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 www.northstarhomestead.com