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Featured Artist: Linda Atkinson of SageRidge Mill & Critters

by EBlack on February 7, 2013

Publishers Note:  This week’s Featured Artist is a true-blue farm girl; living the life she has always dreamed. Linda Atkinson is an amazing fiber artist who loves the fiber process from her fluffy,  alpaca, friends that she raises with love, to processing their beautiful fibers to create wonderful textile masterpieces. She shares with us how she fell for fiber art and how she is able to share her creations with other passionate artists.    



Spin Artiste (SA): You live on a farm full of amazing, fuzzy, animals and you have become an extremely talented fiber artist. You are living the fiber dream! Tell us how you got to this point in your fiber story. 

Linda Atkinson (LA): I get asked this all the time. I don’t really know….. hard work, determination, stubbornness, NEED?!?!

I started out working around my family, mainly the kids and their schedules. If I was going to have kids, I might as well be the one to raise them. It seemed silly to ship them off to someone else while I went to work. So I started crafting and doing bazaars.

I also have always had a weak spot for horses. My horse, Diamond, is my baby and she is why I got a barn. Then it seemed kinda lonely in that barn with only one horse, but if we were going to put something else in there they should be something I could make money with, and I didn’t have to slaughter and eat….. after looking around I settled on alpacas because I loved the fiber! I was really attracted to the lack of lanolin in the raw fiber. I was going to learn to spin…… ha ha ha, from there I learned to felt and knit, and crochet and weave and any other alternative fiber creation that I could find!

At the point where I became divorced, the need to still be available for my kids was a big deal.  At that point my hobby had to become a true source of income, so, in 2007, I got really lucky and was able to add the commercial mill equipment and the building to the ranch. This has allowed to me fuel not only my kids and their wants (within reason), but my own need to create things and be surrounded by my animals. There is nothing more soothing than to be in a barn with a gentle snow falling and animals crunching contentedly on their hay as the sun is setting!

 SA: That is a great story! Not many people would have the strength and “stick-to-it” spirit to make their dreams a reality. You have said, “my inspiration is created from the animals,” and “my magic is preserving the natural aspects of that coat while moving the fibers from the animal to the finished art I create.”  How did your inspiration from the animal develop; and in what ways do you preserve the natural aspects of the fibers?

LA: I love my animals.  Heck, I love any animal, even the ugly ones! Yes, we study the local spiders and I have even preserved even a few snakes from untimely death. The animals themselves are the inspiration to do something with what they provide for us. We provide food, shelter, and water for them and they provide something for us. We all need to learn to use what they are generously returning to us. Listen and Learn.

I like working with the fiber in as raw of a state as I can. I may take a batt of processed fiber, but before I felt it down, I throw onto it some raw locks or some cloud fiber that preserves the natural look of the fiber. Cloud from my mill means it has been washed, and fluffed and it is ready to add texture and softness to whatever it is applied to.  It tends to make my felts wild and rough looking, but that is what inspires me and I am drawn to that “messy” outside feeling. It’s like the animals are raw and messy so the felts and yarns I make shouldn’t be smooth and glossy all the time. I think that is another part of the inspiration.

When you look at a herd of alpacas, most times the owners have collected varying shades of black, brown, white, grey and fawn in their livestock. It is rare that one animal’s coloring exactly matches another. I quickly grew tired of processing my fibers in individual colors, I now have become “bold” and I throw together several fleeces of different colors or different textures. As these combinations come through the machines, the roving, yarns and felts that show up are a mixed collection of the natural herd and I think they are beautiful. A fawn felt with black swirls is much prettier than a plain fawn felt! I don’t think you can go wrong mixing the natural colors.  They always compliment each other.

 SA: Your bold move has really produced such fantastic mixes! It is always nice to see someone’s personal interpretations expressed while maintaining a raw and natural medium. Speaking of mediums, I know your favorite medium is alpaca. Can you tell me why you prefer alpaca, and what is your favorite thing to create from their coat?

LA: My favorite thing, well, that would be whatever is next!

Yes, it is true, I like to create everything I can from my alpaca fiber! When I see things in the store, I am always thinking, can I make that out of fiber?? Hmmmmm….. Well, if I tweak it like this it might just work!

For instance, I have a lamp in my house that is fiber covered. I have flowers made from fiber in a pot that is covered in felt. I have rugs, woven and felted. I have quilts. I have large throw pillows on my couch. I love converting alpaca fiber into functional things that bring my beautiful animals into my home where I can enjoy them all the time.

 SA:  What a splendid way to decorate! You have created such interesting yarns with such a variety of looks and textures. Can you tell us about your methods of spinning, both traditionally and experimentally?

LA:When I decided to learn to spin, I contacted an award winning spinner in South Dakota, ordered a wheel she recommended (an Ashford traditional) and went over for a half hour lesson. In that hour and a half (LOL) she told me I got the wrong wheel (an Ashford traveler) which she called them on and sent back, and traded me for the proper wheel to learn on. She then showed me how to long draw with sheep roving because she told me I could not learn on my alpaca rolags. 15 minutes later the lesson was over – I was a “natural”. Is there such a thing? I am not sure, but it was a great compliment from an amazing lady and it got my interest spiked enough to keep plowing forward in learning to spin. I traded her all my painstakingly hand carded rolags of alpaca for wool roving; loaded my “new” wheel and was on my way home. To say it was an overwhelming amount of information that was, is an understatement! I was, however, VERY excited to get home and set it all up again.

The first thing I did at home was card more alpaca. Then I sat down, set up my wheel, and learned to spin alpaca. I never much wanted to play with wool. I owned several dozen alpacas at the time and that was the fiber clogging up my house!

I learned a very valuable lesson: What one person considers the “best” fiber for this, or even that, varies from personality and type of expectations for the finished product. All fibers can be useful, even if it is just for insulation. However, I happen to LOVE to spin alpaca. I like to figure out the best use for the wild alpaca yarns I make.

At this point in my spinning career, I love to help maintain my live animal “pallet” that is walking around in my pastures after it is off my spinning wheels. I best see that happen with my personal version of “art yarn” which simply means I core wrap a machine spun single using single color or mixed natural colors of cloud. When the cloud fiber is wrapped around the core it allows the individual animal colors to be preserved and admired – just as if you were watching them mingle in the pasture! I see Roxie, Qris, Gracie, Gretta, Shawnee…….

SA: Thanks for sharing your trade secrets with us. You are an amazing felter and spinner. Which do you enjoy doing most, and why?

LA: Depends on my mood. Some days felting floats my boat. I am currently exploring full clothing with my felted pieces. I love the feel of wearing felt! Some rave over seamless but I admit I am drawn to fitted and lace embellishments with corset ties. This is funny because many times I am not daring enough to wear my own creations. I often wonder if making the clothes is worth it… but then someone else comes alone and that piece is perfect for them, you just have to locate the right owner for each piece created…. crazy huh?

Other days spinning is the relaxing creative outlet I need that allows me to hang around my family while still getting stuff done. Enjoying the best of both worlds so to speak.

SA: I love the bassinet you and your mother created with the alpaca mattress. What a great idea!  Can you tell us how you came up with the idea of the alpaca mattress, and what was the process in creating it? 

LA: I did not make the bassinet; that was a customer of my stuffing who did not want her infant lying on synthetic fibers as they don’t breathe as well.

However, I have been making pillows stuffed with alpaca “waste” from my machines for years. I started out using only the coarse grade fiber to make the felts and used them for pet beds and rugs. Then I had people (including myself!) who bought them to use for themselves! So I started making them out of first and the pillows are a marvelous creation, warm and comforting to relax with. This past year, my son and I expanded that idea to making a Huge double bed size roll up pad for camping on at our shows. This has been wonderful for us all the way into camping at shows in October!

SA: Wow, that bed-pad sounds like quite the project. So, next is a king size alpaca top bed mattress right? I love your quote, “Beautiful fiber comes from healthy animals.” As an animal care-taker and a fiber artist, what was it that helped you make the connection between the well-being of the animals and the quality of the fiber? And what words of wisdom would you give to other farmers who both raise their own livestock and process their coats for fiber art?  

LA: Love working with what you raise! If you love what you are working with, both in fiber and personality, you will take better care of them. Alpacas each have unique personalities like cats. They are a lot like cats.  They look at you and automatically know how long your arms are and how far they have to stay away to just barely reach the grain you are offering but not be caught in the process! Funny thing is, if they need me, they sure don’t hesitate to come find me; staring in the windows of the buildings, finding me in the pasture, coming right up the steps of the house to the door even. I like knowing that despite being standoffish towards people, I am accepted and a beneficial member of the group….. at times!

Alpacas, like any other livestock, need to be healthy; good clean water, nutritious feed (hay and grains), not fattening feed, but nutritious and space are the best ways to produce long term beautiful fiber from the animals. Alpacas look healthy when they are out deciding what they want to eat today and where they want to go today. Of course, since space was a very important issue to me when it comes to any kind of livestock, I invested heavily in land and not so heavily in creature comforts for the people on the place. It was worth it for me!

SA: You clearly were made to do what you do, Linda, and I’m sure your alpacas are thankful to have you as their caregiver. What can you tell us about your wheels and your work area?

My work area is in two places. First the messy working area. I am super blessed to have been able to put in the commercial mill and the building that holds all my big machines in 2007. I have an old 1952 Werner Swasey 12 head spinner that I only use 4 heads at a time on! It is also a cantankerous old thing that spins yarn the “Way it deems appropriate” and nothing I say is going to change the rhythm of the heads. At first I was very, very disappointed in the yarns I was producing for myself and for other people, but then I came to realize that even the yarns I was making on the machine looked more like handspun than some handspun yarns! So I have come to appreciate that machine more and more. It still scares me a little bit to fire it up though….

I, of course, also have a commercial carder and the other equipment that goes along with processing fiber. Probably my favorite item in my mill isn’t a wheel, but my progressive felting machine. Basically it just rolls the felt in the bubblewrap for me. I got it because the first thing I wanted to make with my alpaca fiber was a saddle pad for my beloved Diamond. I sent fiber here and there, but no one was making felt pads that were and inch and a half thick and I was getting frustrated with the bed felters that others had. The felts were coming back unfelted in the middles and they tore apart. So I got a progressive felter and I work very hard at making my beautiful saddle pads that are 100% alpaca fiber, mostly legs and belly fibers. It takes a whole day to make a good solid pad.

In my living room is my other work space, okay also in the dining room and part of the kitchen and maybe a little bit in one of my kids’ rooms….. but who is counting space anyway??

I have my original Ashford Traditional wheel and I still love it. I have taught many to spin on that. Recently, I jumped into the world of the Babe wheels, mainly because I was tired of banging up my beautiful Ashford wheel and I wanted something that I could haul here and there an everywhere easier. So I got a Babe Pinky and I love it for going to shows. I do have the jumbo bobbin on it, makes the art yarns easier to work with. In addition this year I added a Babe Production wheel with a Woolie Winder. How cool is that! I just love it and I am thinking that when the Yurt becomes realized down in the pasture, that we will have to get about 3 more of the production models so that the people who come to the retreats can use those to learn on instead of my Ashford, which is harder to repair.

SA: Retreats on the farm…I can see a trip to SageRidge in my future!  I first saw your beautiful work at Yarnival last year.  Tell us about the pieces that were on display at the gallery at that event.

LA: There were “Fuzzy Alpaca Balls”, yes, I understand that the label for those balls of alpaca roving are kinda suggestive, guess that is my sense of humor!  I had several yarns, one traditional machine spun, one corewrapped handspun and one that was machine spun plying two colors of a thicker and thinner yarn together. I had a shawl that was woven continuous strand on a homemade triangle loom using my corewrapped handspun yarn. A felt made from cloud fiber with a “squiggle” of roving laid down before the cloud. I have since taken several of these beautiful felts and had them quilted to fabric to make wonderful lap quilts. Lastly I had a felted hat. I love making these unique felted hats using the round knitting looms and straight roving. Then you just toss them in the washing machine to felt and you get super cool fuzzy, unique hats that are never the same twice!

Yarns on display at Yarnival, 2012

Pieces on display at Yarnival, 2012

Hat on display at Yarnival, 2012

SA: It was definitely that unique style that attracted me to your display at Yarnival. If you weren’t doing what you are doing, what other profession would you be in?

LA: I have a degree in Rangeland Ecology and Watershed Management from the University of Wyoming. If I wasn’t using that daily on my own place, I like to think that I would have found a niche in one of the Bureau of Land Management or Natural Resource Conservation Services offices. 

SA:  Farm work is so demanding; what does a day of “goofing off” or “playing hooky” consist of for you?

Ah…. Riding Diamond is always my first choice, but second I like to do things like go watch my kids’ sporting/music events or go skiing/hiking together with family.

SA: Well, Linda, it was a pleasure to chat with you and learn more about your lovely farm and  your fabulous fiber creations. Lastly, thank you again for sponsoring the current round of our Secret Stash Game.  Tell us what made you decide to get involved with being the first private label Secret Stash sponsor.

LA: I have lots of alpacas. I have people calling to place more alpacas here. Ergo, I have tons of alpaca fiber but not a lot of cash. So when I can find advertising that means I get to pay for it in fiber, well that is a bonus for me! I wish the power company would start accepting payment in the form of fiber…. Maybe someday? LOL

When I learned about your Secret Stash group where people actually created with the stuff in the box, well that seemed really neat to me. I absolutely love to see how people take my fibers and turn them into something unique and beautiful, something I would have never dreamed they could be! So it seemed natural to me to be excited to supply a whole box and see what happens from there…… I am really looking forward to seeing it!

Thank you for the opportunity to be part of such a creative community, it can get pretty isolated in Clearmont Wyoming…. Population 100 people and 200 alpacas!

SA:  Thank you, Linda!  It’s been a true pleasure working with you and getting to know you.  I hope one day to come see the farm and learn more from you in person!!

Secret Stash Game Kit #5, designed by Linda Atkinson of SageRidge Mill & Critters

So, Readers, as we discussed in this post, Linda was the sponsor and designer for the current Secret Stash Game Kit which was mailed out a couple of weeks ago.  I’m at liberty to show the kit now because most, if not all, have been received.  Check it out!  The theme of this kit is Wyoming Sunset and contains lovely dyed and natural fibers from Linda’s animals.  The game did sell out, but Linda made a couple of extra kits so if you want one, please contact Linda (her contact info can be found here).

As for the next Secret Stash Game, well, the time has come to start taking reservations.  I will give you a little hint.  This kit is called, “Ottoman Empire”.  We’ve got 22 spots available and the kits will go out in April.  If you’d like to sign up, just use the button below.  Until next time, wishing you much fiber goodness…Arlene






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