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



Shear, Sheared, Shorn

It’s that time of year, with lambs just around the corner.  The great wooly beasts are corralled in the corner of the barn, waiting for the approaching rumble of Chris’ truck to signal the beginning of shearing season.  The enormous sacks for the wool are hauled from the blue truck’s back end and set up on a stand, the cables are hooked securely out of sheep reach, and the whir of the double-bladed shears begins.

I’ve witnessed a variety of shearings over the years.  One involved a llama, which had to be tied with the two front legs stretched one direction and the back two stretched another.  One fellow’s sole responsibility was to hold to the head with a towel (apparently to retain the notorious llama spit).  But sheep have the unique characteristic of becoming amazingly docile when set back on their rump—at least most of the time.

There still is the occasional wriggler and squiggler and kicking of legs, but this doesn’t seem to faze Chris, who wields the shears with deftness only years of experience can bring.  First a long, blind cut right up the sheep’s neck with her head stretched back, and then the coat is gracefully pealed away to reveal a slightly pink and rather pregnant creature below.

The tradition of shearing sheep for their wool is probably older than recorded history.  Originally, this was accomplished using hand clippers with a curved handle that acts as a spring to bring the two teeth apart after each cut.  Some cultures continue to use this practice, which is valued by spinners for producing fibers without the dreaded “second cut”—e.g. short lengths of fibers created by the electric shears going back to clean up an area on the sheep.  The tedium of hand clipping a fleece maintains fibers of equal, long length, which are supposedly less likely to pill when made into garments.

Shearing sheep in the spring is also part of the animal’s health maintenance.  The wool grown all summer and autumn keeps them warm and dry through the winter.  But this same wool can become soiled during lambing and makes it difficult for the little lambs to find their mother’s udder when still wobbly and new to the world.  All clipped and pretty, the mothers are ready for proper care of their lambs and the warmth of the coming springtime.

Some ancient varieties of sheep would shed their coats (and there are a few heritage breeds that still do), which meant that harvesting the wool crop included copious amounts of walking to pick tufts from thorn and briar growing in the pastures.  Shearing meant that more of the crop stayed with the farmer (and less with the birds for nests)—a selection process not unlike the story behind early grains.  While wild grain seeds fall to the ground in autumn to replant, humans selected grains that held their seed heads tight because these were far easier to harvest methodically and therefore were the genetics planted in the spring.

There was a time when saving all that wool was vitally important.  During the Civil War, the Merino breed of sheep was favored for is extra layers of skin around the neck that folded and flopped over the brisket.  While it was not the most tidy-looking sheep, more skin meant more wool for soldiers’ uniforms.  And during medieval times, when the Bubonic Plague left Europe with a little more than half its previous population, the labor shortage was compensated by turning the land from grain production to pastures for sheep.  Not only did it require fewer farmers to tend a flock of sheep than fields of wheat or barley, but it was also a time when wool was king.

From long trailing gown to tapestries, most households spent more on fabrics yearly than any other commodity (including food!) in medieval times.  England had a bustling trade of exporting raw wool to Flanders (now present-day Belgium), where early mills turned the fibers into everything from sumptuous trappings for castle and hall to everyday cloth for those who worked.  It was a lord’s responsibility to give (as partial payment of services) a new set of clothes to each of his servants yearly.

Unfortunately, wool is not held in as nearly high esteem as it was in days past.  Synthetics, polar fleece, and other fibers entice us more than traditional and often itchy wool—even though wool can be saturated up to 30% with water and still be insulative.  It also seems a terrible paradox that farmers should receive pittance for their wool (some sheep raisers consider it a bother and an expense rather than a valued crop) and yet wool garments should be so expensive!  Someday, we’ll find a more creative way to use our fleece than to sell most of it to the shearer to pay for his services.  I even hear that in Australia, they have figured a way to make house insulation using wool that has a wonderful R-value.  It would also be a very green product!

In the meantime, our ewe Mascara is let back up onto her feet after having her beautiful 10-pound coat unceremoniously shorn from her back.  She staggers a moment, shakes herself, baas, and then runs back to her friends through the open gate.  Shearing is yet another sign on the farm that the year is turning towards spring.  Soon there will be frolicking lambs, baby chicks, little seedlings, and the world will break from the gray and white and once again be green.

Kara wraps her arms around Adelaide and Chris sets her down on her rump.  The shears buzz, and Mascara’s coat is hauled up the ladder and stuffed into the great burlap sack with the others.  It’s hard, rough work, and Chris is bent over near double most of the day.  Mom and Kara work quickly to catch sheep or lead sheep to the second pen, whisking freed coats to the side and out of the way.  Like many tasks in farming, it carries a rhythm and orchestration of movement and sound, with little need for talk.

In the end, two great bags filled with wool are stuffed into the back end of Chris’ blue truck, and everyone feels that sitting down is a marvelous idea.  The sheep, which look hilariously like goats at the moment, are happy the ordeal is over, and the humans are glad to come warm themselves by the wood stove.  The day-long affair is complete, marking a new phase in the shepherding season.  Spring is coming, the days are lengthening, the snow is dripping, and the sheep are shorn.  See you down at the farm sometime.

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


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