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Featured Artist: Kathy Withers from Unique Designs by Kathy with Yummy Fiber Giveaway!

by EBlack on July 26, 2013


KW-UDBK Self 1 Publishers Note: The “snowball effect” is a powerful thing. What starts off as something small can quickly turn into something sizable,  then huge, then out of this world! For fiber artist Kathy Withers from Unique Designs by Kathy, her fiber journey has been defined by the “snowball effect.” What started off as a casual hobby turned into a growing trade and masterful skill. What was just a passing suggestion by a veterinarian became a flourishing farm full of all sorts of fiber animals. Kathy is a talented artist  who can’t seem to get enough of fiber, and she is continuing her personal growth by teaching and enabling others to start their own snowball. Kathy is returning again this year to one of our wonderful Spin Quest vendors.  It is a pleasure to have this interview and catch a ride with this growing artist.   

Spin Artiste (SA): What has been your fiber journey?

Kathy Withers (KW): My true fiber journey started when my veterinarian suggested that I look at raising a fiber animal – in particular alpacas – because she knew that I was a weaver and knitter.

Over the years I have cross stitched (last project was a scene that I scanned into the computer which had 64,000 plus stitches), knitted, crocheted, wet and nuno felted, woven, pin woven, macramé, machine sewn, and quilted. I started spinning about 10 years ago, when I wanted to buy fiber animals because my husband insisted that I be able to do something with the fiber before I could buy any. He was a wise man, because many people, who have bought animals from me over the years, have since given up, because they could not get the animals to pay for themselves.

I have ADD and get bored easily, so I am always looking for something new to try. Free-form knit and crochet has fascinated me because it gives me a chance to make pieces randomly and then put them together like a jigsaw puzzle afterwards.KW-UDBK Farm snow I am not tied to a design and I don’t have to work to a gauge which I find terribly tedious. I have many unfinished projects because, once I know how something works or how it will look, I am bored and move on to something else. What I love about spinning is the ability to mix and match fibers to create a look. I don’t worry about scientific and mathematical things like ratios and twists per inch. My hands instinctively settle on a certain size and look for a fiber. If the color turns out ugly, there is a dye pot and I can change it in minutes.

I have become more of a rebel as I have gotten older, so I like to push the boundaries.

SA: I think your rebellious streak appeals to a lot of us that produce highly expressive and textured styled yarns and pieces. You once described yourself as a “fiber player for years and now officially a fiber artist addict”. How would you describe that transition into fiber art fanaticism?

KW: I learned to knit from a friend in Germany, shortly after I got out of the Army. I felt a need to justify my existence. A few years later I taught myself to crochet and then took a weaving class in Kansas. I started designing sweaters and dresses for my daughter and then sweaters for my son. Most looked fairly traditional, but they always had a twist that could not be found in commercially made clothes. I was doing all of this to kill time while I waited for my kids who were taking sport, music and other lessons. As I started receiving compliments on my designs, I became even more willing to experiment. I did not consider myself an artist until I had been in business five years.KW-UDBK Hanging Art Yarn I figured I was just playing around and doing variations on a theme. I published my first pattern with encouragement from a friend because, while I was spinning lovely yarns – very traditional but with unusual color variations, no one really knew what to do with them. Now I have over 35 patterns that range from beginner to advanced. I do sell a lot of my models, so the patterns have to be able to stand on their own. I consider myself a fiber addict because my whole day revolves around fiber in some way. I have a red bank barn which has my shop and then 3000 square feet of room for washing, drying, carding, weaving and teaching. I have an unbelievable stash of fiber in all stages – from raw to carded and spun which causes visitors to gasp. I go from feeding the fiber animals in the morning and checking out their fiber to playing with some color combination on the carder to spinning it and then sometimes creating a finished project. I even dream of projects – most of which never get started because of time constraints. My friends say that I have passed beyond addiction to an obsession. I think they might be right!

SA: I think true fiber immersion suits you! I love the directness your business name, “Unique Designs by Kathy.” Tell us, what makes your designs so unique?

KW: My goal is to inspire others to stop and look. I have done about 50 shows on the east and west coast – most of them art, a few for yarn enthusiasts. KW-UDBK Colorful Open Sweater From my customers I have learned that my work is unique because my color sense is different. I have been compared to a Monet or impressionistic artist because my yarns are not space dyed. The fibers are dyed in individual batches and sometimes with different colors layered in the dye pot. I select colors that I think will go well together and card them randomly. I have developed a special technique for layering them on the carder, so they will not cause stripes. I get bored easily, so I really enjoy the variation of colors as they slide through my hands. No two skeins of yarn are the same unless I card them at the same time. I am fascinated with how the same batt/roving can appear so differently depending on the art yarn technique that I select. I admit that I see a lot of my yarns as unique designs because I sell an lot of the yarns to be worn around the neck as is or wrapped to create a cowl look. But, I also knit, crochet, and weave with my yarns because I need to know what will happen when other fiber artists come along and want to use them. I have learned that you can use a color twice in a project and it will usually work because our eyes see it connecting, so it is no longer discordant. I have done a lot of free-form knit and crochet. I took Prudence Mapstone’s five day class in Phoenix where I learned that you can break the rules, if you have the courage. I was fascinated by the process, but aggravated by all of the ends to be woven in. A long time ago, I took Lexi Boegger’s art yarn class and realized that the quality of the fiber is just as important as the look. If it does not feel good, people will not buy it. On my way home, I came up with the idea for my “Hidden Treasures” yarn. I figured out a way to have some of every kind of novelty technique used in one skein of yarn – free-form with no ends to weave in!

SA: I know you have experience running in both a brick and mortar storefront and an Etsy shop. What has your experience been managing both these forms of retail for a fiber business?

KW-UDBK Blue and White Art Yarn KW: Most of my business on the west coast was in my shop in Tucson. The town is a destination point and fiber artists came to visit the animals and find something unusual to take home. I did a lot of teaching and demonstrating. I have a huge variety of yarns, rovings, batts, and patterns. It is impressive for someone used to a retail store to find an explosion of color and not rows of fibers sorted by color or style. My online shops give people a small taste of what I actually carry in my shop here in Woodbine, Maryland. Photographing yarns to list online is time consuming and usually sell to someone who has met me before.  The primary reason that it’s not as effective is that fiber artists want to feel the fiber and experience the color. Patterns sell very well on Etsy and Ravelry. Maybe it is because they are less expensive and less of a commitment.  My finished goods rarely sell online because they are one of a kind and need to be experienced in person. They are designed to fit everyone.

In addition to the shop on the farm and online sales, I do one to two shows a month. That is where I make my contacts, get inspiration and make most of my sales now. People are hesitant about driving out to a farm until they know you well. They are afraid of getting in the way, when I actually love their visits, because their enjoyment encourages me. I do sometimes put visitors to work holding the head of an animal, so I can help out a mom or baby. Being able to participate in the farm life has caused some visitors to go out and buy their own farm. So, visitors beware!

SA:  I sense a classic or old world style to your work; how has the history of our art form inspired your work?

KW: As a child, my father was assigned to Aviano AFB in Italy. Due to the expense of civilian children attending the military schools, all of my siblings and I were tutored in Italian one summer and then we attended a private Catholic school. They have a very different approach to education. Their art classes were serious, although I did not know that at the time. KW-UDBK Gray Shawl My parents were really great about touring the Italy, as well as the rest of Europe. There were seven of us kids and they did not think twice about hauling us to cathedrals, castles, art museums, etc. I have seen a lot of the Old Masters’ painting in real life and seen a reverence for color. When my yarns were described so often as “Monet”, I finally took the time to read up on him and learned a lot about Impressionism. I do feel like it describes my use of color, since my yarns are random dashes of colors. The felted landscapes are complete batts that have been carded in colors that create the look of a certain sky or grass, or mountains. If you look closely at nature, you will see that things in nature are not a solid color, but are made up of minute amounts of color that all add up to an “impression.”

SA: Great observation.  You have described yourself as “an experimenter”. What has been your greatest fiber experiment?

KW: My first instinct is to answer color and impressionism but, in reality, my biggest fiber experiment was to take all of the fiber techniques and textures that I knew and throw them into one yarn. My “Hidden Treasures” do not just happen. I have learned that you cannot abruptly change colors in the sequence without getting a feeling that it is gaudy. Some colors can overwhelm the whole skein, so they must be used sparingly. Some textures are much heavier than others and can hide the finer aspects of the yarn. Some doodads – in particular larger beads – are fun to use, but can be overpowering. These yarns are pricey and it was a gamble whether or not they would sell. I have realized that it takes an artist to see and value them. They have become a hit, because a beginning knitter or crocheter can easily create a work of art.

KW-UDBK Sheep eating SA: Sounds great! I’m not surprised they have become so popular. I know you raise quite a variety of fiber producing livestock. What motivated you to start a farm, and what has your experience been like?

KW: My first fiber animals were angora goats. I fell in love with their small size and curls at the Arizona State Fair. The breeder that I bought my first goats from in Arizona has become one of my best friends. He was willing to take calls, answer questions and then hop in a truck to come help out with emergencies. Veterinarians are rarely available when you need one. I have tried to be that kind of breeder for people who buy animals from me.

Of course, mohair is lovely, but it restricts you to projects that require no elasticity. That was my excuse for buying a few sheep. I started with Border Leicester and slowly shifted to Shetlands. The Border Leicester fleeces are more appropriate for rugs and outer wear and I wanted next to the skin fiber. My angora goat friend started giving me his bottle baby Rambouillets, but over time they became too big for me to handle. Most of them weighed 250 pounds and did some real damage on my pens. This same friend suggested that I try out Merinos. He had a friend in California, Terry Mendenhall (she attends the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival) who has stupendous Merinos. I bought a few to try and now buy two more every year. I currently have 14 counting the ones born here at the farm.

Now, if I were asked to downsize, I would keep the white angora goats, a few colored angora goats and the Merinos. They are the friendliest of the breeds that I own and they have the finest fibers. Blended together, I get the best of both – elasticity from the Merino wool and the lustrous sheen from  mohair.KW-UDBK In the trailer

Moving to Maryland from Arizona was a big shock for both me and the animals. I was thinking how great the green grass was and how nice it would be for them to have pasture and not be so hot. Little did I know how quickly little things in the grass called parasites could kill and how quickly the goats could succumb to pneumonia. Arizona had neither of these issues. Last year, my first here, I lost 20 kids. Usually I would lose a few because the moms did not have the strength to push the babies out or the kids were turned the wrong way and the goat would not let me help till too late. This year I am happy to say that we have all settled in. We all hate the rain and cold, but they have a lovely barn that we have modified to accommodate sheep and goats and I am investing in cold weather clothes and boots. The angora goats are the trickiest and I am thrilled to say that every kid was born alive and has survived. I have lost a few lambs that I could not have saved, so the grass does look greener now. My husband has gotten a lot more supportive – which is a good thing, since we have 150 animals to bring into the barn and treat to control parasite issues every month. We have learned that the Famancha method is not very precise and we have invested in a microscope and centrifuge so we can check parasite levels for ourselves.

SA: Speaking of methods, how has owning your own farm affected your method and/or inspiration when creating yarn or designing a piece?

KW: Since I have a huge stash of different fibers to choose from with different levels of fineness/coarseness, I can dye as many colors as I want and experiment with shades of color and combinations of fiber from different animals. I always cringe when someone comes in and is afraid to experiment because they might “ruin” something. I do know that there is a cost to having materials, but if you are afraid to use them, what good are they? I can tell by look, and not need to even feel, how some fibers will behave.KW-UDBK Felt Art I know how they will behave when combined and which natural colors will go well together. I rarely spin a yarn that is all one fiber or color. Mohair and Merino will give you a varied texture, if you do not over card them. When washed, the mohair will remain the same size as spun, while the Merino will double in size. I rarely use stockinette because it makes handspun yarn look cheap. I prefer next to the skin yarn, but discovered that 32 inch long size 35 mm needles will allow me to use up the coarse hair/wool of mothers who give me the best babies. It justifies my keeping them for future breeding. One of my best pieces is a southwestern knitted landscape in a Monet style that used 3.25 pounds of rug yarn. I already have a second one in eastern colors almost finished.

SA: I totally agree with your idea of fear. Your fearless methods of creativity have produced some amazing pieces, and I’m sure your students are thankful for your fearless freedom in the “classroom.” What wheel are you currently working on?

KW: My favorite wheels are the Majacraft. I have a Rose which always stays home and a Little Gem II that is my preference and goes with me everywhere. I am a dealer for the Majacraft wheels because I consider them to be the Cadillac of spinning wheels. I have a jumbo bobbin on both and I spin to the Little Gem and ply to the Rose. I have to have two wheels in order to create the “Hidden Treasure” yarns.

SA: What can you tell us about your studio? KW-UDBK Blue Stars

KW: My studio overlooks my pastures, so I can watch the animals all day long. It gets tidied up whenever I have a spinning or knitting class. My main stash of fiber is down in the bank barn. When it is cold, I usually keep bringing more to the house. My husband won’t let me spread my projects all over the house, so I have my current one on the dining room table and all the rest is in the studio. It is an explosion of color and usually a mess!

SA:  I have read that you do not make duplicates of any yarn or finished piece. You say you are “an artist, not a scientist” Do you think this should be the philosophy of all artists or would you call this your personal philosophy?

What follows is my personal opinion and should be read as such. I break artists into two categories: left brained and right brained. Both are creative, but they have different approaches. People who are really tied to rules and love the mechanics of design are left brained and a lot more scientific. Those who approach it from a “let’s see what will happen” are more right brained and less scientific. The left brained person will dye fiber using very specific measurements. The first time might be considered artistic, but repeated use of the same color combination verges on craft. The artist is always pushing the envelope and has no interest in repeating the same color combination. People who are space dyeing are not really creating art, they are creating colorways.

KW-UDBK Red Scarf SA: That is a very insightful definition.  What has your experience been teaching spinning classes and workshops?

KW: I like to see the “aha” moment when people figure out how to do something. It can be spinning coils, drop spindling, free-form knit and crochet, or crazy lace. I can teach everything that I do. I got an undergraduate degree in Spanish and English and then a Masters in Human Resources Management. If nothing else, they taught me to recognize when I have gotten boring, on my soap box, or lost them!

SA: Your classes sound like so much fun. What has been your favorite class to teach?

KW: It is hard to choose one thing. My free-form art yarn class is always a lot of fun, but I think the class that was most exhilarating for me was the one where I got a group of women, who were bound and determined to have me finish writing a crazy lace pattern, to say at the end of the class that they did not need my pattern. They could do it on their own. They were nurses, doctors and engineers who challenged me to be logical in my approach to a subject. They “got it” and were freed from patterns forever.

SA: I’m sure that was a proud moment for you as a teacher. Ok, finish this sentence: “Without fiber I would be ….” 

KW: Suicidal!

SA: Well, if you put it that way… don’t EVER stop doing fiber art! What was the best gift you have ever received?KW-UDBK Fiber in Basket

KW: From Prudence Mapstone: The knowledge that I do not have to be like everyone else; that not everyone has to like what I do, nor do I have to like their work!

SA:  Kathy, thank you so much!  I hope we can find a good weekend for me to come to the farm to see all of this in person.  In the meantime, I am very much looking forward to seeing you again next month at Spin Quest on August 24th in Front Royal, Va.  Readers, if you live within a reasonable driving distance, I hope you will be joining us.  There are still some spots and we have Christiane Knight of Three Ravens teaching a beginner’s track, so there is something for everyone. 

Now, we come to some fiber fun!   After hearing about all of Kathy’s fabulous fiber, you are probably wanting some.  Kathy has generously put together all of this for one of you:

UDBK Giveaway

I have had the pleasure of working with her fiber and I can assure you, one of you is very lucky!  To enter this giveaway, please post a comment below letting us know what you have in mind to create with this fibery treasure chest.  Deadline for entries is next Sunday, August 4th, 5 PM EST.  Additional entries for sharing on Facebook, Twitter, etc.  Just leave an additional comment letting us know that you did.  Best of luck to all!

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