North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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A Weaver's Eye

If you’ve had a chance to make it out to Farmstead Creamery & Café, then you may have taken a moment to look around and notice some of the things local artisans have been creating—goat’s milk lotions, hand crafted soaps, CDs by area musicians, paintings by local artists, and more.  If you’ve noticed the intricate tapestries, hand woven shawls, hearty rag rugs, or delicate wearable fiber arts, then you’ve seen some of what becomes of my “spare time” on the farm.

It should be noted, however, that homestead farming really doesn’t offer spare time—it’s more about how you use time, stretch time, budget time, or make time.  One of my favorite parts of fall is that it signals the winding down of outdoor farming demands, which equals more time for indoor projects such as fiber arts.

My love of fibers (which is an extension of a love for texture and color) began very young.  Often artists are compelled by a medium which speaks to them as a form of expression and delight, rather than stepping back and rationally saying, “I choose to be a painter.”  Sometimes, it just happens to you, and you run with it—or you find that, despite trying all sorts of practices (from watercolors to pastels to collage) that making images with yarns is really what gets your creative juices flowing.

My formal training as a fiber artist began when I had just turned 13 years old.  We had lived a year in Arizona, where every weekend we would escape the smoggy confines of Phoenix to camp in the mountains, explore desert ruins, or pique our imaginations in museums and galleries.  I was fascinated by Southwest Native American art forms, designs, and colors—the weave of artful geometrics spun of vegetal dies, desert sun, and years of heritage.

Upon moving to Madison, Wisconsin, where we began homeschooling, my intrepid mother found an enrichment course through the technical college in traditional Navajo weaving.  She gave the instructor Fran a call, to see if she would accept a young but eager student.  The answer was, “Sure, come on over and sit in for a class” to see if we thought the group setting would be a good match. 

This led to five-and-a-half years of study with Fran and a close-knit community of grandmas (and one grandpa), whose stories and travels were as equally compelling as the histories behind Fran’s restoration work of classic Navajo textiles.  Every week, we met in a church basement—hauling down our cumbersome projects, marveling over progress made at home, and scratching our heads over hiccups in the self-designed patterns or technical difficulties.

Tapestry is a slow and thoughtful process—not easily learned in a short amount of time.  It takes diligence, guidance, and lots of patience.  When I open my studio yurt for tours, the most common exclamation is, “I’d never have the patience to do this!”  But farmers know what patience is.  You can’t hurry a crop along, or the weather, or a batch of jam.  Everything takes its time, and there can be joy in the journey that is just as worthy as the final creation.

Upon moving to the farm full-time in 2000, my studies continued with Fran as well as branched into broader realms of weaving—each informed by my years of practice in Navajo textile tradition.  My rustic, cabin-friendly rag rugs often hold hints of Navajo Serape design sensibilities, as an example.  These rag rugs also take much less time than a tapestry, so I’m happy for them to live on a floor, serving as practical art.

Sometimes folks who look around the shop and are introduced to my work ask, “So, you have a loom?”

“Yes,” I respond cheerily, wondering how weaving might be accomplished otherwise.  “I have 15 of them.”

Now, if you’re feeling perplexed by this statement, you’re in good company with the visitors to Farmstead.  I’m not a loom hoarder—they are tools for the work and process of weaving, just as plows, harrows, disks, quack diggers, subsoilers, and tillers are tools for working the soil.  Each tool has a specific and unique function, and in this same way looms are designed for specific projects or types of textile work. 

The slender, upright structure of a Navajo tapestry loom is designed to stretch the piece as a frame stretches canvas, holding the warps taught for delicate patternwork.  My fingers dip in and out between the treads, drawing bundles of colorful weft through the age-old over-under techniques.  On the other hand, a rag rug loom the size of a large sofa is built to take the banging and beating required to synch the strands of cut fabric together to form a strong, tough, and durable piece that will hold up to heavy traffic, dogs, and frequent washing.

I also take great delight in fluency amongst many forms of weaving.  The hearty beating of rag rug work is fast and exerting—much like kneading dough or having at the weeds with a hoe.  You can see the progress and release internal tension at the same time.  Weaving a shawl on a triangle-shaped loom supported by an easel is like painting a landscape awash with colors and textures.  Tapestry is toned by the patient, delicate intricacies of image-forming, with rhythms like beadwork or embroidery.

Working with the raw materials of wool, cotton, alpaca, or repurposed fabrics is closely tied to the land ethic of homesteading.  Old traditions blend with new interpretation, serving both aesthetic enjoyment and everyday function.  I sometimes find myself admiring the line of trees at the edge of the field, the golden shafts of sunlight, or the sheen on a rooster’s tail with a weaver’s eye—seeking the subtleties of color and texture.

What inspires you in your “spare time”?  Perhaps it too is the seemingly magical creation of something from almost nothing—whether a story-rich pictorial textile from mere yarn, a light-dazzled photograph from a fleeting moment on a kayak escapade, or a fragrant loaf of bread from flour, yeast, and water.  All these are captured pieces of experience, memory, and intent.  They enrich our lives, like good food, and reconnect us with what makes us feel most alive.  Enjoy those moments, make time for them, and let your creative eye feast in the glory of color and texture this autumn.  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



Never and Idle Hand

Being asked the question, “How do you have time to do all these things?!” is not an uncommon occurrence on our farm.  From livestock to gardens, farmer’s market to making gelato, balancing the many layers of endeavors at North Star Homestead can be an adventure in itself.

“But when do you have time for making art?” they ask, noticing the busy lunch hour, the coming and goings of summer interns, and the rigors of growing produce and fresh fish year-round.  “Do you ever sleep?”

In the summer I would laugh and reply, “That’s what winter is for,” pick up the dishes and offer descriptions of the day’s desserts.  For generations, winter on the farmstead has been the time for mending, planning, and all those projects that just don’t fit into the hectic summer schedule.

In the days of the one-room school houses, school sessions were originally in winter and summer, allowing students to help on the farm during the rigorous spring plantings and autumn harvest seasons.  On our farm, the time to “catch a little breath” doesn’t start until November, when the ground freezes solid and there is no more to be done for the gardens until spring.  The animals are snug in their winter quarters, and most of the area summer residents have headed to warmer climates.

But in true thrifty farm tradition, winter does not become a time to languish sleepily in front of the fire all day.  Heavens, there are so many things to do!  So many skills we love to use that we simply can’t make time for in the summer.  Yes, there still is the mending and the planning and pouring over the seed catalogue, but the luxury of the slow season allows waiting creativity to curl out of hiding and find expression in a variety of projects, whether it is working on one of my tapestries, crocheting a hat, knitting a sweater, or finishing a quilt.

The work of women’s hands to create functional form (clothing) out of string (and, likewise, string out of fluff) is an ancient tradition stretching back roughly 20,000 years.  Pick-it-up, put-it-down projects that did not endanger children naturally leant themselves to women’s occupations, including spinning, weaving, and sewing.  Laura Ingalls Wilder tells of her mother working on patchwork quilts during long winter nights, while her father played beloved folk tunes on the violin.  Not only were these quilts functional but they also held their own aesthetic appeal.

Working on fiber-related projects in the winter is also a great time for socializing in a season when ice, snow, and freezing temperatures can keep us cooped up in our homes.  Quilting B’s were once an excellent way to bring women (and sometimes men) together for a meaningful project embroidered with friendly discussion.  Today, knitting groups often serve a similar purpose, bringing friends together over clicking needles—attendants helping each other troubleshoot difficult patterns or learn a new stitch.

Sometimes the demands of winter, however, can push against the yearnings for time with a crochet hook or embroidery needle.  The bag of yarn may nestle in the closet for years, piled high with “I’ll get to that later.”  Making community time each week for folks to get together and dust off those projects is one way to reconnect with the ancient rhythms of our agrarian past.  To facilitate this, at Farmstead Creamery & Café we’ll be staying open late on Thursdays, from 5:00 pm to 8:00 pm, for “Fiber Nights.”  Feel free to bring your knitting, crocheting, weaving, spinning, tatting, quilting, sewing, or any type of fiber-related handwork you enjoy.  Come when it works for you, share stories with friends, and enjoy having time to do what you love.

“When you do what you love, you can do a lot of it,” is one of my mantras when faced with the ever-present question of how we do all that we do on the farm.  But doing it all doesn’t necessarily mean doing it all at once.  It reminds me of a conversation at Goddard College, in Vermont, where I did my graduate studies in interdisciplinary arts.

We were discussing the meaning of “rigor.”  Some students and a few advisors were vehement that rigor was distinctly tied into daily practice.  If one was not working on a tapestry loom every day, then hers was not a rigorous weaving practice.  My argument was different, and I based it on the lived experience of farming.  Yes, rigor does involve a concerted effort and a dedication of considerable time over a prolonged period, but it doesn’t need to be each and every day.

For instance, maple syruping is a rigorous pursuit.  It takes concerted effort—trudging into the woods with taps and buckets, trudging out with pails of sap, boiling for hours, and finally bottling with care.  It also takes considerable time over a prolonged period (if it’s a good season, especially).  But I can’t make maple syrup in October, even if I wanted too.  It has its season, just as one’s art practice can.   Attempting to syrup out of season would be about as productive as hosting a quilting intensive in the middle of lambing time.  To everything there is a season.

There is something rhythmic and relaxing to drawing weft through warp or looping a stitch one row at a time that is in harmony with the quiet of wintertime.  It leaves the mind open to reflection or peaceful meditation.  Working with fibers is part of the magic of creating something from almost nothing—a comfy sweater from a ball of yarn—which is not unlike the magic of agricultural life—a thriving tomato plant from a tiny seed or a lamb born from its attendant mother.  Each is uniquely creative, and each is valued on the homestead.

Maybe it’s been a long time since you last made a scarf for a friend, or perhaps you are in the midst of finishing an afghan—either way, I hope this winter will bring you joy through relaxing, creative work.  Maybe it’s time to pick up something new and learn a craft that has been close to the hearthside for many ages.  It’s better than sitting with idle hands, waiting for the snow to melt (or fall).  See you down on the farm sometime.

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

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