hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture February-March 2021


Knitting, weaving through a dark season

Region’s fiber arts scene extends from farms to finished products



Andrea Myklebust looks up from her work on a loom in her studio in Danby, Vt. Myklebust, who spins and weaves wool from a flock of 25 sheep, will teach virtual workshops in weaving this winter through the Southern Vermont Arts Center. Joan K. Lentini photo


Contributing writer


It’s a quiet movement, sliding the yarn over the needle, pulling the loop through and repeating.
The feel of wool can be warm and earthy in your hands. It’s soothing on a winter day, in these dark evenings after dinner.

“Knitting is a journey,” says Beth Phelps, owner of the Spin-Off Yarn Shop in North Adams.
You associate what you’re making, she explained, with the events in your life while you’re making it.

Phelps is tapping into a growing regional fiber scene where Massachusetts meets Vermont and New York – a region where generations of farmers have come together with skilled workers from textile mills, artists and local people who like the feel of making things and a connection with the land.

Sculptor, weaver and fiber artist Andrea Myklebust has come here to be part of it. She will teach virtual workshops in weaving this winter through the Southern Vermont Arts Center.

Myklebust and her husband, Stanton Sears, create public art, often influenced by fiber and by natural shapes, like a spiraling sea snail called a quilted melania. They are monumental sculptors, and they have often worked with colors and patterns and images inspired by textiles and by the cultural traditions of the place where the art will live. They have created public works across the country -- in the Midwest, California, Florida, Alaska. They hold the feel of cloth in stone and steel.

Myklebust and Sears moved from western Wisconsin to southern Vermont two years ago, after he retired as an art professor from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.

Fiber art has always had an influence in their work, Myklebust said. It echoes in her husband’s solo woodwork too: He carves interlaced forms in wood, like the fibers in a skein of yarn.
She spins and weaves the wool from their flock of 25 sheep.

On a winter day, the Shetlands and their Icelandic cousins stand out with their spiral horns and dark faces. The Jacobs are mottled black and white, with double horns -- even the ewes. The Cotswolds have long, light, curling wool falling into their eyes.

And the Dorsets, with their thick straight fleeces, are named for the county in England and aptly for a farm on Dorset Mountain in Vermont.

Myklebust and her husband are restoring an old farmhouse in Danby, building a studio and founding the new Mountain Heart School of Craft.

She has rented space in an old building in Danby village, and she weaves scarves, towels and textiles on three floor looms, one an antique from the 1870s, the kind many Scandinavian immigrants used. The largest is a draw loom, with controls for detailed pictorial work. Working with it can be improvisational, she said.

“Weaving is usually controlled,” Myklebust said. “You have to plan ahead, and you know everything about the cloth you will make before you begin. The draw loom is like a piano keyboard. You can let the pattern ebb and flow, emerge and dissipate … and you can play with it.”


From sheep to shop
For people who don’t grow their own, finding locally grown yarns or fleeces can be a challenge. Over the border in New York, the Hudson Valley Textile Project has emerged to help.
Gail Parrinello, owner of the Cornwall Yarn Shop in Orange County, has joined Mary Jeanne Packer, the owner of Battenkill Fibers Carding & Spinning Mill in Greenwich, N.Y., in an effort to link makers -- spinners and weavers, knitters and artists -- to the area farmers who are raising sheep and goats and alpacas.

Packer said the project is mapping a growing regional fiber scene.
She spins yarn at Battenkill Fibers for customers around the country and across the world. She once walked into a yarn shop in Norway and found a whole wall of yarns Battenkill had made. In late January, she said that within the last week she had talked with a farmer near Buffalo, N.Y., as well as makers and producers in North Carolina, Oregon and Washington state – as well as comparatively local locations such as Burlington, Vt.

“Starting a mill was a life dream,” Packer said. “I have a degree in engineering, and I’m a lifelong knitter. I owned a yarn store, and I noticed a disconnect in the local economy between farmers with materials and knitters who wanted them.”

She believed she could create jobs for local people with the skills she needed. She got a loan for used textile equipment and got her mill up and running in 2009. Local people have made it possible, she said.

Not every community could support her. Packer works with an electrician retired from a paper mill and an engineer retired from working in the labs at Perdue University. Her neighbor retired from a machine shop in the 1970s. One of her partner’s friends is a stainless steel welder.

Most of her equipment dates from the 1980s and ‘90s, she said, and some pieces are nearly 60 years old. The oldest, the pin drafters (part of the process of preparing combed wool for spinning), are completely rebuilt.

She has a spinner made in Italy in the 1980s and a second from the same manufacturer that shipped from Portugal. It was an adventure getting it here, she said. It came in many pieces. A shipping container wound up in the yard, and she called another neighbor with a forklift tractor to help her move it.

Within a year after her mill started operating, fire gutted her building in June 2010. She still had wool stored, she said, but the new mill was a complete loss. Local friends volunteered to sort the wool, encouraged her to keep going and even invested in rebuilding.

Packer moved to a new space in August 2010, and she was making fabric there by Christmas Eve.

Now she has national accounts, such as Bare Naked Wools, Knitspot and Quince & Co. Packer said those accounts have helped to make her business more secure and allow her to focus on the small farms she started the business to serve.

Some of those farms have grown with her, she said. Wing and a Prayer Farm in Shaftsbury, Vt., for example, has an Instagram account with more than 30,000 followers. The farm raises alpacas, Angora and Cashmere goats, and a variety of sheep, including merino, Wensleydale, Teeswater and Vermont’s first Valais Blacknose. And it hand-dyes its yarns in shades from the red of an heirloom tomato to a deep choreopsis gold.

But for knitters, spinners and weavers, finding local fleeces and yarns is still a challenge, Packer said. And for farmers, the more steps they take toward consumers, the more time and cost they take on.

This is where the Hudson Valley Textile Project steps in to support a local market for people looking for raw materials. Spinners will want fleeces. Weavers and knitters will want local and natural yarns.

Some are artists and artisans making a living at the craft. And some are local people who like working with their hands -- or who want a brilliantly colorful pair of socks and like the idea of knowing where they came from.


Weaving from the roots
For people who are curious to try a new skill, Myklebust will lead classes this winter with the Southern Vermont Arts Center.

In late January and February, she begins with twined weaving. It is an ancient technique, she said. Every culture on earth has a form of it. Looms have a mechanism to raise and lower groups of warp threads, but here the warp threads, the longwise threads, keep still, and the weaver moves the weft threads, the crosswise threads, around them by hand.

She has seen many kinds, from the Maori to Scandinavia, all of them beautiful -- skirts and dancing robes, baskets and blankets.

The Tlingit in the Pacific Northwest have their own vividly bright Chilkat weaving patterns, she said. In Somalia, women weave bags and containers -- and even the walls of portable shelters, which are bright with woven scenes.

Twined weaving can be easy to carry, Myklebust said. She works on a wooden frame loom that she can hold in her lap. And twining lends itself to teaching virtually in this odd time.

She and her students can work with different materials, cotton and hemp and wool. In this class they will use threads made in Vermont, from Three Loose Ladies yarn shop in Chester. They can adapt the color and pattern and improvise in a way she rarely can when she is weaving on a loom.

“It takes time,” Myklebust said. “That can be an appeal in a pandemic winter. What’s your hurry? It’s meditative.”

She feels its lure especially now, in an anxious time, and she sees other people finding comfort in it too. Amid Covid, as local shops and craft festivals have paused or closed, teaching has remained most steady for her. She taught her first online classes last May, she said.

Teaching virtually is different in many ways from working with a group of people together, when she can walk through the room and see their work, when she can talk with them, and they can talk together. But it has its own power.

“I was wrapping up a flax-to-linen class,” she said, “and I realized I was stalling because I didn’t want to say goodbye. It’s a difficult world, teaching art, but you make genuine connections to people.”

Later in the winter, Myklebust will teach spinning on a hand spindle and tapestry weaving. She said she also does some dye-work, and in the past two or three years she has been exploring natural dyes and partnering with Smokey House Center in Danby, Vt., to lead natural dye workshops.

Her daughter, Tansy Sears, has led her in this exploration. They harvest dye plants from the land around them -- black walnuts, daylilies, marigolds, goldenrod. From buckthorn, an invasive woody plant, they can use bark, berries and leaves. Tansy also has done longer-term dye work with lichens that give a bright pink-purple dye.

“It’s very slow process,” Myklebust said. “You have to steep the wool or fabric in the dye for months.”

They also grow classic European dye plants, like woad and madder, in their garden.
“You have a different appreciation for color when you have to harvest it,” she said.



Myklebust sets up the fiber on a loom in her Danby studio. Joan K. Lentini photo



Color in the cold
A local yarn shop can glow with color on a winter afternoon.
Spin-Off, at the Norad Mill in North Adams, is bright with natural light that shows the hues as they will look out in the sun.

Beth Phelps carries yarns from many kinds of fibers, most of them natural. And she has sent her own fiber to Battenkill in the past.

She began at Sweet Brook Farm in Williamstown with maple syrup, a farm shop and a herd of alpacas. The agile and amiable creatures are native to South America, with soft curling hair.
“I was intrigued by fiber,” Phelps said.

She had learned to knit as a girl from her grandmother, and as an adult she came to fiber arts gradually. She tried quilting, took a class on knitting and carefully made a sweater. She knitted casually on and off, as children came.

Running the farm store at Sweet Brook revived her interest, she said. She wanted to raise her own fiber, and alpacas are known to be healthy and sturdy.

She too weathered changes in her life. Two years ago, a fire destroyed her barn and sugarhouse. As she rebuilt, she moved her yarn store, first to downtown Williamstown and then into the newly renovated Norad Mill, where she’s alongside local businesses from computer repair to vintage records and vinyl, mead and berry wines, artist studios and the Tunnel City coffee roastery.

Phelps still has 15 alpacas, and a llama, and they are gentle, she said. They don’t like to be handled, but as long as they can keep their balance, they will keep calm. They can have strong opinions too.

One of her hembras (females), Mimi, was friendly when she was young, and since she has had crias (babies), she has become more spirited.

They can live to be 20 years old, Phelps said, and she still has all of her herd from Sweet Brook Farm, though she is no longer breeding them. She has no room for more.

She shears once a year, and she carries some wools from her alpacas in the shop, blended with longwool from sheep, because yarn made entirely from alpaca wool tends to stretch.

She carries yarns made from cashmere and mohair, cotton, linen and silk. She carries wools from around the world -- and hand-dyed yarns in gradations of color from Freia Fine Handpaints, just downstairs in the Norad Mill.

And she teaches. People will come in with a pattern and ask questions. Before Covid, Phelps ran an afternoon knitting group, and a few people still come in informally to talk.

For people who want more help and time, she offers lessons. She finds it easier to teach one-on-one, she said. People can set their own times. Beginners can start with simpler projects and move gradually through new skills: a scarf, a hat, a pair of socks, a pattern of colors or stitches.
“Some people are adventurous, and they’ll try anything,” Phelps said. “Some learn knit and perl and go off on their own.”

She has learned from her visitors too. Prompted by their questions, she took classes to learn lace knitting, textures and color work, dye work and spinning, and the math to adapt a pattern to fit different sizes. As a final project, she designed a sweater.

She was working on a sketch for it, she said, and she became fascinated by the Fibonacci sequence. This is a set of numbers starting from 0 and 1, in which each number equals the sum of the two numbers before it -- 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 and so on.

She wanted to play with that sequence, and she designed cloth in stripes of color, with the knitted rows in Fibonacci numbers. They follow a pattern that occurs over and over again in the natural world. The numerical sequence can map the branching of limbs, the set of leaves on a stem, the bracts (scales) on a pine cone -- or the spiral of a nautilus shell.