Writing to Access Our Creativity

picasso quoteThis week launched the first of five segments of my courses in design.  “Developing a Designer’s Eye” is all about embracing the creative journey and lifestyle, which is both astoundingly beautiful and tough inner work.

As part of our first Zoom gatherings, I invited the students to use Natalie Goldberg’s tried-and-true method of the timed writing exercise to dive into prompts on creativity that unearthed facets of the gem of what creativity is, what nurtures creativity, and what hampers it.  We only gave ourselves 5 minutes per theme, but what came of those five minutes was powerful magic that sparked conversations, introspection, and clear sight.  What a beautiful space to hold for each other!

I worked the same exercises along with the students, and I wanted to share my writing on these prompts with you as well, as an offering on your own creative journey.  The class is meeting as two separate groups, to accommodate schedules, so I will include my writings from both groups, as they come at the topic from a slightly different slant.  You are welcome to try these exercises and see what comes up for you!  The only rule is once you start the timer, do not let the pen stop.  Whatever needs to come onto the page, let it come.

With my mission of “Liberating the Creative Soul,” this feels like where the real work is happening.

First Prompt:  Creativity is:

Creativity is a journey, it’s the wilderness of expression granted each of us at birth.  It asks only that we show up and are ready, toned, and eager to listen, to see.  Creativity is a river you can dip into, endless and boundless.  We are the ones who become stingy.  We are the ones who deny ourselves access and tell ourselves we aren’t worthy, that we can’t do it.  Creativity is flow, it changes our perception of time and space.  It is incredibly slow and wildly fast at the same time.  The wildness of creativity can find a way to survive in domesticity, but it is not happy there.  It needs times of freedom, of trying out the unexpected, of no longer being penned and hemmed and chained to a post.  It wants to flourish out there and come back to visit, in fact it calls us to join it, not us reeling it in, like a bear on a chain.  It is both so real and yet so intangible.  When you are immersed in its energy, you know it in your bones.

Creativity is a blessing.  It is a stream that flows in our lives, in our unconsciousness.  It is a blooming, a flourishing, a process of bringing to life that which is seeking expression.  It is an aspect of love, of a love of being alive, of being in a human form at this time, at this place, now.  It is a love of both the mess and the serenity and of finding the magical in the moment.  It is hope–it is finding our way even when we don’t really yet know what that way is.  Creativity is expansive, is all-encompassing.  It is a longing for us to join IT, to find our way through our doubts and our habits of self loathing to see that we can be a well-tuned instrument, ready to sing with wood and string and bone.  Creativity gives us energy, keeping us up at night way past our normal mortal abilities.  It feeds us in ways not accessible to food.  It comforts us, allowing us to heal the unspeakable inside.

Second Prompt:  Creativity is Nurtured by:

The act of showing up.  The act of optimism, of being open to possibilities and chasing after them.  Creativity is nurtured by opportunities, of taking time, and of having the materials at hand to express what is trying to make manifest inside you.  Creativity flourishes with good companions that feed the best in you, as well as alone time without distractions.  Creativity is nurtured by letting go of expectations or demanding performances.  It does not want to be squeezed.  It wants “what if” and the permission to chase after it.  Creativity is nurtured through practice, through hope, is even an expression of hope.  Creativity loves to know that you are there for it, that you honor it, that you care to have a relationship with it.  It is like tending to a garden, with all the necessary tasks before any blooms or fruits arrive.  Not all the jobs in the garden are glamorous, but all of them are worthy.

Creativity is nurtured by having someone who believes in you, and that includes you, which can sometimes be the hardest part.  Creativity is nurtured by big questions and diving in, by making gaps in our busy lives for doing just that, by taking a breath and just being in the moment and noticing life in its tiny splendor.  Creativity is nurtured by little things–a beautiful color of yarn, a warm cup of fragrant tea, a soul-cheering chat.  Creativity finds its liveliness in the margins, not center-stage, where it is expected to perform right then and there.  We must build a practice for it, a home for it, a nest.  The tidiness of that nest matters very little in comparison to the value of having the nest at all.  Creativity is nurtured by being ok with not knowing, with suspending judgment and a desire for specific outcomes.  The nourishing of creativity comes with time and care.

Third Prompt:  Creativity is Hampered by:

Creativity is hampered by doubt, by telling yourself that you are unworthy, that you are not good enough.  It is hampered by procrastination, which is one of the masks for fear.  Creativity is hampered by giving the inner critic too much of an ear, of letting it drag you away from your true nature.  We are all worthy; we are all called.  Crazy-makers and naysayers want to block you too, so they feel better about being blocked themselves.  They will gladly eat your soul alive and think nothing of it.  That is a reflection of their own pain, and not your burden to bear.  In the end, though, we are often our own worst enemies in this way, crushing our own tender shoots.

Creativity is hampered by fear–fear of failure, fear of the unknown, even fear of success??, fear of ridicule and persecution, fear of not being enough or of being too much or of being mediocre.  Creativity is hampered by lack of trust, by being gut-punched by betrayal and self-loathing and worthlessness, which is just a mask for the fear of being unlovable.  Creativity is hampered by thinking we don’t have time, don’t have energy, don’t have money or resources.  But guess what, we just need to show up, to move forward in faith and self-compassion and all the rest of it moves as well–moves aside or moves into place.  Creativity is hampered by stinginess, thinking that our perception of not-enough-ness is actual reality.  Instead, we can turn that around to gratitude, to hope, to compassion, even when in our humanness we stumble and fall.  We can ask ourselves, “Can I love myself through this?” answer “yes,” pick up, and carry on.

Carry on my creative friends!



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Reframing Our Relationship with Discipline

I can hear the groan even on mute during a recent Zoom meeting with fellow tapestry weavers and members of the Weaver’s Guild of Minnesota.  We’re choosing our theme for our next Sunday evening gathering, coming up in March.  The discussion prompt I’ve just tossed on the table is on creating a daily practice and building good habits as a tapestry weaver.

“I have so many ideas, I just lack the discipline to do them all!” one member laments with a guilty snicker and obverted eyes.

How many times has your inner critic hurled at you, “Well, you could be good at this, but you’re not disciplined enough” ??

It is unfortunate that our concept of discipline has become as twisted as has our understanding of what an artist is.  Let’s untangle that a bit and see what we can learn.

The word discipline shares the same Latin root as disciple, which connotes study and knowledge.  To be a disciple actually translates as being a student, not being a follower.  Discipline is in relation to the act of being a student, just like disciplines can be used to mean branches of study.

If we take the attitude of being a student of what we love, rather than being a soldier, I find the journey much more enjoyable.  We don’t necessarily have to know where we’re going, but we’re on the trail.  We’re curious.  We’re asking questions and seeking answers.

What are the attributes of this being-a-student-ness, rather than dogged soldiery we should embrace?

  • Dedication to the topic of study
  • Seeking advice from teachers/mentors
  • Researching and asking questions
  • Trying out hypotheses
  • Emulating masters until we find our own footing
  • Pursuing the truth and interconnections
  • Contextualizing the information you’re uncovering
  • Cycling between study and practice (praxis)

As you carry forward on this journey of our creative practices, please refrain from flogging yourself as being not good enough along the way.  Instead, stay the eager student, stay curious, stay engaged.  Ask big questions and chase after them.  Try out concepts in small places like your journal or on the biggest piece of paper you can find.

The journey awaits.  Let’s go.

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Thoughts on Creating “Developing a Designer’s Eye” Course

“Take care of the being, and the doing takes care of itself.” ~Ann Berlage (my amazing mom)

Venturing into the world of design can feel like a forest (or a minefield) of rules.  Do this, don’t do that…  This, compared with the nearly endless panoply of possibilities can leave you feeling frozen, confused, or intimidated in the face of the blank page.  Where does one even begin?

As a prolific practicing artist, the perspective that I’m going to bring to this course is the essential need to step back from the “do this, don’t do that” level of discourse to spend time nurturing your creative being and creative journey.

Being a designer is a facet of being an artist—a lifelong journey and way of looking at and experiencing the world, with its circuitous, cyclical, and divergent ways of manifesting.  The lack of time the art world spends on nurturing the human side of its designers is a travesty, as much of mainstream art education assumes you’ve already worked on this on your own.

We all instinctively know the difference between an inspired novel or piece of music, compared to a formulaic one.  The same is true in the visual arts.  To create inspired work, we need inspired artists who have nurtured and liberated their creativity.

Offering the opportunity for you to embrace that journey is what this course is all about!  So, take a deep, regenerative breath, remind yourself that you are more than worth it, and extend a compassionate hand to your inner artist (often visualized as a young version of yourself).  Let’s take this adventure together.

Here are some of the topics we’ll explore together, accompanied by exercises to engage with your design journal.

  • The Value of Focused Intention and Attention
  • Nurturing a Creative Lifestyle
  • Reframing Our Relationship with Drawing
  • Creativity vs Productivity:  Yin and Yang
  • Building Your Compost Pile
  • Reframing the Conversation on Art vs. Craft
  • Reframing Our Relationship with the Inner Critic
  • You’ll Never Please Everyone, So Do What You Love with Enthusiasm
  • Reframing Our Relationship with Discipline

Every journey begins with a few steps, and it always begins where you are, in this moment, now.  It starts with what you have, and as the journey slowly spirals outwards, you find that new conversations, new ideas, and new perspectives become a part of your world.  There are no straight lines on the journey, but instead the spiral invites us to revisit concepts or situations again, only this time armed with new knowledge, insight, and experiences.

From a cup well-filled and a vital heart well-tended will spring forth blooms and fruits of bountiful creativity.  That is my wish for you through this course, as we do the work within before tackling the next chapters in mastering facets of design.

May your design journal be bursting with ideas, collected treasures, big questions, and joy.

Interested in learning more?  Find class details here.

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New Projects for a New Year

rosepath rug weavingThe New Year is here, and with it a chance to start something new.  In my fiber arts studio, I’m always excited to start new projects (indeed, works in progress are everywhere around here!) as well as share them virtually in Zoom classes.

Earlier this winter, students were nudging me to offer floor loom instruction via Zoom, so they could feel supported as they got their looms weaving again.  I had been offering these classes in-person on the farm before the pandemic but had since shelved the project.  The looms sat on the glassed-in farmhouse porch, waiting.

At first, I wasn’t certain how to make something as extensive as warping and weaving on a floor loom work for an online class, but as my confidence has grown through needle felting, tapestry weaving, loom beading, and punch needle rug hooking mediums, I finally felt ready to give it a try.  The schedule lull over the holidays seemed like the perfect time to begin.

New Years Eve, I shoveled a canyon through the plowed bank, up the couple of steps, and the small deck that leads to the loom porch door.  Inside was a forlorn time capsule from that final class, plus the accumulation of supplies and materials that had simply been stashed in the space.  In true old farmhouse fashion, collected dead flies and ladybugs were everywhere, and it all needed a thorough cleaning out.  I rolled up my sleeves, plugged in the vacuum and started at one corner.

When you look at the whole mess of the problem all at once, it can become exceedingly overwhelming.  We come up to a daunting task, realize the magnitude, and decide that procrastinating sounds much easier.  Instead, resolutions to declutter, to reclaim, or to organize start best at one corner, a trick I doubtless learned from my mother.

Floor looms are hefty pieces of equipment, and I have four of them in the farmhouse porch.  This meant clearing enough space to move a loom, clean its spot, then drag it back.  Piles became organized into boxes, tools were put away, good objects were sorted from trash, which was then removed.

Cobwebs in the corner were demolished, and piles and piles of bugs meticulously vacuumed.  Inch by inch, the space became transformed from chaos into order, from neglect into an inviting, working space.  By suppertime, the space was ready.

floor loomMeanwhile I’d been dusting off and updating the course handout for weaving a rag rug in a point twill style from Sweden known as “rosepath.”  Rag rugs can be quite fun (and fast) just as plain weave (also called “tabby”), but adding decorative designs in the warping and how you weave it makes the process and the project extra special.

I gathered up my materials and tools, stripped up old flannel sheets, and prepared my warp in deep rose colors.  It was time to haul in the recording equipment and film the tutorials that would help students translate the project onto their own looms at home.

Videography instruction was not a hat I’d anticipated wearing in January of 2020, but I’m grateful that I took the leap then, just as I’m taking the leap with floor loom weaving classes now.  With every stretch, we learn so much.  With every stretch, we grow as a person.

Just as cleaning and organizing the space takes time, warping a floor loom takes time and attention to detail.  Once warped, floor loom weaving goes quickly (especially compared with tapestry weaving!), with the tedium spent on threading each warp string appropriately through all the various working pieces of the loom.  Errors in this process will mar the design, so you take your time and double-check your work often.

rosepath rag rugIt’s not about perfection, however.  If we focus on being perfect, we will always disappoint ourselves.  Instead, we can focus on precision, which is a skill we all can learn.  Little idiosyncrasies can often be forgiven in the weaving of a rag rug, just as little idiosyncrasies in ourselves makes us unique and interesting.

New Year’s Day, I filmed warping and weaving on my Macomber 4-harness floor loom.  It was well past dark when I finished.  Today, I’ll weave the header and take it off the loom.  What once was old sheets, spools of cotton, and an empty loom in a musty room will now be a finished, beautiful piece in a working, cozy weaving space.

As you think on your new endeavors for the New Year, remember to start in one corner, take it a piece at a time, let go of perfectionism, and celebrate the wins.  Time to head to the studio to finish filming!

Learn about the class here.

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Hygge Through the Holidays

When you’re little, the holiday season can seem wondrously magical—festive music playing everywhere, sparkling decorations, all sorts of wonderful foods and treats, and presents!  As you grow older, some of that magic is replaced with obligations and running here and there to this and that, making sure that everything is in order and that everyone is happy.  In this hectic state, the holidays are a stressful chore, rather than a magical time to look forward to as autumn wanes.

I recently finished reading Danish author Meik Wiking’s adorable “The Little Book of Hygge,” which notes that Christmas is ranked the most hygge-filled time of the year.  Hygge (said hoo-gah) is a Danish concept for coziness, with layers of comfort, joy, and connection.  You can think of the practice of hygge as an action antidote to the long, dark, dreariness of northern winters and the seasonal affective disorder it can cause.

Hygge is a feeling—something that you make rather than something that you buy.  It can be felt alone or in a small gathering of close friends or family, and it is most often felt in the comforts of home.  “Hominess,” the author writes, is one way to describe the feeling of hygge.

The more I learn about this practice, the more I see that Christmas at our farm fits snugly within the description.  Whether we knew it or not, we were a hygge holidays family!  The beautiful thing about a hygge practice is that it’s not expensive, and you don’t have to go anywhere to create it.  You start with the intention of creating a cozy, homey environment, then support bringing that intention to life.

Here are some examples of how our family has infused hygge in the holiday season.  Feel free to borrow or adapt any of these ideas to make your holidays extra cozy.

Get outside and enjoy nature, then come inside for a warmup and treat.

Mom was the “let’s go outside!” referee of the family in winter.  Whenever anyone was getting grumpy or folks just needed space from each other, it was time to strap on the cross-country skis, snowshoes, or just hit the country lane for a walk.  Bundling up for the cold is extra hygge, especially if you have homemade woolens to wear from Grandma or items you’ve made yourself.  You come back snowy, chilled, and rosy-cheeked.  Our moods would be brightened by the beauty of nature, which is an integral part of hygge practice.

While we were out, Grandma would have set hot chocolate or mulled cider simmering on the stove, ready for out return.  And there were ALWAYS cookies or nuts or a cheese ball with crackers for munching to help you refuel after your woodsy adventures.

Share a task that twice warms.

Another way to infuse the outdoors into your holiday time (especially if the relatives descend) is to share a task where many hands make light work.  It was the understanding in our family as far back as I can remember that the Christmas gathering was also the season for splitting and stacking gathered firewood.

The roaring fire in the fieldstone fireplace felt even more special as everyone had contributed to keeping the cozy fire burning.  Many a wet mitten were dried on the hearth, and we all took turns sitting on the seat-high stone hearth, warming our backs and enjoying the glow of the coals.  Open flame (whether as small as a candle or as grand as a fireplace) is considered essential for creating a hygge-infused environment.

Favorite Family Games

Analog games like board games and card games are the kind to bring out for a hygge holiday.  Our season was not complete at the farm without epic games of SORRY, using the old board and wooden pieces from Grandpa’s childhood, or rounds of raucous Mau-Mau (an UNO-like game).  After dinner was a favorite time for games, with plenty of laughter and cries of feigned despair and angst to ease the mood.

felting a foxHandcrafts and Good Books

The holiday season was filled with long, dark evenings or biting winds that kept us inside.  These were the times for handcrafts.  I can remember each year Mom would find something new for us to learn how to make at the holidays—from folding wax paper stars to stick onto the windows, to macrameing snowflakes for the tree, to fashioning cornhusk dollies.

In the evenings, out would come the knitting, crochet, sewing, or embroidery projects.  It was a perfect time to sit near the fire and work quietly, especially if we were making our way through a good book and Mom was reading aloud.  “One more chapter!” was my or my sister’s favorite refrain during read-aloud sessions, as we tumbled through literary adventures, painting the pictures of the scenes in our imaginations.

Homemade Meals

According to Wiking, anything that takes a long time makes it more hygge.  This is especially true, he notes, with food.  Homemade meals made from scratch that roast or simmer for hours, infusing the home with tasty aromas in anticipation of the meal are essential to the holiday hygge experience.  Mulling cider on the stovetop is a sure way to get started, with the floating stick of cinnamon, star anise, and slices of orange.

Meal-making was a family gathering activity as well, with cookie fashioning and baking being one of my favorites.  I have an early memory of standing on a step stool so I could reach the counter, adding sprinkles to my favorite almondy spritz cookies before they went into the oven.  Of course, I was sure that this would make the cookies taste better, and the philosophy of hygge would agree.  When you give something special attention and time, that makes it cozier.

This week, take some time to destress from the holiday rush and make some time for hygge.

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Return of the Yarn

yarn stashIt feels like an age ago that it was spring shearing time.  Like now, the mornings were chilly but the sun was bright.  The sheep were poofy fluff balls, ready to take off their winter coats in preparation for summer.

For days, I’d worked through the mountains of raw, sticky wool, sorting and pulling out debris, packing it tightly into drum liners before Mom and Steve hauled the load down to Ewetopia Woolen Mill in LaFarge, Wisconsin.  It took more than one trip in our cargo van to deliver all the wool, and sometimes we were having to body slam in the last couple of bags to make them fit.

This spring’s shearing was destined to become yarn, and I had my swatch card prepared and ready, illustrating the desired colors and weights.  My fiber arts students often ask if I spin and dye my own yarn, and I’m happy to admit that this is a task I delegate to folks who really know what they are doing and have the facility to do it!

Kathryn Ashley White of Ewetopia is a fiber artist as well, and she knows her yarns.  She is also an excellent dye artist, and together we’ve been able to craft and build the palette that is the mainstay of my projects, classes, and kits.  I love that my students and I are able to work with the beautiful wool from our sheep!

The process of cleaning and carding the wool, plus spinning and dying takes time, and Kathryn has many orders to fill including yarn for her beautiful shop in Viroqua.  It can feel like a long wait as the wool is being processed, but it’s worth it!  The first round of yarn (lovely aran weight) was finally ready earlier this month—and just in time.  I only had 5 skeins of cobalt blue and 4 skeins of marigold left! punch needle yarn

While spun yarn doesn’t take up as much space as raw wool, I knew we’d still be looking at a significant volume of yarn coming home, as the invoice noted this was 120 pounds of product.  At 4 oz. per skein, roughly, that’s 480 skeins of yarn!  I had to get busy in my studio making space—reorganizing and clearing shelves.  Grandpa had given us one of his shelving units earlier in the year, and we pressed that into service as well.

Upon the return of the trip to the mill, we unloaded eight large bags of wooly color—antique rose, mulled wine, jade dynasty, cobalt, marigold, natural white, natural gray, and sky blue.  Many of these are dyed in a painted skein method, so there are variations in the colors within each skein.  I love how this works up in punch needle rug hooking and tapestry weaving.  The shelves of yarn also serve as my Zoom backdrop.  So cozy!

The arrival of the yarn certainly is just in time, with fall classes ramping up and new kits being released.  If you’re interested in learning about what types of classes I’m offering that use this beautiful yarn, visit https://northstarhomestead.com/erindale-calendar/

As the nights grow longer and the days chillier, it’s apunch needle sunflowern excellent time to take up wooly projects.  We’re lighting the wood stove in the evenings again, which is an excellent invitation for breaking out the knitting, crochet, weaving, or felting.

Do you have a favorite yarn?  What do you love making with it?  This week, take some time to enjoy your yarn stash or adding to it (no one ever has too much yarn!) and picking up or starting a new project.  Here’s to wonderful yarn, stashed away for the long winter to come!

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Nurturing a Creative Lifestyle

Laura teaching

Photo by Bryan French

Creativity is a beautiful part of being human.  It enriches our lives and the lives of those around us.  Yet, creativity can also be as elusive as a shy creature, leaving us wondering how to tempt it from the shadows.  If you find yourself yearning for more creativity in your life, here are some helpful tips and strategies.

Develop Observation Skills

Just as half of being able to make music is learning how to listen and half of being able to draw is learning how to really look at something, keen observation skills are immensely helpful for a creative life.  In order to pour out creatively, we must continually fill up.  Fortunately, you can practice your observation skills anywhere.  It’s a process of shaking off auto-pilot mode, being fully present, and relishing in the butterfly fluttering in the flower garden, the way the light is coming in through the window, or the nuances of the smell of dinner cooking.

Becoming keenly observant will help you notice moments you want to capture, colors that make your heart sparkle, or stories that can’t not be written.  So much inspiration passes before us each day, but we might miss it.  Becoming more observant can help us really notice those moments and feelings, which we can then channel into our creative practice.

felted hummingbirdKeep It Playful

“But where do I begin?” you may be wondering.  For some, overcoming inertia can be the sticking point.  If you spend some time drilling into this state, there is usually a creative block lurking in the subconscious that is afraid to start something (especially something new) if it can’t be perfect or at least masterful.  Fear of failure kills many a creative urge.  What is the antidote?  Playfulness!  With a playful attitude, we’re not married to being perfect or masterful or anything in particular.  Play is a critical part of the childhood of all animals.  It’s a process through which they learn about their own bodies, the world around them, the nature of a social life, and so much more.

Creativity is deeply linked with younger aspects of ourselves.  Entering the world of playfulness opens up the opportunity to ask “What would happen if…” and then chase after that if.  If you feel fear or anxiety sneaking in, time to grab the playful hat and bring a sense of festive joy and exploration.  When you become immersed in this world, you’ll find that chasing after new ideas becomes the thrill…and finishing projects becomes the hard part.  At this point, don’t worry about finishing stuff.  Just focus on breaking past the underlying fear that has held you back.

loon lake detailRemember that Creativity and Productivity are Different Processes

Sometimes, it can be easy to confuse creativity and productivity.  While I’ve written a story specifically on this topic previously, I’ll retrace the main elements.  Creativity is playful, open, explorative, and infused with divergent thought. It seeks novelty, joy, flow, and possibilities.  Productivity is organized, methodical, results-oriented, and interested in deadlines.  When viewed in this way, it becomes clear that making lots of pretty stuff that gets done on time is not the role of creativity.  If nurturing creativity is what we’re after for the moment, then we need to set the productivity hat aside for later.

Wearing the productivity hat can be very helpful when you are up against a deadline or really want to finish projects.  I’ve found, though, that living too long in this mindset can grow quite dull and grinding.  This is why I always have LOTS of projects going at once.  One might be feeding my creative practice, while another is using the grit of productivity to “get her done.”  If you’re losing steam in your creative practice, check in with yourself and see if you’ve been leaning too heavily on productivity mindset.

hemming a punch needle pieceEmbrace the Journey

Creativity is not about the destination, at least not directly.  Creativity is about the process—that magical experience of flow when either hours pass like seconds or tremendous things happen in seconds that feel like they should have taken hours.  Creativity is consciousness expanding in its nature, connecting us with the vital creativity in all beings and nature.  It refuses to be boxed up in neat packages or tugged on a leash and demanded to perform.  Either of these situations will cause creative impulse to run hiding back to the shadows.

Instead, creativity is an energy to befriend, to walk with in life.  Nurture your creative self just like you would a loved one.  Show patience, compassion, and trustworthiness.  Be encouraging of yourself on this journey.

Let Go of Expectations

canoe trip progressOur modern society is very focused on results, so we can lose sight of or shortchange the journey.  If you start your creative day by inscribing demands of what your creations will be, this leaves no wiggle room for the divergent nature of the creative process.  Often with creativity, something is seeking to be represented, and you and your method of making are the vessel or the vehicle for it, rather than the driver.

Sometimes, the expectations we foist onto our creations come from voices we’ve collected from authority figures in our lives (teachers, relatives, etc.).  Learn to create a sense of sacred space in your creative practice, where these voices are asked to step aside.  Let go of the need to be perfect, to be liked, to be “normal,” or any number of terms or conditions you might add to that list.  Instead, just allow yourself to be in the moment, free of the pull or confinement of expectations.

Give these ideas a try and see what flourishes!

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Introducing Tapestry Prompts

I have many great memories over writing prompts with my wordy friends.  We’d all gather up prompts (as simple as a single word like “red” or as nuanced as “the way the light comes in through the window”) and tuck them all into a basket.  Then we’d pull one out and, without overthinking the process, write like mad for 5 or 10 minutes on whatever came to mind from that prompt and share our work with each other.  It was remarkable how divergent the same prompt could be, given the uniqueness of the writers in the room!

Exercises like writing from prompts helps us overcome the problem of the blank page.  You’d like to write, but you just stare at that sheet of white, not knowing where to start.  An empty loom can be very much like a blank page.  You’d love to be weaving, but you don’t know where to start for your next project.  This month, I thought it would be delightful to kick off a quarterly series of offering tapestry prompts to help kickstart projects that allow you to bring your creativity to the idea!

I’ll be offering the tapestry prompts in a “choose your own adventure” way, so you can snag which elements would best serve your creativity process.  Mix and match or choose what is calling you.  Each season, I’ll release a new prompt, and I’ll be excited to see what you create!

folk rooster designTapestry Prompt Design

The main feature of the tapestry prompt is the design.  This will fit well on a piece of paper (8.5 x 11), as a digital download that you can easily print.  Use this as the cartoon for the piece.  Feel free to embellish as desired!  If the piece is a geometric, it will come on a grid with ledger notes.  For this summer’s theme, I’ve drawn a charming folk rooster inspired by vintage Scandinavian plates.  I can hear him crowing!

Themed Virtual Weave-Along

Looking for community and encouragement while you work on your prompt?  I’ll be offering a more relaxed 6-session Zoom event you can join.  Snag a warping refresher, learn pro tips and pearls for weaving the design, and take on a skill stretch.  For the folk rooster, I’ll be exploring using embroidery stitches on the woven tapestry to mimic the festive Nordic designs seen on the vintage plates.  These Weave-Along will be held on select Sundays from 2-4pm.

rose garden yarnErindale Palette Yarns

For the prompts, you are more than welcome to raid your stash for weaving yarn, or splurge and go shopping if that gets your creative juices flowing.  For folks who don’t have a rigorous stash (or who just love using the wool yarns from our farm’s sheep), I’ll assemble an assortment of bundled yarns that would work well with the design.  These palettes would come with 1 oz. of each color shown, so you can use them in the design as you see fit.

Extra Frame Loom

Already have a project in-process on your loom but want to jump in on the prompt anyway?  You can snag an additional loom kit.  I have 8 frame looms in my arsenal, and they sure are handy for these small format projects.  You don’t have to have a frame loom for the prompts however—if you have another type of loom that you enjoy using that can accommodate an 8.5 x 11 inch project, use it!

Tapestry Prompt Community

I would love to see what you create with the prompt, as I’m sure would my growing community of tapestry students!  That was distinctively part of the fun in our writer’s circle—reading without critique what we’d created.  Not only was it fun to share, but it was fun to learn and gain ideas from each other.  I’ll be sharing mine as I go, and I look forward to seeing and celebrating yours as well.  Happy weaving!

Register and access supplies here.

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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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