the options felt too much like Miss Piggy colors.  Navy and Black are classic rosemaling backgrounds, but too dark of a color would mean that transferring the design would become impossible.  Digging through my stash, I found squares of soft bluish-gray, and this passed Patti’s approval as a workable color.

Now for decision on the colors of the felting wool itself!  “This is where you come in,” was Patti’s coaching.  “Everyone brings their own sense of color.  The plate we’re working from, in my mind, uses too many colors.  But that’s just the way my brain is wired.”

“Are there any taboo colors?” I asked.  “Like in medieval heraldry, you don’t use orange or pink.”  She agreed that pink and purple would not be traditional colors, but beyond that she was letting me loose to explore the piece with my own taste.

piece in progressI agreed that not using too many different colors would help it visually hold together, as well as make assembling kits for the project more manageable.  In a burst of creative energy that wouldn’t let me put the felting needle down, I began the wool painting process that ever so slowly brought the flat design into sculpted and colorful form.  Progress pics peppered Patti’s messenger account, thrilling me with “YES!!!” and red hearts as I went.

The order in which I felted the elements was certainly not the order in which I would teach them, but in essence I was visually backing my way into the design–starting with the parts I knew instinctively and feeling my way into the less obvious color choices.  Shaded greenery took the stage first, with dark and light tones mimicking the sweeps of the paint-loaded brushes.  Then the blues spoke to me next, the deep navy offering contrast to the gray-blue background.

continued progressBut now the piece felt dark and chilly.  Time to add some warmth!  Baby chick yellow and soft white answered the call, forming the primary scroll.  I had to think on the execution of the flowers for a few minutes, as they could easily claim too much attention and draw the eye away from the central focus, and yet they were entirely integral to the whole and shouldn’t be understated.  There was also a need for additional warmth.  The yellow was helping, but it still wasn’t enough on its own.

A light touch of Dala Horse orangey red did just the trick as the cinnamon roll-style flowers came into form, highlighted by delicate white stems.  The piece was coming together!  And yet, as Patti and I celebrated virtually, there was still something that was missing.

more progress

“I wonder if I could put a little more blue up the back of the scroll?” I asked Patti.  “I think it might feel more balanced.”  She agreed, so long as the line stayed fairly thin.  After this small tweak, the piece was finished, and we were both excited about the accomplishment.

“I think you have done wonderfully!  I really like the flowers,” she offered as we wrapped up our collaboration session.  I was so excited about the project and the challenge it had given me in its inception and creation.  How delightful this will be to share with Vesterheim students!  This class is now live and available for registration.  You can find all the details here.

needle felted rosemaling

Stay creative! ~Laura

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Joyful Lifelong Learning

Zoom classroomI’m not much for watching TV, as you might have surmised.  The few winter evenings we do watch a program, it’s almost always a documentary, preempted by someone calling out, “Let’s learn something!”

Learning, in our house, was not something you did only during school hours—it was a part of everyday life that was encouraged and celebrated.  Mom read to us aloud voraciously; we visited museums, galleries, and historic sights nearly everywhere we went; the library staff knew us by name; and PBS programs like Nova, Frontline, and American Experience added to the litany of resources we utilized to feed our eager appetites for learning.  Mentorships, classes, workshops, conferences, concerts, performances, and internships wove in the elements of person-to-person learning.  Even my voice teacher often remarked about our propensity for research and exploration, no matter the topic.

I grew up thinking this was normal.  A lifestyle infused with Montessori methodology and un-schooling sensibilities meant that curiosity and creativity flourished and boredom was not even a part of the vocabulary.  As the months of physical isolation in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic grind on, I’ve witnessed how this nurtured skillset has been vital to staying sane and fulfilled.  It’s also become clear how much need there is to share some of that skillset with others.

There’s a pure energy that is present in the practice of lifelong learning that can carry hours by like minutes.  I easily find time slips past when I sit down at one of my looms, experimenting with the interweaving of new colors and textures.  “What happens if I…” and pretty soon dawn has turned into day and the chickens are grumbling, wondering when I will arrive with their breakfast!  You may have experienced this with a good book or a project of your own.

Learning and making are interwoven.  In “Why We Make Things and Why It Matters:  The Education of a Craftsman,” author, educator, and furniture maker Peter Korn speaks of his process as “thinking with things.”  Through the practice of bringing ideas into form, not only are the physical materials brought through a process of transformation and becoming, but so too is the maker.  When we try something, we learn.  When we explore something, we learn.  When we ask questions and investigate possible answers, we learn.  We are wired for learning, if we choose to be engaged, rather than numb ourselves or tune out.

Yes, engagement takes effort.  Unfortunately, society and schooling practices train us that this effort is undesirable and often beats the innate spark for engagement out of us in preference for obedient complacency.  Fortunately, this process can be unlearned, and we can retool ourselves for creative, curious engagement, if we choose.

Unleashing that for others has been a focal passion for me this winter, as I retool myself for a world in which the crowded, hands-on classroom is on hold.  Thank goodness I have a techy dad!  Cameras become the students’ eyes, a condenser microphone the students’ ears, and the virtual space of Zoom our new classroom.  Homes become studios, and we find ways to connect and share despite the difficulties.  For some, it has actually made connecting easier than it was before the pandemic.

dala horses“I’m thinking that I actually like taking classes online better,” Patti Goke offered during this last week’s painting with wool Dala Horse class.  “I don’t have to travel, and I’ve taken way more classes than I ever did before COVID.”  Nodding heads showed she wasn’t the only one with this experience.  Patti is a rosemaling instructor, and she shared how one of her recent students tuned in from Australia to join, at 2:00 am local time.  Just yesterday, I presented as one of five American and Canadian storytellers on a Zoom event hosted by Tracy Chipman, which included audience members from Scotland!  Certainly, they wouldn’t have flown over the oceans to join us in pre-COVID times.

It’s not that Zoom is new, either, but I (like so many) had never heard of it before 2020.  The need to adapt to changing circumstances, however, is a great motivator for learning and skill-building.  I grow exuberant when I see that spark light up in others in the face of a challenge.  Recently, a few of my students voiced an interest in trying to have an Oxford-style punch needle rug hooking course on Zoom.  When my folk schools weren’t ready to take us up on it, I threw out the word to additional past students, and now a small cohort of us are jumping in to give it a try on our own.  Other challenges come from the schools themselves, requesting specific materials that launch me into projects and proposals, including a new collaboration with Patti towards interpreting traditional Norwegian rosemaling into needle felted motifs for Vesterheim Folk Arts School.

If you’re growing weary of staying at home, the best remedy I can recommend is to get curious.  See wildlife outside your window and wonder about its story?  Jump into some research!  How I wish we’d had the resources currently available now on Google when our family started homeschooling!  Wish you knew how to (bake bread, knit a sweater, fold origami, bead embroider, carve spoons, trace your genealogy…you name it), find a class online.  You don’t have to go anywhere now, and learning, exploring, and engagement are all available to you.  Just get curious, apply yourself to that curiosity, and the lifelong learning adventure will begin to unfold.

Your version of chickens might get grumbly now and then, but you just might find something that will make them (and you) happier along the way too.  See you down on the farm sometime. [Originally published as a “Down on the Farm” article]

student work

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Nisse: Yuletide Homestead Helpers

winter crittersI love learning new things.  This last week’s Zoom needle felting classes were hosted with Vesterheim Folk Art School (based in Decorah, Iowa), with a class that proved to be so popular we added a second date to accommodate the waiting list, which also filled up in just a matter of days from opening registration.  The project of choice was needle felting a gnome—or nisse (said Niss-ah), as they are called in Norway.

I had grown up with the fantastically watercolor-illustrated gnome book by Will Huygen and Rien Poortvliet, showing the classic blue-and-red dressed characters living in their natural habitat in remote northern Europe.  Gnome is the German word for these small, human-like creatures of folklore, while in Sweden the name of choice is tomte.  In this classic gnome book, these characters are stewards of the forest, helping the injured or distressed woodland animals, picking berries, and keeping cozy in their homes beneath giant trees.

When discussing the nisse with my Norwegian-enthusiastic Zoom students, I began to learn that these characters had a different habitat and role.  Patti Goke, a rosemaling instructor who was taking the class was so kind to send me an article afterwards from The Norwegian American by Henning Sehmsdorf.  In it, the author relates that rather than being a woodland character, the nisse is a “homestead sprite,” living within the house or barn or nearby rocks and helping to take care of the chores and other duties, especially at night, so long as they felt appreciated.

One of the ways to show appreciation for your homestead’s nisse was to leave a bowl of porridge with a pat of butter on top for them on Christmas Eve, much like leaving out a bowl of milk for the faerie in Celtic cultures or cookies for Santa.  In fact, even the name nisse (a later-adopted word for these characters that replaced tomte, gardvold, tusse, and other regional names) has Christmas connotations.  Sehmsdorf writes:

The collective name nisse entered the Norwegian farm sprite tradition from Denmark, probably as a noa-name— a flattering synonym or nickname used to avoid calling on the household spirit inadvertently. The name nisse, which has been translated as “dear little relative,” apparently was derived from Niels, a Danish form of Latin Nicolaus (Greek Nicolaos), the name of the saint who in medieval times was widely venerated as protector of children and seafarers. Nis or Nisse are pet names for Niels or Nikolas (as Lasse is a pet name for Lars).

So old St. Nick has connections with gnomes and nisse!  (Read the full article here.)

There is even the julinesse (the j is said as a y, so yule-nisse), who is especially associated with Christmastime and eventually morphed into our idea of Santa’s elves.  And just as our Santa is known to keep a list of how kids have been behaving, the nisse know if you have been appreciative and respectful of their work.  A scorned nisse can wreak havoc on the crops and terrorize the livestock.  Better to stay on their good side!

These quirky characters traveled in the hearts and minds (and some say even the luggage) of the Scandinavian immigrants that came to America.  Younger children of farming families who had no hope of inheriting precious land in their native country were leaving the countryside in the mid to late 1800s—either for the developing industries in growing cities or overseas to a new life in America.  They brought their rural consciousness with them, including their beliefs in the nisse.

Today, most of the trickster aspects have faded away to a more playful character for the windowsill or hearth (or even the Christmas tree), which is where many of the felted wool gnomes/nisse we were making in class were destined.

“Oh, it’s so cute!” one of the students exclaimed after stitching on the eye beads.  “He looks exactly like my Norwegian grandpa did!”

nisse students

An article on Wikipedia about the nisse relates that some Norse folklore associates the nisse with the ancestors who originally homesteaded the farms, so finding your grandpa in your nisse is in perfect alignment with the tradition.

There’s a charm in thinking your homestead has a little helper, looking after the animals and crops.  There are plenty of places in the barn or sheds for them to hide, and I’d never know they were there.  What if some of those snowshoe hare tracks are really gnomes?  I’ll probably never know, but I do know that it’s fun to learn about them and their stories and to share a little bit of the julinisse at Christmas time.

Keep your sense of magic!  Good Yule!

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The Yurt is Back!

yurtI would not fit well into a tiny house.  For one thing, I own 15 different weaving looms—in all shapes and sizes.  Floor looms, upright tapestry looms, table looms, a triangular shawl loom, round looms, Navajo looms…they all serve to create different types of textiles and are part of my growing assembly of looms available for instructing students (once it is safe again to do to).

The looms are admittedly most everywhere on the farm—on the farmhouse porch, sometimes in our living room, in our walk-out basement, in the loft, even a smaller one at Farmstead currently.  Having so many looms was the impetus for constructing my studio yurt on our farm in 2007, when my large tapestry loom proved too heavy for house’s loft, causing it to begin sagging!  The wooden and metal beast had to go somewhere else, but where?

A heated yurt next to our house became the perfect, creative solution and is one of my absolute favorite places to be on the farm.  Strung with fairy lights and filled with looms and yarn, it’s a place I can safely leave projects, and they won’t be disturbed or in anyone’s way.  Every artist should have an inspiring space all their own, filled with the materials of their work and inviting to the creative process.

You may, however, remember that the yurt hit a rocky point earlier this year with the attack from the squirrels and mice, which left my yarn stash damaged (some of it decimated) after the tiny beasts chewed their way inside and wreaked havoc.  After scrambling to save and clean what could be salvaged, we made our best attempts to remove or relocate as many of the invasive critters as possible and keep any more from re-entering.  But the aging sidewalls of the yurt continued to be an easy target for the rodents, and keeping out the mice just was not sustaining.  For the time being, much of any creative work in my happy space was curtailed.

Right away, I was on the phone with Pacific Yurts in Oregon, working out a solution and ordering new side walls.  I was not the first client to call with squirrel problems, but ironically this was the first year their company had received such calls—it is, after all, still 2020.  With an upgrade to the window screens (which is where the rodents were chewing their way in), my order was placed, but it would take at least seven weeks to build and arrive.

I remember looking at the calendar and realizing that seven weeks would be November.  November!  We could have snow and sleet and wind and horrible weather then—how would those side walls ever be replaced before winter settled in for good?  Well, it seems winter made an early visit, then took a reprieve JUST long enough for us to butcher all our Thanksgiving turkeys (six straight days of butchering) AND make the yurt switch-a-roo today before returning to her chilly mood.

Thank goodness!  It would be heartbreaking to think of not being able to use the yurt in earnest all winter because of its mousiness!inside yurt

Today was the day, as the sun and southern breeze escorted small puff clouds across the sky.  Opening up the hearty package from the manufacturer, I poured over the instructions one more time before we embarked on disassembling part of the top cover and removing the old side cover (which, in good farming fashion, we already have a plan to repurpose for a different wind-blocking project where mouse-proof-ness isn’t requisite).  This afforded good opportunity to thoroughly clean out hard-to-reach spaces and check for hiding mouse nests one more time before stringing up and fastening the new cover.

Structural aging can happen so slowly that you hardly notice it over time.  A fading here, a thinning there.  But holding that new side cover next to the old one made the distinction quite apparent—the fresh smell of the treated canvas, the saturation of the color, the grip of the fresh Velcro around the vinyl windows, the company improvements to the window flaps.  It was like giving your house a fresh coat of paint and stepping back to realize just how much brighter and happier the place looks.

We were determined to finish the process in one day, not only to beat the oncoming wet weather, but to afford no more opportunities to any more mice as well!  When the yurt had originally arrived that summer day in 2007, a crew of five of us assembled the whole thing in one day—but that was a summer day, with remarkably more daylight than early November!  And there wasn’t anything to dismantle and clean in the process, so it’s not terribly surprising that the sidewall makeover took most of the day.

installing sidewalls

Installing the sidewalls the first time, in 2007

But as I was able to stand in my creative space tonight all freshened up, safe, and tidied, the sense of tremendous relief was more than worth all the effort.  The yurt was back!  And now, as our before-snow-flies list winds down (in part because snow will by flying again and the ground will freeze assuredly soon), I’ll be able to have the time to renew my art practice in my special space.

This week take some time to renew or create your special space, no matter how small.  Winter is coming, the pandemic continues to rage catastrophically, and each of us will need a place of peace and renewal to tend to our vital, creative hearts.

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Introducing Erindale Palates

“You have such a sense of color,” I’ve hard again and again.  “When I see your work, or the dyes you choose for your yarns, I know it’s yours by the colors you choose.”

Or, most recently when helping an online shopper with shipping her roving order, she offered, “I loved the color choices–more natural and soft, not too harsh and bright, and they go together well.”

Yes, yes, that’s the point!  I’m one of those yarn shoppers when I see a color and weight that I know augments my stash within my palate, I buy it.  Even if I don’t know what I’ll use it for yet, I know that I’ll use it because it fits in my greater scheme.  Lately, I’ve been encouraged to begin making curated arrangements if our wool to highlight those color choices that play especially well together, so that creatives of all kinds can enjoy using the Erindale Palate.

To kick off the idea, I designed a series of collections of wool roving from our sheep (both natural and hand dyed), which I just added to our farm’s e-store.  They each feature 6 balls of 1/2 oz. roving–great for needle felting!  Click the title to find where to purchase each collection.

Winter

winter roving

Spring

spring roving

Summer

summer roving

Autumn

autumn roving

Magic

magic roving

If you are inspired by these Erindale Palates, I’d love to see what you create!  Here is one of my latest pieces, also available as a painting with wool needle felting kit.

flower fantasy

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Always Experimenting

rug in progressArtists don’t sit still well.  Repeating what’s been created before soon becomes painfully boring, and I find myself yearning to push the boundaries and try something new.  Because of the squirrel attack on my studio yurt (and the fact that I’m still dealing with mice in there), all of my copious yarn stash had to come into the house and so far has stayed there.  This effectively forced me to organize the horde (including make sense of what had been damaged or destroyed by the rodent attack) and notice which yarns had been in the stash for quite some time without ever finding a home in the right project.

Many years ago, we had a sheep that was given to us that was supposed to be a Navajo churro.  Yay, I’d thought, he’d make great yarn for my tapestry work!  But he turned out to both be snarky and not a churro sheep, and we rehomed him.  In the meantime, I had accrued several sheerings of his fleece, which I had processed into lopi yarn.  But the yarn was coarse and rough, and not suitable for weaving.  What to do with it?  I wasn’t sure, so the cones just sat, waiting for their moment.

Now they were in the house, saved from the squirrel attack, sitting once more.  It was time to find something creative to do with this yarn!  I’d been curious about the process of felted knits (a wet felting technique) but as felted crochet, and was interested in adapting a pattern for a felted rug.  This coarse yarn was certainly rug grade, but would it felt well?  I grabbed an oversized hook and tried making a test swatch.  To my delight, it did!

The yarn on the cones, however, is all a natural gray, which looks cold and bland by itself.  It needed some visual warming, so I returned to the stash and began pulling out other colors to work into the rug—the glorious colors of autumn.  Deep red, pumpkin oranges, greens, browns.  During the felting process, these meld together as if looking at the stately maple trees across the barnyard on a foggy morning.  The gray reminded me of the weathered tones of the bark on maple trees, while the fiery hues popped out like the rustling leaves.

With the first rug completed, it was time for felting.  This was not a tiny rug!  I began in the utility sink, bringing on the hot water and soap to discover that the mock-churro yarn was still infused with dark lanoline.  Several washes later and plenty of hand agitation, I squeezed out the excess water and brought the rug to a towel-lined work table.  When teaching at North House Folk School last February (before COVID shut down such activities), and had enjoyed visiting another class in progress on Nuno felting.  While they were working with wool roving to create delicate fabrics, it felt like elements of this technique could translate into my crocheted felt experiment.  I laid out bubble wrap, grabbed a pool noodle, and began rolling.  Later, I laid towels out on the floor and repeatedly threw the rug down with a slap, which is supposed to help shock the fibers.felted rug

And then I took the piece and the towels do our clothes dryer.  I know that my knitted felting book (which wanted me to use a washing machine but said only use top loaders, which is not what we have) said to stay away from the dryer, I knew from experience wet felting braided roving for coiled rugs that this was where the real tightening happened.  I stayed close by to check often and remove the plethora of guard hairs that accumulated in the lint basket, and gave it a whirl.  It felted up beautifully!  Thick yet luxurious, all the colors melding together.  Now I’m hooked!  Onto the next rug and using up that old wool in a fun new way.

Keep experimenting.  It’s good for your brain and your soul.

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The Yurt is Attacked!

From my weekly column “Down on the Farm”

inside yurtLiving with nature can be a beautiful, peaceful experience, but not always.  Some weeks, it can feel like the farm is under attack, and this was one of them.

It started on Friday, when I left Farmstead right after closing time and all the delicious to-go dinners had been picked up.  Dusk was arriving, and it was time for evening chores.  It seems like that time draws earlier and earlier each day noticeably as autumn approaches.  I had herded all the ducks in their houses, locked the doors on the pullets and young turkeys, and was just closing in the adult turkeys when I heard squawking from the laying hens out in their mobile housing in the pasture.

Every two weeks, we pick up all their electric mesh fence and pull them with the truck onto fresh ground, so they have new grass and bugs to peck and their manure fertilizes the soil, growing even better pasture grasses for the sheep next year.  With each move, we’d pulled the hens further and further out into the field, until at this point they were waaaay out there.  At the sound of panicked squawking, I leapt into the utility golf cart “The Blueberry” that is my chore-time vehicle and booked it out to the pasture—I mean really booked it.  The whole back end was rattling, the headlights jumping, the engine whining.  I didn’t care how jostled I was—I was saving my chickens.

Anyone who has ever had chickens knows that there is a litany of creatures that want to eat them.  We take many precautions and over the years have learned what does or does not work to deter predators, but every now and then one still slips in.  I arrived at the scene of the crime to find terrified birds huddled at the edges of their mesh fence, others holed up in their hay wagon coop, eyes about ready to pop out of their heads.  Whatever had been attacking (likely a fisher) had fled upon my noisy arrival, with one hen dead in the yard and a pile of feathers but otherwise unscathed second bird.  I had arrived just in time to prevent a total massacre.

The chickens felt completely under attack, spooky and screaming.  Meticulously, I walked all over the large pen, finding those tangled in the fence and helping them back into the coops, which I locked securely.  Next morning, we hitched up to the wagons and pulled them into the yard, out of the field.  If there’s anything we’ve learned from predator control, it’s that once you’ve had a strike, you must move the birds out of the area or the foe will be back.

Then, there was Sunday.  Sunday afternoons after closing time is my time to be in my tapestry studio.  I look forward to it all week.  This artful, round structure sits near our house and holds several of my looms, a tremendous stash of yarn, patterns and designs I’ve created over the years, weaving books, and more.  It’s a place where I can leave projects out and they’re not in anyone’s way, and it’s where I’ve been making the beautiful cranes tapestry.

This Sunday, I closed up shop after scooping our signature sheep’s milk gelato and finishing a needle felted puppy commission and headed off to the yurt, a song in my heart.  But when I opened the door, I found that disaster had struck.  Yarn had been pulled from baskets and drug across the floor, fairy lights knocked off the walls, crane feathers askew on the floor, and there was a terrible smell.

I wanted to sit down and weep, but my realist side kicked in instead.  It was time to assess and evacuate as much as could be salvaged from this mess.  Every basket, every drawer, every tote had to be emptied out onto the floor and sorted.  Any loom with a project on it that could was carried out and into the house.  Tiny turds everywhere, pee on papers, whole skeins of (of course some of the most expensive yarns) shredded to bits.  My mind felt in total shell shock as my body kept working, making endless trips to the house with armloads of materials and product that might be saved.

yarnUpon greater inspection, I found that the assailant(s) had chewed a hole in the window screening, which meant squeezing through wrinkles in thick Velcro that holds on the vinyl window covers.  With the scale of the damage, our estimate is that the intruders were red squirrels.  It would seem unlikely that mice would have drug yarn all over the room and between cabinet drawers.

By nightfall, the space was stripped down to nothing but wood and metal, with the only fiber item I could not remove being my beautiful cranes tapestry in progress.  Even when the family came home from cutting wood that evening, we could not discern a way to remove the massive Varpapuu loom from the studio.  It had come in as pieces, and there was no way for it to fit out the door whole.  Dismantling it would have threatened the ability to re-stretch the piece again later.

So, we set live traps, stuffed Bounce sheets into any cracks around the vinyl windows, tied more around the feet and top of the loom, and wrapped the tapestry in sheets. I’m still a bit in shock over the violation of my artmaking space, but I know we’ll move forward to make it secured once again.

Hopefully, that will be the end of the attacks for this week!  The chickens are much happier in the yard, slowly calming down from their terrifying night, and I’ll be working to replace that screen in the chewed window.  See you down on the farm sometime.

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