The guilded age

| 24 Apr 2015 | 12:39

Fiber arts spin back around

By Billie Dunn and Becca Tucker

Raheli Harper had a hunch that there were other fiber artists in Orange County – but were there enough?

Harper loved her spinning guild meetings, full of creative people who spoke her language. The Ulster Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers were the folks who had loaned her a spinning wheel until she got her own, and taught her to use it — well enough that Harper went on to win a blue ribbon at the Ulster County Fair in 2014 for one of her yarns (in the youth and novice category, she points out, but hey).

“It felt awesome,” said Harper, 33, homesteader and mother of two (and writer of this magazine’s Dirt Jr. column). “I won a blue ribbon! Blue ribbons are something we read about in children’s books. It’s something kids get at soccer practice.”

The only thing she didn’t love was the hour-long commute from her house in Campbell Hall to the guild meetings in Lake Katrine.

“During the drive, I would make mental lists of all the spinners and weavers I knew,” she said.

But it wasn’t until Harper, feeling a “rush of fiber love,” got up her courage to cold-call the artist Cassie Lewis, 72, that all the pieces came together.

“Once I met Cassie,” said Harper, “I knew I could make a guild happen.”

Lewis, a retired public school teacher who lives in Warwick, is tapped into a deep vein of tradition. Her grandmother was a rag rug weaver, and as a girl growing up in Bergen County, Lewis’ house was covered with her grandmother’s creations. Drawn to working with her hands, Lewis took classes in weaving at William Patterson University, and went on to teach felting – the most ancient of fiber arts – at the Newark Museum.

Lewis was surprised to get Harper’s call, she recalled, laughing. She’d been a member of the Hudson Valley Weavers, which had folded about a decade earlier because it wasn’t attracting new members.

But teaching was her first love, and to pass on a prehistoric craft that only recently looked like it was in danger of dying out, would be a pleasure.

“I also like the feel of wet wool as I’m working it, and how it changes,” said Lewis. “Unlike woven fabric, you have fibers that kind of knot together; they intermingle, so you don’t have these straight lines or patterns. You can make scarves, hats, mittens, slippers, art pieces. You could do placemats. Bowls. It’s pretty endless. It’s an amazing art medium.”

If Harper thought she could make a go of a guild, Lewis was on board.

In January, Harper secured a room in the downstairs of the Goshen Library and invited everyone she could think of to the first meeting of the Wallkill Valley Spinning & Weaving Guild, named for the river that touches Harper’s 10-acre homestead just north of Goshen.

Word traveled. Three meetings in, about 25 people have attended at least one meeting, many wearing handmade clothes. Most have been women, but not all.

“It was amazing at the second meeting to see all these people come through the door with spinning wheels in hand,” said Harper. “There were six people I never saw before.”

Like Alisa Schenk, from Dingmans Ferry, Pennsylvania – which “is kind of in the middle of nowhere," she said. Schenk, 48, found out about the new guild from the owner of a needlework shop in Middletown where she teaches spinning. She showed up at the third meeting with her traveler wheel, which, because it folds up, is popular amongst guild members, who do much of their spinning out of the house.

Schenk is also a member of the North Country Spinners, which meets in the municipal building in Tranquility, New Jersey. She joined that group after she was suddenly struck by the urge, when she was pregnant with her youngest, to knit baby clothes.

“People are coming to realize everyone’s really busy and in a group like that, you can find people right there who like what you like, and you can network,” she said. “It’s like the old quilting bees.”

There is an online world of fiber called, which is a good place to find patterns and post questions, but you can’t touch fiber through a forum.

“I think too the smaller knitting shops,” which used to serve as gathering spots, “are few and far between,” said Schenk. “If you’re trying to further your skills, we have beginners all the way up to people who are making amazing things. It’s a great way to pool learning in one place.”

All of Schenk’s eight kids, whom she homeschools, at least dabble in some sort of fiber art. Two of her sons spin, two knit. The four-year-old is already treadling on the wheel.

“That’s one of the reasons I really like being able to homeschool,” she said. “Mainstream school, they’re not offering that anymore. There just isn’t time.”

When Dirt called, Schenk talked on her cell while spinning a three-ply sock yarn. “All my boys and my husband hunt, and they’re always in need of wool socks.” Meanwhile, her eldest drop spindled nearby (drop spindling is a primitive method of spinning wool into yarn that doesn’t require a wheel). Emily, 21, an avid knitter, is already talking about a spinning wheel for her house when she gets married. Alisa and Emily got interested in spinning when they’d go together to 1800s reenactments on farms.

Being part of guilds has “brought back a sense of community to me as an adult,” said Schenk. “I’m surrounded by my kids all the time, but to have a community of people who get together and hang out and spin and knit? You need something other than just being the mom and the teacher.”

It’s a bonus that her kids like doing it, too. “You can have it be a family thing,” she said. “In our society a lot of things are pulling the families in different directions.”

If the third meeting of the Wallkill Guild was any indication, guild meetings – where Harper’s two young sons are fixtures – can definitely double as family time. On this particular day, Lewis, the felting artist, was showing the group how to weave with rags, using a twisting technique to make a dense, tight fabric. Lara Patel and her four-year-old daughter Meera were hammering away at a rag rug frame, and 10-year-old Esme Clarke was weaving a bag from strips her mother ripped up while her five-year-old sister watched.

At home, too, Harper’s “sanctuary,” the room where her spinning wheel overlooks a window and the shelves are packed with swaths of fabric, often, over the long winter, found itself serving double duty as a family entertainment center. “We end up in there a lot, just to turn the wheel and watch it spin,” she said.

“Eli loves to play with yarn the way a kitten does, and Able loves to play with the spinning wheel and sit on my lap as I run the foot pedals.”

“It’s less meditative with a kid on your lap,” she acknowledged, demonstrating how her spinning wheel works, while Able, 3, sat on her knees and helped twist the raw fleece. Eli, 1, climbed on a chair and banged on the window in excitement at the sight of a free-ranging chicken outside.

When the cover of a futon in the playroom ripped, Able insisted on mending it –– right away! –- and doing the needlework himself. He’s into felting and has developed what Harper calls “his own technique for freestyle finger knitting.”

Just as Cassie Lewis grew up surrounded by her grandmother’s rag rugs, and Raheli Harper watched her grandmother knit, and Alisa Schenk’s mother taught her to knit, crochet, and sew; so too, as a generation returns to these skills, is a new generation coming of age familiar with the feel of fiber. Call it a fiber-baby boom.

“That’s what’s so exciting,” said Lewis. “People who have been coming to Raheli’s group, there are quite a few younger people.” The same is true, said Lewis, of her other guild, the Jockey Hollow Weavers, which meets in Mendham, New Jersey. They recently hired an expert from Colorado to come in and demonstrate a technique called the crackle weave.

“That’s another advantage,” said Lewis. “They bring in these name people to teach. It’s a lot more inexpensive than going to a craft center to get the same information. Also, it’s local, rather than traveling to, say Peters Valley or one of the other craft centers across the state.”

Across the Hudson River, too, “a lot of younger people are sewing, and there’s renewed interest in vintage- and retro-style apparel,” said Linda Clark, president of the American Sewing Guild’s Hudson Valley Chapter. The guild’s new offshoot, Sew Hip, which formed last January, meets monthly at Hobby Lobby in Poughkeepsie to work on more casual clothes and trendy projects, everything from jeans and hoodies to cocoon cardigans to handbags.

Harper, who started the Wallkill guild, has set herself a personal goal of handcrafting more of her own clothes. With that, the show-and-tell portion of guild meetings will help.

“Other member will ask: have I gotten the sleeves done? Buttons? Otherwise, I have been known to let something finished that just needs buttons, sit for months before it gets the five minutes of attention it needs.”

Show-and-tell is also where each creative soul, whose work may or may not get props in the wider world, gets the attention he or she needs.

“People bring things they’re really excited about and the excitement spreads to everyone,” said Harper.

“When I go out somewhere” wearing handmade clothes, “I feel a little… boastful, I guess? ‘Look what I did! I made this!’ Like a fourth grader. But at a guild meeting, people want you to show them.”

Sidebar: What’s a guild?

Guilds date back to the Middle Ages, when merchants and craftsmen united in groups that looked like something between a trade union and a secret society. Once very powerful, the guild structure broke down as industrialization gained momentum. But guilds never completely went away. Take the Francis Irwin Handweavers based in Blairstown, New Jersey, a guild that’s been active for more than 180 years. Or maybe you’ve got an actor-friend that gets free screeners before they hit theaters – thanks to, yes, the Screen Actors Guild. That’s been around since the 1930s.

The guild is staging a comeback, and not only among craftsmen – or humans, for that matters. Farmers and gardeners, recoiling from the large-scale monocrop system that requires pesticides and wreaks havoc on the environment, are beginning to think about growing different kinds of plants in mutually beneficial groups. The classic example is the Native American “three sisters,” in which corn, beans and squash are grown together on a mound. The corn provides a trellis for the beans to climb, the beans fix nitrogen in the soil for all the plants, and the squash sprawl outward to provide a living mulch and critter protection.

Whether it’s a group of craftspeople or a group of plants, the guild is predicated on the idea that more can be accomplished, with fewer resources expended, by working together.