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Featured Artist: Dorothy Benedict of Windy Hamlet Farm

by The SpinArtiste on January 19, 2012

Publisher’s Notes:  One thing that a lot of fiber artists yearn for is having their own animals.  Dorothy Benedict of Windy Hamlet Farm is a fiber artist who is also living out that dream.  Her farm in central Massachusetts is where she raises Icelandic Sheep, produces organic wool and custom felted pieces.  It’s my pleasure to feature Dorothy this week and hear all about her farm and why she does what she does!

Spin Artiste (SA):  Tell us about your journey in becoming a shepherdess and a fiber artist.

Dorothy Benedict (DB):   My whole life has been devoted to the care and enjoyment of animals. As a little girl I had horses and was a serious 4-H member.  My first ruminant,  (sheep and goats are ruminates ) was a little pygmy goat to keep my horse company.  I got another goat and another and soon had a small cheese operation going. I needed a bigger farm so I bought the one I live on now and had a 200 head goat cheese dairy. Evenutally, I sold the goat business to a friend who stll has it .

I was always fascinated by fiber and felting but it wasn’t until a few years after selling the goat dairy that I bought 3 Icelandic ewes to keep the pastures down. Almost immediately I  took up felting after I had a long visit with Beth Bede in Northampton , MA and her love for felting convinced me that that was the path I should take. Then I took a class at the Worcester Center for Crafts and used my own fiber.  Since then I have added many sheep to the flock!

SA:   Why did you choose to specialize in  Icelandic sheep?  What are the special properties of their wool? 

DB:  Icelandics as a breed are very hardy. They are easy keepers which means that they do not require grain feeding and live very well on pasture and good grass hay.  They are also easy lambers with few problems . They also are born with short tail so I don’t have to dock tails at birth.

Icelandic fleece is very easy to felt as well because it does not contain as much lanolin as other breeds.  Also, Icelandics come in many colors of grey, black , moorit ( brown) and white. they make a colorful flock in the pasture.

SA:  I love the natural colors — especially the moorit.  Since good fleece comes from good farming practices, tell us about your farming practices.

DB:  My practices are simple  . The sheep have access to pasture during the day but also can run into the barn if the weather changes. They even go out in the snow if it is not too deep and icy.  They are brought in every night because we do have coyote problems in Central MA.  The farm is 50 acres and is half fenced in pasture and half hay fields.  I grow some of my own hay and do not use chemical fertilizer on the fields.  My farm is not certified organic but the animals are  raised according to organic standards. Any hay which is brought in from other fields is organic as well.  The ewes lamb in the barn in lambing stalls . Moms and babies stay in their own stalls for about three days to  makes sure that they are bonded.  Icelandics are shorn twice a year becauce the long outer coat (“tog”)  can get very long and difficult to process.  I send most of my fleeces out to a mill to be cleaned and made into roving or machine spun. I also dye the roving and yarn with natural plant extracts. I have plenty of natural colored fleece as well.

I also keep two livestock guarding dogs with the sheep at all times to protect them from coyotes and other predators. I also keep a donkey with them for the same reason.

SA:  It sounds like the sheep have a good life!  You describe the wool you produce and sell as “organic” — what does that mean?

DB:  The term organic as it relates to fiber means that the animals the fiber comes from are raised to organic standards. In my case with the Icelandics that means
no grain (which could contain unwanted chemicals and additives) and hay from fields where no chemical fertilizer is used. The fleeces have none of these unwanted additives in them because as we know these things even show up in our own hair.  There are people who are extremly sensitive to these chemicals.

SA:  I know you have a deep, spiritual connection with your animals.  How does that translate into the finished pieces you produce?

DB:  I make my art as an extension of my love for my sheep . I have always wanted to integrate my animals and their products into whatever I am working on.
I always  stress that the animals and me are part of a team . People seem happy when they see my work and that makes me happy.

SA:   In terms of your fiber artistry, I know you are a felter — what felting techniques do you use?  What drew you towards felting?

DB:  I started out being a wet felter. I love that wet felting is so versital . Wet felting can be used to make clothing or art.  I have also done some nuno felting and needle felting. Felting seemed like a logical first step because it is so hands on and not mechanical. I would not describe myself as a mechanical person!  I also love that even if you lay everything out perfectly the fiber moves around a bit during the felting process. You never know exactly what you are going to get.  The movement of the fiber lends itself especially to flora, flowers and trees in my wall hangings.

SA:   I read that you’ve added weaving to your repertoire — what appealed to you about weaving?  What types of weaving are you focusing on?

DB:  I love to weave.  The weaving I love to do is Navaho and Tapestry.  I also love to paint with pastels so I love the process of making a picture . To be able to do it with my own wool is such a wonderful thing.  I have three looms:  I have a Kromski rigid heedle , a home made Navajo and a lap loom.


SA:  What is your big, audacious, fiber-filled dream?

DB:  Well, part of my dream has come true. I guess I would love to show my work at more and more art shows. My style is unconventional and seems more appropriate for art shows.  I almost made it to the navajo sheep festival last year but the wildfires out west prevented me from going to weave with the Navajos — Maybe this year!

SA:   Tell us about some of the characters (animals) at the farm.

DB:  I have so many characters at the farm it would take up a lot of space in this post!  One you would notice right away if you were at the farm, is my big ram, Pan. He is an Icelandic leader ram and is so intelligent as well as beautiful. My donkey, Melody,  is a real ham and loves to have her picture taken.

My two dogs are great. Emily is a big white
Maremma/ Karakachan and Luke is a Karakachan.  Luke was a homeless street dog in Sofia Bulgaria until last Christmas  when I brought him here to the farm. He had to learn his heritage right here.  I have recently published a book about his first year here on Amazon Kindle. The name of the book is “A Dog Can Dream”.

All of the sheep have such dear personalities . There just  isn’t enough room . I may have to write another book!

SA:  Tell us about your equipment.  What equipment do you prefer?  Why?

DB:  Well, I don’t need too much equipment for felting . But for weaving I have the Kromski rigid heedle , the Navaho and my lap loom.  Big mechanical looms sort of scare me because they look so complicated. I really love to work on my lap loom. Even though it is small I can carry it with me and weave anywhere.  I can also do almost any design on it. It is just four pieces of wood glued together but it is so easy to warp. I like to combine a
woven portion with a felted piece for interesting effect.

SA: Do you spin yarn as well? 

DB:  Yes, I do spin. I don’t spin as often as I should. I have a Ashford Kiwi with a double treadle.  I do my own spinning for my own weaving . I sell my machine spun yarn to other knitters and weavers.

SA:  Tell us about your studio/work area.

DB:  I have a couple of places where I work. I have a skirting room in the barn for cleaning fleeces. My looms are in my living room as is my spinning wheel . My felting table is in my kitchen with access to water.  So my studio is my house!

SA:   What other interests do you have beyond the farm and fiber arts?

DB:  I love to ride horses still and ride with friends.  I love movies and other art forms. I occasionally get to draw and paint.  I love to travel too and have been able to get to Europe several times.

SA:  Lastly, Dorothy:  What is your motto?

DB:  Love what you do!

SA:  Dorothy, I can tell you are living up to your motto.  It’s great to see and a true inspiration.  Your farm certainly seems like a happy place to be  for those lucky animals!

Fiber Friends, that is all for now…until the next time, I wish all the fibery best!  Arlene


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