Healing Handcrafting

exploring process and healing through fiber arts and handcrafting

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Knowing One’s Landscape

This summer, I contracted Lyme Disease. Mid-July, when I was feeling better than I ever have in my adult life, but for the achy joints and stiff neck, a big ole rash showed up on my back. I figured it was just a horsefly bite, but by the next day, it took on the tell-tale bulls-eye shape, and my symptoms went from mildly annoying and easy to pass-off as over-exertion from running and exercising to being really, fully and wholly awful. Before this, I was out in our field, our woods and our yard very often, looking for flowers and other things that I could throw into a dye pot. I have ridiculous amounts of wool to dye, and I made it my job to experiment with as much as I could.


I don’t know where I picked the tick up. I didn’t know I had the bite and only recall asking my husband to see if there was something on my back a few weeks prior. He didn’t see anything.

Since then, I’ve been gun-shy about field flower-picking and woods walking. I look at my back woods and wish I felt comfortable heading into that beautiful place, to look for fallen branches with bark I can use, or mushrooms I can harvest and experiment with. Just yesterday, after cleaning my shed and periodically picking up hickory nuts to dye with, I picked a minuscule tick off of my ear. It’s so small, I can’t tell if it’s engorged or not, but I think it is, which means I likely got it somewhere else and not from my yard.


Why share this whole story here? Well, because I’m aware of the possibility of fear getting between me and something I deeply long to do. I can tell you with all of my being that I don’t want to get Lyme Disease again, and I wouldn’t wish it on any other living thing. Ticks are this crazy, mind-boggling paranoia inducing creature. If I lived near leeches, I’d have the same issue with them. Remember that scene from Stand By Me? Oh no. I’d perish on the spot. Spontaneous combustion style.

Anyway, I want to forage, pick and search for beautiful things to use to dye beautiful wool and I’m realizing that a very important mandate is demanding to be respected. Know the Landscape in Which I Work. I learned how to think this way while training at the Assisi Institute under the tutelage of Michael Conforti, Ph.D. He lectured frequently about how, when working with people, with dreams, with story and with symbol, that one must understand and be acquainted with the qualities and specifics to the given place, person, animal, landscape, etc. Know the landscape. This applies to all things. To teaching, to business, to swimming… Take swimming: the rules that apply to swimming in a pool are inherently specific to swimming in pools and different than rules that apply to swimming in rivers. And oceans. There are different mandates that apply to these different settings and one must honor them in order to navigate the waters safely and with success. Swimming in an ocean demands having an understanding of riptides, the sea-life specific to that area, tides and weather. One need not know these same specifics in a pool, but one must know about depth of water before diving, as well as whether it is salt water or chlorinated (some people are allergic to chlorine). These are not exhaustive lists, but you get the idea.

The same is true for gathering flowers and plants. One must know where one is in the world, what animals rely upon the plants one is gathering, how much of a plant can be taken without threatening future growth and what plants might have irritants (ever pick stinging nettle? That’ll ruin a couple of hours in a day if you don’t handle it properly). And, of course, when walking in nature, one must know of any possible dangers. I don’t live out west, but if I did, and if I were walking in very remote areas, I’d want to know about bear, cougar and snakes. Here, in Vermont, I want to know how to identify signs of bobcat and coyote. I know they aren’t likely to harm me, but they could do some damage to my cat who follows me everywhere on our property, and frankly, I’m not interested in running into larger predators with my kids. And ticks. I have to understand ticks and how to prevent tick bites, even when I’m not doing the typical things that one thinks of as being “risky” in terms of ticky situations.

I’m seeing clearly how much I need to respect my environment, and understand it, to fully enjoy its beauty and offerings. Maybe a full and comprehensive understanding will help me gently nudge my fear into caution.



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Summertime Dyeing, Part 2

In Vermont, it is still hot. Too hot. I never thought I’d say that, but maybe after all of these years, the longing for the change into winter has evolved and grown. I’m catching up now, with projects begun in the early summer and late summer months, so that I might get some things in order to prepare for the coming autumn. I have a lot to make for the Women’s Festival of Crafts at the end of November, and there are new things I want to try. I would love to attempt weaving again, and I would love to try to knit something a little bit complicated, with color pick-ups, maybe, where gauge matters. I do worry a bit about getting frustrated or feeling defeated, but I think that’s exactly why I should try these things. If I want to make it, I gotta learn how to do it!

Anyway, before I wrap things up for the summer months in this blog, I wanted to document and share with you more about my plant dye experiments with wool. And I guess, writing a post that includes a “Part 1” in the title suggests that more is coming on the topic, right? Well, here’s Part 2.

In June, I was gripped by the pull of flowers, trees and all things planty. I longed to see what came of what was all around me in my yard. Here is a part of my dye journal: 

“I am at a stage of dyeing wool where experimentation and flexibility are key. The mystery is so much fun, but I know that around the corner is more discipline and study. This morning as my children played with a friend, I wandered around our wet yard and gathered purple clover and buttercup flowers. I filled a small basket my mom gave me; purple on one side, yellow on the other. My daughter occasionally ran to me with small bundles of flowers. I saw little grasshoppers and butterflies and I breathed and felt the air and heard the laughter. I was aware at one point of my own hastiness and then remembered there was no reason to rush or to apply urgency to this job. Urgency is everywhere. I carry it on my shoulders like a silent, heavy monkey. Once I realized my company, I uninvited it with each little pick and pinch of the lovely weeds. I could feel my belly relax and gratitude enter.”

 What I did:

~ Buttercups with a few evening primrose flowers thrown in, plus stems from both. Mordant- alum.

~ Purple Clover, flowers and stems. Mordant- alum.

What I got:

It’s not especially easy to see, but trust me when I tell you that the buttercups made a lovely, light yellow, and the clovers made a very light brown. I was delighted with the outcome! 

Around this same time, I did an experiment with horsetail. With this, I just poured almost boiling water over a lot of horsetail in a pot and let it sit in my garage for a few days. It was the boiling of that in my house that resulted in my moving my whole operation out into the garage. It sure did smell bad. Real bad. I didn’t admit it then in the face of the rebellion on my hands, but it did. I’m sure the soaking weed worked up a bit of gunk in those few days. The results though, were lovely! I got another nice golden yellow with a brown hue.

I’m sure by now, if you’ve read my other posts, you’ve noticed a theme. I seem to keep coming back to the idea of slowing things down. Way down. Maybe some of you are not afflicted by the sense of busy-ness, rushed-ness and too much of everything-ness always shaping a day, but I find those feelings or experiences of life impact even the most peaceful of days if I’m not careful. It’s sort of an automatic way of thinking and behaving. I think the act of going outside, collecting flowers or plants to dye with, when you don’t exactly know what the results are going to be, is an ultimate exercise in combatting that daily life habit. 

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Marshfield School of Weaving- Plant Dyes for Wool

I had the great fortune to take a class at the Marshfield School of Weaving yesterday. This class was about dyeing wool with plants and other natural dyestuffs. Our teacher was Joann Darling, who is a weaver, dyer, soap-maker and plant expert (what is the word for that?). When asked what certain plants were, or what plant give which colors, Joann knew the scientific name; let’s just put it that way. Better put, our small group of five students was in very good hands. I think the best way to tell the story of yesterday would be to comment on each picture.

I left my home kind of early on Sunday morning to head down to the school, about an hour drive from my home. The front seat was full of food to bring for our potluck lunch, my sunhat, bags with snacks, drinks, notebooks and other essentials. It was a beautiful morning- dewey, quiet and kind of fuzzy around the edges. I felt a little nervous as I left, but more excited and curious about what was going to happen in the day. As I got closer to the school, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by, and grateful for, the beautiful views and the quiet. These are definitely a perks to living in Vermont. Oftentimes, where one must go to learn a traditional craft or skill is a beautiful place, set out of the way. Craggy land, full cows and swaying trees were balm to my eyes as I wove up these country roads I’d never been on before.

And here is the entrance to the school. I did laugh out loud with joy as I saw where I’d be spending my day.

When I approached the building, our teacher Joann was busy outside getting things ready. She showed me into the studio and I felt immediately welcomed into the beautiful school. As I looked around, I was so happy to see yarn everywhere! And one whole wall was yarn dyed with natural dyestuffs. It was so beautiful. The light was soft and round, and every which way I looked, I saw things I wanted to touch, understand and look at.

I wasn’t sure where we were meeting at first. I am so used to classroomy types of learning environments, so I made the assumption that there must be a place where we’d sit for a long time and take notes and get really official. I went upstairs assuming I’d find this. Instead, I found the studio. There were many looms of all different sizes. One gentleman was weaving at a very large loom (I don’t weave, so I don’t know what the different looms are called). And there were two women walking about, looking at things. We started talking and they were there to take the class, too. They are both weavers and were so generous with advice and knowledge about looms. I’m hoping to get a small one soon, and here already were two beautiful guides into that world. 

We learned soon that no, we’d not be sitting at tables taking notes. We’d be outside getting right into it with guidance from Joann. The other participants in our group were a sheep farmer and an herbalist. Within a short time, we found our rhythm and got to the work of collecting goldenrod, sorting mini-yarn skeins to be used in all the dye pots, chopping other plants, picking flowers, washing, tending to pots and listening.

I just love this barn board. The colors and patterns are so strong. 

Below is a picture of goldenrod going into the pot.

Here is a picture of Joann stirring the BIG pot~ I’m not sure what’s in there in this picture. There was a lot of boiling and a lot of rotating dye stuffs in and out. I love this picture. 

This is a student chopping up some flowers.

Once we got several dye pots going, we took a walk up quiet roads to the gardens of someone willing to share madder root and dyer’s greenwood. I haven’t gardened much this summer because of contracting the dreaded Lyme disease, so to get my hands in soil with a sweet purpose was just what the doctor ordered. The views and the quiet were also incredible treats.

Once back to the pots, we broke for lunch in the shade, and then got to making more dyestuffs and hanging our wool to dry. We also did lots of overdyeing experiments with indigo. 

I wish I had taken better pictures of the yarn on the line, but you can see many of the colors we achieved in our efforts, and especially our teacher’s efforts, over the course of the day. Every dye pot had samples of yarn, half mordanted in alum and half in iron, so we got two color results from the same plant, plus a third if it was overdyed with indigo. As we got our books ready, Joann was available for questions and stories, and as each color was added to my book, I felt more and more proud and impressed by the outcome of our work. 

It was hard to leave this beautiful place. You know, the people going there to weave, to dye, to spin… I can only assume are not in a rush. Maybe I am projecting, but I think it must be true. Towards the end of the day, when I knew it was time to hit the road to get home to my family, I felt the first twinges of urgency, but that was only to do with my own inner need to reunite with my littles. There, in this extremely beautiful and entirely functional setting, I felt as if the sun and my stomach had become my clock. When the big beautiful tree covered us in lovely shade as we ate, it marked the natural passing of time, the pots simmering away with their unique and seasonally affected color potions.

On the way home, I could only daydream about following up on things I want to learn about, and experiment with. I think a forever student I’ll be.

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The Strength of the Warp Thread

“A true friend is someone who thinks that you are a good egg even though they know that you’re slightly cracked.” 

~ Bernard Meltzer

I like this quote. It is on a card that I bought a while back because I loved it, and it made me think of the friends I have that have kept being friends with me, even after they’ve seen the really me.  I thought about things kind of like this as I made a small circular weaving piece over the last few days. The warp thread in this is strong and sturdy. (The warp is the thread or yarn you attach to the frame to hold the tension and to give you something to weave around). When I chose it, I knew it wouldn’t break as I wove the weft yarn through. (The weft is the yarn that you weave over and under the warp thread). Here’s the thing about some of the weft yarn I used. First of all, I used almost all handspun, the majority spun by yours truly. Some of what I chose is from a skein I made using a lot of different fibers. There is wool roving in there, wispy locks and cotton from punis. It is strong in some parts and weak in others, and very inconsistent in thickness. I love this yarn. I love it so much it’s hard to use because I don’t want its texture and variations to get lost in stitches. I love how in some places I could pull it as hard as I might in opposite directions and it wouldn’t break, yet in others, it is so fragile that gently tugging on it would result in a tear.

I chose to weave with this special, fragile-strong yarn because it invites feeling and touching, and I knew that the warp yarn would hold it in place. I knew that using a solid, predictable and consistent yarn would protect my at-times-breakable treasure. And it worked. As I wove, I was sometimes able to move quickly, leading the yarn above and below the skeleton yarn without much thought. Other times I had to carefully push the yarn through so it made it to the opposite side in one piece. It didn’t always make it, requiring a quick repair, or a dedicated wrapping around the warp yarn. That extra twist, done by hand, of one yarn around another reminds me of the way sea horses hold on to seaweed to stay safe and secure in strong currents, an entwined tail around a grounded sea plant. It’s the same sort of thing.

The finished product shows the lovely handspun yarn in its full personality. I honored the weft yarn, though. It is the center of the circle. It is strong and sturdy and sits as evidence of what holds the whole thing together, its many arms reaching out to securely hold the frame with confidence.

We can be all of these things, all at the same time within ourselves. And of course we are different parts to different people throughout our lives, sometimes strong and reliable to another’s fragile and inconsistent fibers. We can also be the ones in need of the sturdy frame on which to lean and around which to wrap in times of frailty and moil. It takes both aspects responding to the other with the right amount of tension and just enough give to make a thing with depth and honesty. Mr. Meltzer had it right.

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Summertime Dyeing, Part 1

I cannot remember why I started the process of learning how to dye wool with plants. I did not arrive at the decision because of a strong opinion about synthetic dyes or because of an already held skill set. In fact, I hadn’t tried it until this summer because I found the whole thing to be rather intimidating. There’s a whole lot to it, especially if you’re going for a certain color. I find precision to be an anxiety-provoking requirement of any project. That is why I haven’t gone further with sewing. It really does matter if you measure correctly when you’re making pants, right? Anyway, I decided to relax into natural dyeing and just experiment and to allow myself the freedom to see what happens, which was also an exercise in patience, flexibility and managing expectations. While I’m not great at precision, the fantasy of perfection is a constant nagging companion, and reckoning with perfection’s shadow side is an important job for me.

The first round of dyeing experiments started with an early morning walk with my daughter. We collected willow tree branches and leaves, and some long stems of some false indigo. We sorted and picked and plucked. It was quiet and kind of chilly. The birds were doing their early morning show and our cat was making his rounds around our home’s perimeter. Eventually, we put the plants in their own dye pots and started the slow process of simmering in water.

(Note: early this summer, I did my dyeing in the kitchen, but guess what? It’s stinks! Not to me, but to others who are not similarly obsessed and just want to eat their breakfast in peace. Now my operation is in the garage, which is fully aerated, and I have the company of a gigantic spider.) 

Once the dye pots were cooling, I got my creamy wool simmering in the mordant bath (alum). For the willow and false indigo, I used some border leicester wool I have on hand. Finally, it was time to introduce the wool to the dye baths! If I had to choose one aspect of dyeing with natural dyes that is so important, and on its own a wise teacher, it would be the demand for patience and for overcoming the urge to rush a pot. Too rapidly boiling the plants can damage the flowers and alter the color; too rapidly boiling the fiber can damage the quality of the wool. Not simmering fibers in the mordant for long enough will lead to a weaker uptake of color and not letting the fibers sit in the cooling dyepot long enough will do the same, plus you can hurt yourself! And in this case, the wool I used for these dyepots I received in its raw form; it had to be skirted, picked through and washed before it could even be dyed.


Putter and check. 

Think and wonder and hope without attachment. 

Eat some snacks, drink some coffee. 

Do a chore, write a note.

Don’t forget to check the pot.

Look out the window and wonder about that flower and if it too could bring color.

Open up to learning about plants and their names.

Don’t panic about not knowing.

Here is what we got:

Weeping Willow Tree: leaves and twigs & border leicester wool; uncarded locks and carded batt. 

And the False Indigo leaves, stems and flowers & border leicester wool: 

Remember that whole thing about precision and my aversion for it? Well, if you follow directions really well and have the time and ability to focus on what you’re doing, I understand it’s possible to get blue. That is in my future. but for now, we got:

A wonderful first go at natural dyeing for me. And a funny thing has happened on the way to the natural dye pot. My eyes have opened up a bit more, and curiosity has expanded exponentially. Walking through my yard, or through the woods or in a field, I now see bits of color everywhere, some of which I overlooked in other days. Now I look at bark on a fallen log and wonder what it would do with some attention from heat and water. And how’s about those berries? Can I share them with the animals here? The tension between wanting to dye everything with everything I see now and knowing that time and patience are necessary ingredients of any dyeing experiment is a gift in its own right. 

I’ll share more of my summer experiments in posts to come. In the meantime, I want to share my go-to books right now on the natural dyeing process:

A Garden to Dye For, by Chris McLaughlin

Harvesting Color: How to Find Plants and Make Natural Dyes, by Rebecca Burgess

The Craft of Natural Dyeing: Glowing Colours From the Plant World, by Jenny Dean

What kinds of things do you do that allow you to slow down, exercise patience and enjoy curiosity?


Let Me Introduce Myself

Hello to you, and thank you for taking the time to read this blog. I have been hovering over the idea of writing about the healing effects of working with fibers for a long time, and often dissuaded myself from taking the leap into blog-land by telling myself things like:  there are so many blogs, why add another? or, can anything new be said about the soothing and healing nature of handwork?, and of course the ultimate killer of ideas and new projects, am I “expert” enough to write about fiber art, fiber craft handwork and psychology? Well, let me make my admissions and explanations here so I can get on with it!

I am a psychologist and have been working in the field in a variety of ways since 1999, although I took a few years off to be home with my children. I love the work, and I love thinking about being a person and all that goes with it, in the mind anyway. I have a particular interest in Jungian psychology, dreams, developmental stages and all of the archetypal power that is alive and working through us as we navigate the tumultuous waters of growth. Being a psychologist and therapist has become part of who I am. It is creative, dynamic and can lead a life and profession in myriad directions. I know that I will be studying for as long as I can.

I am also passionate about, and grateful for, my love of working with wool and other fibers. I crochet, knit, spin wool and other fibers into yarn, dye wool using natural and synthetic dyes, and dabble in macrame, weaving and needle felting. I am not an expert in these crafts and I am learning new things all of the time. When my two children were 3 years old and 6-months, I began taking them to a lovely Waldorf  style playgroup. It was there that I began knitting again, after many years of forgetting about my knitting needles in the back of my closet. I was delighted to learn that I could knit balls for my children to play with, and then stuffed animals from patterns. As I learned more, I decided to pick up crochet, which opened up a whole new world for me. For some reason, I felt more confident with crochet and found that I could easily improvise and make up my own patterns. Friends liked them and started buying them! One friend in particular encouraged me to open an Etsy shop, which I did. It is called Jabo and Belles: Handmade. Well, that was really fun! 

After a short time, I serendipitously met who has become a dear friend, Susi, who is The Felted Gnome Knows. I owe a lot to her, as she introduced me to a group of wonderful women who run Mountain Fiber Folk, a fiber and yarn cooperative in Montgomery, Vermont. I did not know about handspun yarn before walking into MFF. Not really. I didn’t know how incredibly textured yarn could be: curly locks, thick and thin, chunky and smooth, vibrant, filled with personality, scent and the essence of the very animal from whence it came! I really did not know until that day how earthy and grounding yarn could be. Some of the women who make up the cooperative have their own animals from whom they collect their fibers. Sheep, alpaca, llama, rabbit, goat… it’s all there and it thrilled me to the core. The women there also affected me deeply. They are creative and fun and extremely generous with what they know. After my third time visiting, I asked about how I might learn to spin wool and received a lesson right then and there on how to use a drop spindle. I worked with that for a while but knew a spinning wheel was in my future. My friend Susi (thank you, Susi!) told me about another friend of hers, Leslie, who has a farm, sheep, and spins their wool into beautiful yarn. She suggested I contact her to see if she would be willing to give me some lessons. Leslie was kind enough to do so, and again, I had the great blessing of meeting a woman who shared her knowledge, was patient and deeply passionate about her sheep, her yarn and her fiber art. She is a freaky-good knitter! And quilter. Whoa. 

For my 40th birthday, my mother gave me my spinning wheel, an Ashford Traveller. When it arrived in the mail, I could hardly contain my excitement.  I did not take the time to look at all of the paperwork it came with because I was so impatient to start (that is relevant for reasons you will see later). When I tried spinning the first many times, I could not believe how much I could not do it! This reality was maddening and frightening because I wanted to spin wool so much and had worked up a whole bunch of expectations around “getting it”. Finally, after many deep breaths and a lot of swearing, I got it. It wasn’t beautiful, but I got it. And I got it some more, and then some more. And soon, I was spinning wool every night and at times during the day when my children were napping or otherwise happily occupied (spinning wool with an unhappily occupied young person around is really very impossible). I soon realized that spinning wool in the evening was one of the most relaxing and meditative practices I had done in years. I felt noticeably more calm and at peace with whatever was transpiring in my life. I started learning more about various animal fibers and different spinning techniques. I also started seriously thinking about how much my life had changed since I began knitting again, and how therapeutic I was finding all of these crafts. The psychologist hat came on, and I began to wonder, “if these practices are helpful for me, is it possible that there are some inherent qualities in them that lead to healing? Is it possible to use these crafts when working with other people in therapy?”

Sometime after those thoughts began percolating, I was cleaning up some papers and periodicals on my desk. I started to thumb through one that came with my spinning wheel. I suddenly read the words, “Weave Away the Blues”, by Dr. Ann Futterman Collier. WHAT?! The first sentence of her piece reads, “About 10 years ago, I noticed something interesting in my textile-making: as I made handcrafts, I was transformed into a better “mental” place.” You can find her article in “the Wheel: Ashford’s Fibrecraft Magazine”; Issue 23, 2011. Well, I was transfixed! I laughed out loud, and I may have cried a little as I read her article. There it was, right in front of me and I knew then that I could learn so much more about this whole phenomenon. My two worlds met in the middle and did a high-five. Since then, I’ve read and re-read Dr. Collier’s wonderful book entitled, Using Textile Arts and Handcrafts in Therapy with Women: Weaving Lives Back Together. I’ve also started to move more into understanding what this is all about, why handwork and fiber art is such a powerful medium for healing and transformation, and how it can be used in working with others.

I hope this serves as a good-enough introduction to me and to the purpose of writing on this blog. Healing Handcrafting is not only for psychologists or therapists, or for fiber artists and handcrafters. I believe there is a powerful message and meaning in the fact that fiber arts and handcrafts are so popular right in the United States and around the world. I believe that in this culture of infinite busy-ness, many multiple ways of being contacted and contacting others through short sentences, “likes”, texts, emails, landlines, cell phones, etc, we are actually completely overstimulated and remarkably unconnected. I think that many people are longing for ways to calm down their lives, reconnect with themselves again, or for the first time, and engage with other people in real-time, with eye-contact and in ways that tend to the spirit and the soul. Working with fibers in all the ways one can grounds us, opens doors to our distant ancestors as well as possibly to our mothers, our grandmothers and great-grandmothers. There is something about fiberwork that is honest and eternal. It is from this vantage point that I hope to offer my thoughts. I’ll also share my own work and process and things I learn along the way.

 ~ Bradie