Margaret Russell holds up a wrap she has woven from the wool of a Welsh Balwen sheep. It is coarse to the touch and deep brown, the color of espresso, with a few white flecks. "Balwen is a Welsh word for white blaze," she says. "They have a white stripe coming down the front of the face, white feet, white tail tips. The rest of the sheep is black or brown."
Russell doesn't just know what Balwen sheep look like, she knows where they graze and who takes care of them. And she can pull skein after skein of wool from her large wicker basket and do the same for half a dozen different breeds: Jacob, which is black and white like a cow; Soay, a primitive sheep that sheds its wool in springtime; Llanwenog, a cream-colored sheep with a black face.
These sheep are all threatened, endangered or primitive species, and by using their wool Russell, who lives and weaves in Byfield, is helping them survive.
"What the [preservation] organizations say is you can help to promote preservation by eating the meat of the sheep or using the fleece in some manner," Russell says. "I have chosen through my weaving to use the fleece."
A weaver for over 25 years, Russell doesn't just think about putting her fiber on the loom; she wants to know its story. Over the years, her fascination with unusual fibers has led her to experiment with organic cotton bred to be naturally colored; wild silk harvested from empty cocoons; and now, wool from small herds of sheep in Britain and the U.S. Along the way, she has forged relationships with farmers and growers from Oregon to Scotland.
"I look at the fibers as having a story," Russell says. "It's not just what I weave on my loom. For me there is a story that goes beyond that, and I want to keep educating myself as well."
Every year, Russell chooses a different fiber to study. Last year it was tussah silk, a wild silk that is harvested without harming the silkworm. Commercial silk harvesters toss the cocoons, with the silkworms still inside, into vats of boiling water, she explains. Tussah silk is not harvested until the silkworms have become moths and left the cocoons. Then the fiber is pulled from the cocoons and hand spun.
"This is a peace silk, respectful of the smallest creatures," Russell says. "I had such respect that here was something that recognized this little moth could emerge and goes on; granted, it only lasts a week after it emerges." The fiber is not been washed and softened like the commercial product. "It's rough," Russell says. "These are not refined fibers by any means."
Naturally colored Fox Fibre Cotton is another of Russell's finds. She weaves dishtowels in soft shades of sage, yellow, and rust from the cotton, which was developed by California breeder Sally Fox.
"She could see colors in cotton when it was growing, and she had historical knowledge that there had been cottons way back when that had been grown in colors," Russell says, "so she developed a breeding program to bring out these colors." The natural colors deepen as the piece is washed because cotton grows with a natural waxy coating, and repeated washings dissolve the wax.
This year, Russell is focusing on wool from primitive and endangered British sheep, and she is interested both in preserving these breeds and learning about their wool. "I'm finding a lot of these breeds have characteristics that I am not used to," she says. "It's something new and challenging for me."
On her loom at the moment is a wrap she is weaving from Llanwenog wool, which is springier than conventional wool. The Balwen wool was very hairy and tended to stick together, presenting a different set of problems.
"They are mountain sheep," she says, holding up the Balwen wrap, "and the fleece is very coarse to protect them, so the wool is very coarse. This is nothing you are going to put up against your skin." She points out the white flecks that dot the deep brown surface. "These white pieces do not adhere themselves that well, and the hair comes out when I'm weaving. It's like insulation," she says.
If these breeds are lost, Russell says, a piece of history will be lost with them. "This is something I know about ahead of time, and there is something I can actively do to preserve that," she says. What she does is support the farmers who raise these breeds by helping create a market for their wool.
Last of the independents
Russell holds up another wrap with an intricate black and white pattern, woven from the wool of Jacob sheep. Brindled black and white like a cow, Jacob sheep are a preservation success story: they have become so popular in England that they are no longer regarded as threatened, although they are still rare in the U.S.
Russell's wool comes from a farm in Montana run by a couple who left their high-tech jobs for the rural life. "They moved back to her grandfather's farm, and she traveled to England looking at sheep and fell in love with Jacob sheep," Russell says. "They raise only Jacobs. He has almost 300 Jacob sheep, and they process the yarn and sell it to weavers and knitters."
When her wool arrived, Russell was delighted to see that the farmer had put notes on each skein of wool, telling her what it was. That sort of personal touch is characteristic of the small farmers she prefers to work with, she says. "I seek these people out to try to help support them, but what I love is the intimate contact I end up having with them," she says.
Russell also buys wool from Garthenor Farm in Wales, an organic farm run by Sally and Chris King. Russell got to know Chris as she chose and ordered her wool. "He's as attached to this weaving as I am now," she says. "That's why I love working with the independent people. He's raised these sheep. There is that love and that connection that he has as he passes it to me."
Sometimes Russell is a little ahead of the market. That's the case with Soay sheep, a primitive breed with an unusual trait: it sheds its fleece in spring. When sheep were domesticated, that trait was bred out so that the farmer could shear them all at once, Russell explains. Somehow, the Soay escaped.
"When you see them starting to lose their fleece, right around this time of year, you go and pluck it off them," Russell says. "If it's the right time, a lot will come off in your hands. Otherwise you are going around on the ground trying to collect fleece that has been stomped on."
Russell gets her Soay wool from a farm run by two women in Oregon who brought the sheep over from England but had not marketed it to weavers.
"I got in contact with them wanting yarn to weave," Russell says, "and we are working together in attempts to find spinners who will spin the Soay. It is very hard to get it commercially spun because it has a very short fleece, and it's very hard for mills to spin something that short. I have a hand spinner friend who has 10 pounds of fleece from Oregon and is working on seeing what she can do with it."
Russell has also been in contact with another Soay farmer, in Scotland. "She has over 200 Soay on her property, and she's looking for spinners in Scotland," Russell says. "She spins only for herself, and when I inquired, she got to thinking about it."
Beyond a hobby
Russell grew up in upstate New York and began weaving when she was about 8 years old, working on a child's loom her father bought for her when she was home sick for a few days. Eventually, weaving fell by the wayside, although she always had it in the back of her mind.
After getting a degree in social work, she worked in a nursing home where the local weaving guild had set up floor looms for the residents. "They would come in and dress the loom [set it up] for the residents to weave on," she says. "There were a couple of gentlemen there that loved to weave, and the person that was in charge of the activities department was also a woman that wove, and the guild would meet there once a month. I thought, 'I am going to join that guild. I'm going to learn how to weave.'"
She contacted Margaret McKinley, an English weaver who lived in Albany. "I went to her house twice, and she gave me two lessons and said 'Now you're on your own,' and that was it," Russell says.
Almost 25 years later, Russell is a teacher in her own right. She has been giving lessons in Ipswich, and when the Yellow School Art Center opened in Byfield she was pleased to be able to move her classes closer to home. "My thought is to populate this area with weavers and eventually get a guild going out of the Yellow School," she says.
Russell weaves in a small, sunny room off her kitchen. She has two floor looms, and an assortment of shuttles and other tools hang on her wall. Wicker baskets filled with twisted skeins of cotton, hemp and wool sit on shelves that run from floor to ceiling, and loops of cocoa-colored Manx Loghtan wool, ready to go on her loom for the next project, hang from wooden pegs near the door. She weaves all year, from January to December, and at the end of the year she sells some of her work in a few small shows.
"I'm looking for a setting where people understand what I'm doing," she says. "They're not just buying a woven piece, they want to know about it, or they know about the fibers ahead of time." When she shows her work, Russell includes educational displays, such as a jar of the tussah silk cocoons and baskets of different types of yarn. This year she will add posters of the different breeds of sheep.
"The focus is not just on selling," she says. "I love to talk about what I am doing."
To Russell, preserving rare sheep and unusual fibers and preserving the art of weaving itself are all of a piece. "I think it's the combination of the two that really excites me," she says. "I have trouble with history that gets lost, and that's why I actively promote my weaving. It could easily become a lost art. We are always going to have clothing that needs to be woven, but it's factories, it's mechanized."
She wants to preserve the art of weaving: "To know how to set a loom up, to really look at your clothing and be able to pick that pattern out and know how it has been woven and to know if it's a good weave that will last or a loose weave with weak fibers that in a matter of a week is going to be pilled."
"It's not a hobby any more," she admits. "It's gone past that. I belong to a book group, and that's the only fiction I read. Otherwise I'm reading about Welsh sheep breeds, I'm reading about the world of colored sheep, I'm reading how to raise silk moths. It has become a real obsession. But a healthy one. A healthy one that certainly benefits me but goes beyond just benefiting me internally, hopefully to an awareness of other people in benefiting these creatures."