San Juan spinners and weavers
Durango area artisans foster the fiber arts

Local fibers stretch across a loom at the Durango store, Yarn. The fiber arts have set deep roots in Southwest Colorado and range from several regional wool growers to the knitting and weaving store on E. Second Avenue./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Shawna Bethell

It happens more times than not. Passersby wander into artist Ruth Ann Caitland’s sun-warmed shop in Silverton. They look around at the sculptures and paintings and baskets displayed throughout the space before their eyes rest upon the loom sitting with colorful threads of wool waiting to be blended into a rug or shawl. It draws them in, their smiles, their urge to reach out and lay fingers on the wood frame. Then they turn a half step and see the spinning wheel. It’s enchantment straight out of the fairy tales.

“I think people are drawn to the fiber arts because they’re so tactile, so sensory,” says Caitland.

Caitland has been working with the medium for more than 30 years and explains how she was first drawn in. “Every day as I drove to the pottery studio, I passed the weaving cabin on my way,” the artist recalls. “It was an old log cabin full of weavers and their looms and spinning wheels, every implement you could think of.”

Caitland says that she kept stopping by to see what the weavers were doing.

“When you are surrounded by all the wool and colors and can feel the textures, the coarseness andt he softness, there is a sense of all the projects that are unrealized."

She began taking classes in weaving and spinning and started dyeing her own yarns by cutting weeds that grew in her native Illinois and experimenting with color.

“The wonderful thing about natural dyes is that they look beautiful together. All the colors go together as they do in nature,” she says.

Through the years Caitland has also experimented with and accumulated many different types of looms, from the large Countermarch loom that graces the corner of Silverton Artworks to Navajo looms and Guatemalan backstrap looms, where the loom is strapped to a tree or post and the other end is wound around the weaver’s waist.

“My teacher told me there were weavers, and there were spinners,” she says. “I think I’m more of a weaver. I’m still working on spinning, but the end product is rather organic and somewhat primitive,” she laughs. “Though it can be very pleasing to work with, too.”

Down the mountain from Silverton, and 20 miles south of Durango, Pam Dyer stands in the middle of her small farm outside of Marvel.

“We have the Corriedale and the Shetland,” she says pointing to the array of black, brown and white woolly sheep milling around their morning breakfast. “And we have the Churro, which is the breed the Navajo raise and are considered somewhat endangered.”

Pam Dyer, a local wool grower, shows off the raw material and nearly finished product at Yarn early this week./Photos by Stephen Eginoire

For Dyer it is a hard call to decide which comes first, the fiber arts or the sheep themselves. For her, the sustainable farming practices that she and husband, Jim, use to raise their flock are altogether part of the entire fiber arts way of life.

“We had a farm in upstate New York, and we purchased two Corriedales,” she explains. “I’d go to the fairs and watch people spinning wool. At the time, I was a stay-at-home mom, and I wanted to do something where I could work from home and be creative. So I taught myself to spin.”

Moving west, the Dyers increased their herd size and made wool one of the commodities they sell from their farm. After sheering, they send the wool to a mill in Michigan to have it processed. Then it is returned to either be sold to other fiber artists or used by Dyer herself to make locker hooked rugs, horse blankets or pillows in the natural colors of her sheep.

“It’s a year in the process from the sheep to the spinning,” she says. “It’s not something you can quit in the middle of. You care for the animal, and when you make that pillow or that rug, you know whose fleece you are using.”

Dyer can be found at festivals and markets throughout the summer and fall seasons and says people always ask about the sheep. “They want to know where the wool comes from,” she says. “They want the stories of the farm. They want to know about the animals.”

Back in Durango, with winter coming on, shoppers in Yarn call one another by name, share ideas on patterns and techniques, and always, constantly run their hands over the soft, colored yarns that fill the bins. “I try to buy as much wool as I can from local farms,” says Kara Komick, owner of the local knitting and fiber arts store. “I try to nurture that local interest.”

But she also points out that although much of her clientele likes natural organic yarns, she also has those customers who want “bling.”

“A lot of people also have fun with the glitz and color of commercial yarns,” she says.

Either way, Komick echoes both Caitland and Dyer on why she thinks the fiber arts remain so well loved.

“It gets to all your senses,” she says. “Smell, color, texture. People want to touch it. And they are inspired by all the possibility that surrounds them.”

Komick believes the peak of the fiber arts resurgence hit in 2005 when she opened her own shop and it spawned lots of cottage industries where people became interested in dyeing their own wool and making their clothing.

Judging by the number of spinning and weaving guilds in the area, it’s apparent that the love of wool and weaving and the enchantment of an old-fashioned spinning wheel has not been lost.

“I can still stand in the middle of all those fleeces and get excited,” says Dyer. “And even after all these years, when it comes back from the mill, it’s still wonderful to put your hands into those lovely sacks of wool.” •



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