Category Archives: Traverse City Fiber Art

Dream a little (big) dream

photo 2I’ve started my new job in New York, from Michigan, which makes for a nice transition to a new house in a new community within a new state. We leave at the end of the following week for closing on the house and we’ll make a few trips out prior to the big move with the kids in June.

This whole process was kicked off by a series of events in the deep of winter early in 2015 with a serious evaluation of our long-term goals.

Chris and I have similar goals across the board, save for the one about opening a burger joint (though the food would be fantastic, I can attest), which made the envisioning process easier. Some things were immediately clear: 1) We were not living the life we dreamed of in the way we hoped to live it, 2) We could not alter the situation without a change in location, and 3) We have two kids quickly approaching college-age and one not far behind those two.

It was early February of 2015 when Chris showed me a farm for sale in Western Massachusetts. I said, “There’s no way I’m leaving Michigan.” And he said, “I think you’d really like it out there.” The rest is history. Eastern NY is very similar to Western Mass. And the land is affordable, the soil profiles are outstanding, and the people are straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

After five trips out East, we finally located the right property in line with our five-year plan, right in the middle of the Schoharie, with an agricultural college just minutes from the front door, and universities scattered within a three hour radius in every direction. It isn’t a farm, but there’s enough land to grow food and a large field adjacent to the property, so who knows. We will keep chickens and bees, tend the Shiawassee Beauties, and continue gardening, while growing our savings to accommodate dreams of opening a fiber mill in Upstate NY.

Moreover, I hope the girls can finally feel the satisfaction of being part of a community, rather than living in the outskirts. Apart from college, there is so much to experience in New England, from the history around every corner, to the natural features of this old, old land, to the simple joy of riding your bike to the movie theatre on a summer afternoon.

And you bet, I’ll still be processing and spinning fiber. It likely won’t be local Michigan fiber, if you can forgive me, but I can promise some local Schoharie Valley fiber to keep our friends in beautiful northern Michigan warm.

This is succession.

A Simple Twist that Launched the Modern Era

imageI had never given it much thought previously, but on numerous occasions at the farm, I’ve found myself in need of rope or string and had to twist long grasses as a temporary fix. This is likely how our understanding of the strength gained by twisting fibers grew until we began moving from plant materials like hemp, cotton, and flax to shorter animal fibers like those that come from sheep or alpaca.

That simple twist increases the durability of the fibers considerably by allowing fewer movement between (or increasing pressure and friction on) individual fibers. There’s a whole science to the ideal twist per fiber type, if you’re into that sort of thing. And to take it a step further, this simple act of twisting and plying fibers yielded some pretty significant inventions including cloth, rope, handles, sails, rigging, junkyarnnetting, etc. Try to imagine our lives without it.

Due to the recent move and our temporary living arrangement, I’m not spinning on the
wheel, nor am I processing fiber. I do, however, have the drop spindle and make time each night for some twisting and whirling which never feels like an isolated action, but one handed down generation to generation to generation, a reminder of our ingenuity as humans and our innate desire to remain connected, whether to our animals, to one another, to our ancestors, or to the earth.


A day in the life…

We are a family of six. That translates to two kids per parent. Factor in a dog, cat, and four alpacas, and meal planning/preparation, and you can see how a day goes by very quickly for our household. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I love farming, but this kind of farming is unique for us. We do not live at the property and without electricity and running water, we have to make daily trips hauling materials in during the winter months over-top heavy snowfall and no matter the weather, and as often as two to three times daily.

photo 1Water is carried in three-gallon drums. We fill it at home and carry the water uphill through the snow because there is no way for our car to traverse the drive this time of the year. It’s good cardio, but not half as good as the 50lb bags of pellets or the even heavier dense hay we carry bale by bale.

A hay shortage this year meant we could not stock up as we had done previously, but thankfully we found a really good supplier just 12 miles from the farm. Today, we’ll haul in another load, bale by bale, through the snow, uphill the whole way. I’m just grateful it’s good grass hay (harder to find with such high demand fphoto 3or alfalfa mixed bales in our area).

Yesterday, was a straw day. We stack two bales on the Prius roof once a week for bedding. The straw is light and not as difficult to maneuver, but takes time, like anything, when traversing heavy snow.

The daily tasks at the farm include the removal of the evening dung-pile (it’s amazing what an alpaca bottom can produce in a day), watering of the animals, a daily ration of pellets (a treat and supplement), hay feed, and feeding the cat, who has taken up residence with the alpacas. They form a harmonious grouping. Cats and alpacas pair well together and the cat keeps the mice away from the feed and I often find the cat and the alpacas nestled together in the deep straw bedding.

Next comes the dumping of the collected dung outside of the barn, then a walk around the perimeter to ensure the fence is in good order. Usually a few nuzzles and snuggles are exchanged and that concludes the first round.

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Another aspect of having alpacas is the grooming. We do not groom their fiber, but we do keep their nails clipped, which is not a very pleasant process for the farmer, unaccustomed to wrestling a 200-lb animal during its routine foot-care.

This summer, I learned to administer both IM and SQ injections for vitamins and vaccines. Also not my favorite task, but part of the routine care of the animals. There’s the shearing, but that’s a biennial event for Suris, and thankfully one we can hire out (though we successfully sheared two on our own – I may be slightly stretching the use of the word “successful” in this instance).

Farming is not for the faint of heart. And farming in this fashion is reminiscent of something older. At times I am working in complete darkness, by feel, and other times I find myself breathing standing before the large looming barn with the feeling time has stopped in this place altogether. It’s a peaceful feeling and I am grateful this special place has been preserved for many future generations to experience and enjoy.

A Woman’s Work

I was just reading an excerpt from Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times by E. Wayland Barber and was

Drop spindle demonstration at the farm. Photo by the lovely Holly Pharmer

struck that though weaving and spinning were developed over thousands of years by women, the mechanization of fiber processing was developed primarily by  men. Barber’s explanation of this is simple. In every culture world-wide, women are the principle child-rearers, meaning any co-existing work must be compatible with the act of raising children.

It reminded me of my frustrations with the lack of recognition of women in permaculture and resonated very closely with me as a mother of four. No matter how finely tuned your craft, it can be overshadowed by those with more time to experiment and labor on other tasks. Or maybe better put, it represents a kind of natural division of labor we see echoed throughout the human timeline.

There is also much discussion about the amount of labor that goes into producing a single product or garment, something we’ve seen shifted significantly since the introduction of mechanized processing. Whether tending to the livestock, waiting for a child to bathe, or as something to do imageas the day drew to an end, fiber flowed through the fingers of our foremothers at every tick of the clock. It was both necessity and something more.

Barber also describes locating twists in the fiber of woven artifacts dating back thousands of year, a sign of shared labor:

“We know… that women sometimes helped each other with their weaving projects… because we sometimes find the wefts in ancient cloth crossed in the middle of the textile. This can only have been caused by two people handing the spools of weft back and forth to each other as they wove simultaneously on different parts of the same cloth.”

Fiber work may have been one of the common threads holding together the social network of these ancient women as it does today. It was an art handed down from one generation of women to the other and remaining artifacts weave a story not only of the technical aspects of weaving and spinning, but of the cooperative aspects. And not to overshadow the menfolk- They did their part, in supplying materials for weaving and in aiding in animal husbandry and shearing.

So, while it isn’t fair that so much of women’s history, whether in fiber or in farming, is overshadowed by our male counterparts, it isn’t that the stories are lost to history. These stories exist in the small twists and vivid colors of an historical tapestry woven throughout time and beckoning our every sense-  as much tangible as an ethereal kind of whisper echoing throughout time.


Website back up and running! (And yarn)

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Rebel-spun yarn. I made that up, but playing with different plying techniques on the same skein and enjoying the look. Feels a bit rebellious.

We ran into some technical difficulties (as in this gal did not know the difference between domain mapping and domain), but all is well (thanks to people in my life who understand these things). Spinning up some lovely yarn today and will post several skeins for sale when I have a chance to get photos up.

In the meantime, thank you to those who connected us with available hay in neighboring areas. We truly appreciate it (as will the alpacas). And remember, it’s still summer. Swimming is still an option and snow shovels are a made-up thing. Get to the shore!

The Art of Gathering

Drop spindle demonstration. (Note: Cherry apron in celebration of the season). Photo by the lovely Holly Pharmer
Drop spindle demonstration. (Note: Cherry apron in celebration of the season). Photo by the lovely Holly Pharmer

There’s an art to gathering. A group dynamic with a set of unspoken rules we seem less accustomed to in this fast-paced, pixel-ated modern era. At yesterday’s Sheep to Market workshop, I felt a kind of settling into the satisfaction of togetherness – the interwoven fabric of conversation, inspiration, and education. Though a larger group, there was a definite synergy to the way the day unfolded and what people offered out of their experiences on this planet. Those questions we did not have an immediate answer to, led to new discoveries and broadened the scope of our conversation.

There’s something about working with raw materials, beside the animals who grew the fibers, within the context of where and how they were raised, that appears to help people re-connect with that sense of place they are sometimes craving. Maybe it’s the all-encompassing aspect of fiber from ground to fingertips, the visual and visceral experience of creating something from those things gathered within an environment. And the fact that the final product, a single strand of yarn, represented the as much the nuances of our personalities, as much as the wholeness of the creation.

Natural mulberry dye on cotton/alpaca blend. Special thanks to Jenny.
Natural mulberry dye on cotton/alpaca blend. With special thanks to Jenny!

It didn’t stop with the workshop. Following, one of the participants stayed to help me experiment with making dyes with mulberry. And though we did not follow the “rules,” the hue of the fiber reflected the solemn joy we experienced in being outdoors, in building the fire, in walking the land, in reflecting on what it meant to be human in this great big world.

In the end, it’s clear, this gathering together around things like fiber is not so much about making a product, but about connecting. Just as the twist gathers up the fibers for strength, affording the varied consequence of hue, so does the gathering of image (2)people together accentuate and punctuate our own strengths and personality.

[And what Healing Tree Farm workshops would be complete without ‘Topher shenanigans?]

Thank you to the lovely women and men who gathered together to spin a yarn at the workshop. 

Blue waters, my favorite kitty

imageNamed for the still blue waters of northern Michigan at dawn, and our farm cat, Watson, this skein is mostly a combination of Bree and Pecan (Suri alpaca) fibers, with one ply hand-dyed a light periwinkle. Soft and light, I picture this skein combined with our peaches-and-cream for a lovely baby blanket… Purchase today, knit through the summer, and have it ready for cooler autumn eves.

140Yd $25 Available for pick-up at farm  SOLD

Email for more information about this, yarn, fiber-related inquiries, to talk about the weather, or to learn more about our upcoming fiber workshop on July 11th! Or visit our Etsy Shop to see more.