By Natasha Ala, for the Redoubt Reporter
Fiber arts is one of those art classifications that straddles itself between the craft world and fine art world. The common denominator of fiber arts is, of course, the use of fiber, as well as the technique in which the fiber is manipulated.
The types of materials used can range from organic to synthetic items, such as wood, clay, fish skins, nylon fish line or even strands of copper wire, to name just a few. Many fiber artists have built careers using traditional fiber art-construction techniques with untraditional fiber materials. Other fiber artists are true to their customary fiber art processes, such as those processes and materials used in pottery, weaving, surface design and any number of other traditional methods.
Basically, however, the lid was blown off the definition of fiber art long ago, and today there is only a spectrum of fiber arts ranging from traditional purist methods of creation to contemporary, postmodernist methods of creation.
Alaska fiber artists are fortunate in that they have a rich abundance of natural organic materials from which to choose, right outside their back doors. Readily available to artists are an ample variety of hardwood, softwood, bark, roots and other plant fibers, as well as many different naturally existing clays, all of which can be freely harvested around the Kenai Peninsula. With lots of industry on the peninsula, there are also a wide variety of synthetic materials available, such as wire, netting and other monofilaments.
One material that is not overly abundant on the Kenai Peninsula, however, is locally produced sheep wool. But Amy Seitz and her family are working to remedy this deficit by producing an assortment of wool from their flock of around 50 sheep at Lancashire Farm, in Ridgeway.
Seitz says she grew up raising sheep as a 4-H project on the family homestead in Ridgeway, which was established in 1948 by her grandparents, Rusty and Larry Lancashire. Seitz said she is pleased to be able to return to the homestead as an adult and continue her family’s tradition of farming on the Kenai Peninsula.
“Farming is a lot of hard work,” Seitz said, “but it’s very enjoyable raising animals and promoting the growth of agriculture on the Kenai Peninsula.”
Raising sheep in Alaska presents many challenges, she said, but the greatest challenges are not related to the harsh weather. Seitz said she hasn’t had any problems with wintering sheep, that sheep do well at withstanding the cold winters and wet summers. The greatest challenges facing sheep production on the Kenai Peninsula include securing an affordable, year-round food source, and avoiding predators that can quickly wipe out a flock.
Amy and her brother, James Seitz, annually produce several tons of timothy hay from one of the homestead fields. Amy estimates that it will take roughly 12.5 tons of timothy hay, along with 1 ton of oats and barley, to feed a flock of 50 sheep through the winter.
Predators have taken a huge toll on the sheep flock in the recent years. Seitz said that, three summers ago, she lost two sheep to a bear attack, and their prized ram also was seriously mauled by the bear.
“Worse than the bear attacks, however, is the preventable devastation caused by dogs whose owners just let them run loose around here,” Seitz said.
She recently had a pair of loose dogs come on the homestead and kill 15 of their sheep. “Losing 15 of our best sheep was a huge setback to our business,” she said.
This summer has brought new opportunities for fiber production at Lancashire Farm, as Seitz recently acquired a flock of 18 Wensleydale sheep.
“These sheep will put us back to the numbers we had before the dog attacks,” Seitz said.
Wensleydale sheep are wonderful fiber producers.
“We will get around 28 pounds of raw wool from each animal,” she said.
Wensleydale sheep produce a unique fleece, which grows 8- to 12-inch locks of hair, or staples. Their staples are considered to have some of the finest luster of all the long wool staples in the world. Wensleydale fleece is also highly valued for its tightly crimped fibers, which give the sheep the distinctive appearance of being covered in thousands of long, thin dreadlocks, making the sheep look like giant, shaggy mops.
In addition to Wensleydale sheep, Seitz also raises other fiber sheep, including Lincoln, Shetland, Marino and Romney, all of which produce lustrous fleeces in a variety of colors, including black, white, brown and several shades of gray.
“Surprisingly, the black fleeces are the fleeces that we sell the most of,” said Jane Conway. Conway’s main job on the farm begins when the raw fleece is sheared off the backs of the animals. “I’m mostly interested in quality control of the fleeces, and making sure that we are producing the best possible fleeces we can.”
Conway handles the cleaning, storage and marketing aspect of the Lancashire Farm fiber production, and recently gave me a tour of the farm’s wool cellar, where the fleeces are stored.
“It’s important that we know which fleece came from which animal,” Conway said. Each fleece in the fiber cellar is individually bagged and tagged, indicating the date it was sheered, the name of the animal and the breed of the animal. “We are starting to send fiber samples to laboratories for testing. The tests will let us know the micron count (how big the individual fibers are) as well as information about luster, crimp and the general health of the animal’s fleece. This information will allow us to modify the sheep diets and allows us to focus on putting protective fleece jackets on the sheep with the best fleeces.
“Some of our sheep, like the Suffolk sheep, do not produce the best-quality fleeces. No fleece on the farm is wasted, and the bad fleeces are used to insulate the barns and chicken house.”
Conway enjoys spinning and dyeing wool and is researching different berries, plants and mushrooms that can be used to dye white wool.
“There is so much artists can do with these fleeces,” Conway said. “The wool can be used for any number of fiber processes, including felting, spinning, knitting, weaving, embellishments … really, your imagination is the limit to what you can create.”
Conway, along with fellow spinner Martha Merry, can be found every Saturday throughout the summer at the Soldotna Saturday Market, selling wool and offering wool-spinning demonstrations. The market, in the Soldotna Elementary School bus turnaround on the Kenai Spur Highway, is open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
For information regarding the various fiber art guilds, fiber organizations and fiber workshops available on the central Kenai Peninsula, can call the Peninsula Art Guild in Kenai at 283-7040.
Natasha Ala is a contributing writer and local art champion who lives in Soldotna.