Rose Window Hat: A Fiber Artist’s Giving Tuesday Initiative

Notre Dame burnedIn April, I like so many watched in horror as Notre Dame burned.  I wanted to do something to help, even though I lived half a world away.  A medievalist who admires stained glass (including the irreplaceable beauty of the cathedral’s famous rose windows), I designed this hat as a tribute.   Made from our farm’s hand-dyed sheep’s wool to celebrate the window as an art-inspires-art piece, this hat also gives to the efforts of rebuilding after the fire.

$10 from the sale of each Rose Window Hat will be donated to French Historical Society’s Notre Dame Fire Restoration Fund.  You can learn more here.

Feel good about your purchase:  supporting both a contemporary fiber artist and the preservation of a medieval masterpiece.  View my full Etsy listing for the Rose Window Hat here.

Three ways to wear the hat!


slouch hat

Beanie (fold up brim)

beanie hat


beret hat

Use the pictures included as inspiration for shaping and wearing your Rose Window Hat in whatever style fits you best.  The ribbed brim is naturally stretchy, and the hat fits most adult/teen sizes.  Hand crocheted using an adaptation of tapestry crochet technique.

Care instructions:  hand wash with mild soap (like Ivory).  Lay flat to dry, do not wring.  Wool from our farm’s flock of happy sheep is warm and cozy, and the hat should last for many years of enjoyment.

If you or someone you love has a heart for the rose windows of Notre Dame, please feel free to share this post with them (or send them a hat!).  I’ve set aside enough yarn to make 80 of them, and I hope they all find wonderful homes.  I’m grateful that the windows were saved from the terrifying fire, and I have hope that they shall be able to last for many generations to come.

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Warping a New Tapestry

Erindale Tapestry Studio, partnering with Kathy Bishop Photography, will be hosting a joint art showing title “A Thread Runs Through It” at the Duluth Folk School in early 2021.  The capstone piece is a collaboration where I am interpreting a beautiful photograph by Kathy Bishop of three Sandhill cranes wading in the water as a 40-inch-wide handwoven tapestry.  Actual molted Sandhill crane feathers gathered on our farm will also be interwoven in the work, bringing texture and life to the zen-like birds.

3 cranes photo

“Three Friends” by Kathy Bishop

But before any weaving can begin, the meticulous and detailed process of warping must come first.  This project being my maiden voyage on the restored Varpapuu loom from Christine, many fresh process considerations were needed.  With an upright structure and two massive beams like my Leclerc Gobelin tapestry loom, the main difference is the foot-actuated heddles.  The heddles will speed up the weaving process (compared with using hand leashes), but it was one more step to make sure was flawless in the warping process.

First, I measured out the warp at 10 warp ends per inch, giving myself plenty of extra vertical room as I become familiar with the necessary loom waste for working with the Varpapuu.  The warp is then transferred from the warping board onto the loom, a process better shared as a photo essay:

the cross

Creating “the cross,” a most essential part of warping.


cross on sticks

The cross has now been transferred to long dowels, ready to spread out.


warp over raddle

With the ends of the warp attached to the warp beam, they are spread out using a raddle.


warp strands

Each bundle of warp is drawn evenly towards the floor and weighted with large washers.



Once the bulk of the warp is wound on the warp beam, each strand is threaded through a heddle leash and the reed.


cloth beam

I double check for threading errors, then bring up the apron of the cloth beam for securing warp ends.


attaching warp ends

The secret to happy tapestry weaving is EVEN tension! This process takes time.


spacing warp

Now the warp must be spaced from its clusters into the accurate spacing of the reed, which takes layers of increasingly finer fill.



After the fill (white and cream) comes the selvedge (blue), which will hold the warp ends in place in the finishing process. The very first rows of the tapestry are at the top.


ready to weave

Finally! After days of work, the loom is set for weaving the tapestry.


tapestry yarn

The tapestry yarns all staged and ready for weaving.

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Weaving It Together

[I wrote this article for my weekly “Down on the Farm” column, but it’s much too fun not to share here as well!]
weaving students

Beaming students and teacher after a weekend of weaving.

“What do you see yourself doing 10 years from now?”

It was my interview for Vermont College’s progressive, low-residency undergraduate program.  I thought for a moment, then answered, “I want to have my own weaving school.”

Now I was sharing that story in Farmstead Creamery’s Fiber Loft to my three students, eager to being weaving.  “That was 15 years ago, but here you are, my first class!”

How often are we urged to multi-task or cram just one more activity or obligation into the already overflowing schedule.  What about spending a whole day—or, as in this case, the entire weekend—focused just on one thing?  And what if that one thing was something you always loved and wanted to try?

That was the vision behind the learning intensive “Floor Loom Essentials” that kicked off my Erindale Tapestry Studio courses.  Each student was going to learn how to calculate and measure her warp (vertical threads), load shuttles with her weft (horizontal threads), warp up her own loom with a simple twill, and weave a beautiful shawl to take home.

The process involved many intricate steps, calculations, accuracy, and a good dose of fun.  “If nothing else,” I offered as we labored over leashes and reeds, “You’ll never wonder why handwovens cost what they do!”  And yet, not that long ago, all cloth was made this way—the clink of the heddles, the whoosh of the shuttle, the tap of the reed, feet working the treadles below.  Re-learning the old ways of making things by hand reconnects us with our ancestors and offers a rewarding, Zen-like experience as well.

Each loom in the farmhouse porch studio had its own character, quirks, and backstory.  There was a small Harrisville Designs workshop loom acquired from my middle school Montessori art teacher, a sturdy Macomber that used to belong to the mother of a fellow musician friend, and what I called “the grumpy old man” loom that had been brought over with an immigrant from the Netherlands soon after WWII.

threading loom

Working the delicate warping process.

Christine (the widow of its previous owner and an accomplished fiber artist) was visiting two summers ago with some lady friends, when she learned that I had this dream of starting my own weaving school.  Immediately, she perked up, saying, “I have some looms I’ve been trying to sell.  But since you want to teach, I will just give them to you.”

She arrived at Fiber Fest later that same summer with a truckload of loom parts, all in much need of a good cleaning and a lot of restorative love.  Part of what took 15 years to launch the school was not only going all the way through graduate school myself but also collecting and creating the infrastructure necessary to support having multiple students!

Nancy, who lives in the Washburn area, was acquiring the loom that had belonged to her aunt, a fashion designer.  We met at our twice-monthly farmer market at NorthLakes Clinic, where somehow it came up that she was interested in learning to weave.  I decided to take the leap and announce that I was preparing to teach weaving.  A spark began.  Needle felting groupies Sue and Barb soon joined the roster, and I officially had my first class of students.  I thought I was walking 10 feet off the ground!

weaving student

Sue with the Harrisville Designs loom.

My own weaving adventures had started at age 13, when as a homeschooler my mother noticed an art class being offered by the Madison Area Technical College’s enrichment program in Navajo tapestry weaving.  The only youngster amidst a host of grandmas, my enrollment launched a 5 ½ year mentorship with Fran Potter, a master weaver who had studied directly with Navajo women.  Her belief was that if people could experience what went into this type of handweaving, it would garner greater respect for its tradition and artists.

This would springboard my additional weaving pursuits, including Flemish style tapestry, floor loom weaving, and even triangular shawl loom weaving.  After years of exploring and perfect technique and my own style, it was time to give that experience back to the fiber arts community—imbued with the lessons I’d learned from working with Fran for patience, encouragement, and showing a technique only long enough to hand it off to the student and ask her to demonstrate it for me.

“This is going to be an heirloom!” Nancy exclaimed, as she advanced her warp another round on the loom, ready to weave a new stretch of the cloth with her beautifully chosen yarns.  Each student had her own unique and delicious color palate—tones of the sea and sand, berry patch wine colors, and hues of a springtime flower garden.  It was surprising to them to see how much the fibers changed in appearance from the skein on the shelf to the wound shuttle and then to the woven textile.  A fabric was becoming beneath their hands that had never been before—and that holds a magic that is hard to describe unless you’ve felt it with your own creative endeavors.

Hygge (hoo-ga) was happening in the studio.  The hours both stood still and whipped by.  In the end, we all crawled on the carpeted floor, tying on fringe and trimming edges.  When at last we could all wear our finished pieces, smiles beamed bigger than I could have imagined.

“We did it, we really did it!” Barb exclaimed as we hugged.  Sue shook her head, “Wow, this was amazing, thank you!”

Can you say happy teacher?  Nothing replaces the experience of making something by hand yourself, especially when it sparks such joy.  See you down on the farm sometime.

weaving class

Weaving in process in the studio.

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Punch Needle Intensives Launched

Cardinal finished

Have you been admiring the progress made on “Hummingbird Haven,” the story of “Trout and Swallows” or “Mr. Rooster”?  Have you thought it would be fun to learn how to make something in that style?  Well, now you can!

After years of planning and designing, I am now launching a two-day intensive “Punch Needle Rug Hooking:  Birds of the Northwoods.”

Here is the course description:

Do you love natural fibers and wild birds? If so, this class might be a perfect combination for you! Jump into the world of punch needle rug hooking with a selection of designs from the instructor (cardinal, chickadee, loon, owl, or hummingbird) to create a colorful and textural piece of your own. Using yarn from the instructor’s farm’s sheep, you will learn how to stretch the monk’s cloth backing onto a frame and use two sizes of the Oxford Punch Needle to turn your chosen design into a looped pile home accent.

Registration includes instruction, yarn, and monk’s cloth backing, on which your final project will be fully completed. You will also have use of a frame, Oxford punch needle, a yarn swift, iron, and all other materials required for successful completion. The instructor will transfer your preferred design onto the monk’s cloth backing before class. Your final project will be a colorful 10×10 finished piece, with the image of a bird of the Northland!

bird designs

Just as I use the Oxford Mini and Mini-with-Heels punch needles to create depth and perspective in my punch needle tapestries, in these intensives, students will also gain skill and acumen in interpreting their design in this fashion.  Each design I hand-drew to bring to life the birds we know and love.  Students pick their design of choice, as well as which colors they want to use.  I’m already starting to pack bins of wool yarns, balled and ready for punching.  So many great colors!

cardinal progress

As with all punch needle rug hooking, the piece is stretched onto a frame and worked from the back.  Students use frames and punches from my collection, with the option to purchase after class if they want to continue their punch needle adventures.  Here, the cardinal is taking shape with just the remainder of the background to finish.  The back side looks like stitches, while the front side is where the looped pile is being created.

After removing the backing from the frame, I’ll teach finishing techniques, and the beautifully colored bird will be ready to take home and enjoy.

Here is a short video of me demonstrating the technique.

Interested?  Here are the upcoming dates and locations for this two-day intensive.  Not only am I offering this at my home teaching space in the Fiber Loft of Farmstead Creamery but also at two regional folk schools.  North House had several instructors apply to teach Oxford style punch needle rug hooking, but they chose my class because I had been working in the medium the longest and have been a student on their campus (remember last year’s hat making adventure?).

I’m incredibly excited to have this class off the ground and ready for enrollment.  If these dates don’t work for you and you can find 2 or more friends/family to join you, we can look at scheduling alternative dates at Farmstead Creamery (maximum 8 students per class).  Currently, all these classes have availability, but I wouldn’t wait too long to get your name on this list, if you would like to join in.

November 9th and 10th.  Duluth Folk School, Duluth MN
Course Details

February 15th and 16th.  North House Folk School, Grand Marais, MN
Course Details

February 28th and 29th.  Fiber Loft of Farmstead Creamery & Cafe, Hayward, WI
Please use my contact form, and I’m happy to send you details–only 4 spaces left.  Additionally, you can call Farmstead at 715-462-3453  It’s likely I’ll be there to answer the phone!

Here’s to finding new ways to express your fiber arts creativity!

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Peace Pole Meets Yarn Bombing

peace pole in gardenEach winter at Farmstead Creamery (which is also Erindale’s gallery), my family and I dream up something new to add that enriches the experience for visitors.  This might be celebrity animals to meet, one of the historic farm tractors to touch and admire, a tractor tire turned into a sandbox for imaginative play, or the barn-themed Little Free Library we added last year so guests can enjoy a book whenever they like.

This year, one of our new additions is a Peace Pole.  If you haven’t heard of a Peace Pole before, that’s OK.  According to Jennifer at May Peace Prevail International (the group that spearheads this grassroots project via, even though there are over 200,000 Peace Poles worldwide, the closest known poles to our farm are in Superior, Ladysmith, Eau Claire, and Green Bay.

peace pole coveringFounded by Masahisa Goi in 1955 in Japan, the message of yearning for peace is just as necessary now as it was in the shadow of the second world war.  Traditional Peace Poles are painted or engraved with the message “May Peace Prevail on Earth” in four or more languages.  Anyone may erect a peace pole, whether in a public or private setting.  Masahisa Goi felt that with our thoughts we make our reality, and these poles are not only symbols of the maker’s wish but also a call to remind the viewer to visualize and pray for peace.

But what is peace?  For me, peace is beyond simply the cessation of conflict.  Instead, it holds its own paradigm.  For instance, how might one family farm be part of peace prevailing on earth?  In an overwhelming shift within agriculture towards factory farming, where soils are destroyed and animals are tortured in confinement all in the name of cheap commodities, there is no room for peace—for balance with nature and stewardship.  If peace-in-action could be applied to the family farm, would it not be biodynamic, regenerative, diversified?  And by living this peace-in-action on our homestead every day, are we not offering peace one more toe hold on this precious planet?

Peace Poles are available for sale through the above organization, but all are welcome to make their own.  For a while, I toyed with painting a pole, but ultimately I was drawn to express the message through my preferred medium—fiber.  There is another grassroots movement known as yarn bombing, where everyday objects are suddenly clad in a colorful knitted or crocheted “sock”—transforming bike racks, benches, light posts, or the trunks of trees in parks.  What if I could create a project that was yarn-bombing-meets-peace-pole, wouldn’t that be unique and apt for our farm?  Time for the crochet hook!

installed poleScouring the thrift stores for acrylic yarns in bright colors, I first made a blue panel with the text “May Peace Prevail on Earth” in white script.  I then made a second panel that was built as a mural of a peace-in-action farm with a smiling sun, apple tree, red barn, sheep grazing, and a garden, which wraps around three sides.  With a 4×4 post in the middle, I wrapped the covering around and stitched it together, forming an instant, texture-rich splash of color that begs to be touched.

This last Sunday, on Memorial Weekend, we hosted a dedication ceremony for the Peace Pole, with Pastor Gary Hilgendorf of the Spider Lake Church.  The whole community was welcome to attend, as the message of peace goes beyond any social lines we draw between each other.  Peace is not a top-down proposition (you can’t force peace on people)—it starts from the bottom-up with each of us individually.  In this spirit, I was joined by fellow musicians Tom Sobczak and Shivawn LaBarre in singing Tom Paxton’s song “Peace”

Peace will
Peace will come
And let it begin with me

We need
We need peace
And let it begin with me

Oh, my own life is all I can hope to control
Oh, let my life be lived for the good,
Good of my soul.

Let it bring Peace
Sweet peace
Peace will come
And let it begin with me


singing at ceremonyWe all linked hands in a circle around the Peace Pole–farmers, artists, Peace Corp workers, writers, everyday folks–each offering our own prayer for peace out loud or quietly from within.  I could feel the energy of the gathering coursing through our joined hands as we sang Dona Nobis Pachem amidst the beautiful sunshine and spring flowers.

The acrylic yarns of the pole’s covering should hold up well to the wind and rain, and Mom and Steve made me a PVC cover for the pole to keep the squirrels off when we’re not at Farmstead (which made a great unveiling cover during the ceremony).  Yes, I may need to make a fresh crocheted cover for the pole by this time next year, but impermanence is also part of the beauty of a yarn bombing project, and creating a new pole also offers time and space to re-dedicate to the message of peace.

May peace prevail on earth.  And let it begin with each one of us.

dedicated pole

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Making Queenie’s Miniature–Pet Portrait Commissions

Queenie the CatIt started with the Down on the Farm newspaper article I’d written on teaching needle felting classes. Readers in Washburn clipped it out and sent it to a friend who now lives in California. Not long afterwards, I receive a call from Elena–full of enthusiasm. She’d seen the image of my hands holding the two small cardinals, and she wanted a pair of her own! After receiving the charming birds, she wanted several more and some lambs…then chicks and foxes…then pigs. Each shipment brought such joy to her home.

“I’ve made a little corral for all my animals,” she exclaimed in her charming accent. “They want to go outside and play, but I told them I can’t let them do that.”

Shortly after the shipment of little pigs, Elena asked if I could make a likeness of her cat Queenie.  A 12-year-old longhair marbled tabby, Queenie was a rescue kitty who had suffered serious burns in her early life but is now a special companion to Elena.  (The embroidered pillow in the background is also a likeness of Queenie).

I had seen amazing images and videos of needle felted pet portraits but had yet to try making one.  Now the challenge was on!  With a few photos as references and plenty of wool color choices on hand, I began the process of forming a wire armature along the neck, spine, and tail (to help make the tail pose-able) then began wrapping white roving in layers to build the base form.

Queenie on bedQueenie enjoys laying down, so I opted to work with her classic pose, which also meant no wire support was needed in the legs.  To keep the little cat comfy, I crocheted a little blue bed for her.  But the eyes were a special challenge–not quite green, not quite blue, not quite yellow.  Elena says they change with the light, even appearing gray in the evening.  Fortunately, the lady who made the glass eyes I used in last year’s feathered chicken tapestry also makes glass cat eyes in this supremely mysterious catty color.  The order was placed, and I continued working on the base while waiting.

While my previous three-dimensional needle felted critters had firm, well-poked exteriors, the longhair nature of Queenie would have to use an airier method, like when making the needle felted fairies and angels.  However, in order to hold the complex form of the cat, the figure itself would have to be firm.  This meant building a hairless cat and then felting wool tufts onto it to make the fur.  I began by working the face and legs, making decisions along the way about how to layer and blend colors, before tackling the long fur of tail, back, and mane.  Oh, and don’t forget all the fuzziness inside those ears!

early Queenie
Here you can see the parts of the white base cat, while the eyes have been added and the face structure and color is started.  The sweet little white paws with a rim of brown and black legs are coming along, but there is still much detail work to go!  Projects like this benefit from working a while and then letting it set a day or so while your mind works over how to tackle the next piece.  Trust the subconscious and solutions will arise.

My sister Kara was also instrumental in helping me shape and tweak little Queenie as she is the cat owner in the family and knows their form well–a bit more ruff here, a stronger hump to the back, thicker ears, etc. For the long fur, I began at the tip of the tail and worked my way up slowly to the back of the head, layering on a little at a time and using the felting needle to carefully tease out the ends of the fibers and feather them with the previous layer.

With finishing touches of fishing line whiskers, Queenie’s likeness was sitting proud on her little pillow and ready for her journey to California.  What had begun as a little wire and a pile of wool was now transformed.  “I want to reach out and pet her!” Elena exclaimed when I emailed her photographs.  “You will hear me scream with delight all the way from California when she arrives.”

Queenie front

Queenie side

Queenie back

holding Queenie

Now both Queenie and her miniature likeness are happy in their California home.  Would you like me to make a pet portrait of your cat?  I’ve created an Etsy listing just for this project.  It was a fun challenge, and yes, very petable too.  Queenie spent the weekend at my gallery before heading off in the mail, and she was the star of the show.  Here’s to little Queenie and her happy home with Elena!


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Needle Felting at the Duluth Folk School

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

cardinal demo

Photo by Bryan French

Transforming Wool with Needle Felting

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

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

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

lady making cardinal

Photo by Bryan French

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

felting class

Photo by Bryan French

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

3/16  Needle Felt a Little Fox

3/23  Needle Felt a Cute Cardinal

3/30  Needle Felt a Rabbit

4/6  Needle Felt a Spring Robin

4/14  Needle Felt a Chick

4/20  Needle Felt a Lamb

4/27  Needle Felt a Teacup Pincushion


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

3/26  Needle Felt a Cute Cardinal

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

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


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The Lady in Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

playing harp


playing guitar


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More Hummingbird Progress

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

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

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

1st quarter hummingbird front

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

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

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

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

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

hummer side view

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

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The Making of a Woven Shawl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

shawl loom

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


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