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Featured Artist: Lisa Westra of Feederbrook Farm

by The SpinArtiste on August 24, 2011

Publisher’s Notes:  I am sure Lisa does not remember meeting me the first time, but I remember it clearly — it was at a harvest festival at a CSA farm two years ago.  Amongst the cheese and flower sellers, she was sitting in a pretty dress, quietly spinning with a basket full of yarn and a stack of brochures.   I found out about the fiber CSA she was making available the next January which interested me and we chatted briefly.  I took the brochure and mentally made the “someday” note about the fiber CSA in my mind.

Months later, I pulled out the brochure and took a look at the Feederbrook farm website and found out that Lisa had a lot more than the CSA going on!  There were yarns to buy and classes to take too — including a cheese-making class.  Coincidentally, a friend was turning 40 and one of her deep desires was to learn to make cheese so I put it together and had Lisa come to my house to teach us how to make cheese.  As a further aside, I confess we were a bad bunch of students…it was a Sunday afternoon and halfway through I made the mistake of offering to open a bottle of wine…we were not good students after that but Lisa was a patient and understanding teacher nonetheless.

I have subsequently become a fiber CSA member of Feederbrook Farm and this year I’m involved with the 1 year Adopt a Sheep program which is a tremendous experience.  The fee pays for the care of the sheep for the year and each month, Lisa has an education session regarding raising sheep.  The fleece from the sheep is also included.  I picked mine up last week and it is gorgeous!

I have wanted to feature Lisa on this site since the site’s launch but had to wait for her life to calm down a little — Lisa just had a healthy baby boy earlier this summer!  Now, without further ado, I present the Spin Artiste interview with Lisa Westra.

Spin Artiste (SA):  At last!  I’m so excited to share your story with the fiber community…Lisa, let’s start out with describing your journey thus far.

Lisa Westra (LW):  My family has owned Feederbrook Farm since 1971.  Amongst the buildings on the property is a tenant house whose tenants had 20 sheep.  When the tenants left, they left the sheep behind.  We had no experience in raising sheep but decided to keep them.  Of course, we figured out the sheep needed to be shorn and then we had bags of fiber.  Jokingly, I said I should learn to spin.  Then, for Christmas that year, I received a Louet spinning wheel and things progressed from there.

SA:  So, what did you do next?  How did you learn to spin and who taught you?

LW:  I am completely self-taught through trial and error.  I believe that has made me a good teacher because I have made all the mistakes!

SA:  One thing I’ve noticed is that your singles are incredibly well-balanced.  I’ve bought some of those yarns and used them in projects.  Not only are the colors that you dye beautiful but the singles are very high quality.  What’s your secret?

LW:  Fiber prep is everything!  When I switched over to having my fiber mill processed, I could get much smoother yarn.  At first I did wash and card my fleeces, but now I’m dealing with about 500 pounds of fleece per year (and spin about half of that), so sending it out is much more practical.

SA:  You mentioned that you started with a Louet.  What do you spin on now?

LW:  I spin on a Kromski.  I find them to be affordable, offer a variety of styles…and pretty.  Also, here is another tip:  once I switched over to the Saxony style, I found I could spin a lot thinner!  I subsequently have become a Kromski dealer, too.

SA:  Let’s talk about where you practice your fiber arts at the farm.

LW:  I’m all over the place right now — my spinning wheel is in the living room, I’ve got fleeces and dye samples on the back porch, and of course I dye in the kitchen.  In the summer, I work a lot on the back porch.  We are building a new house on the property which will allow me to consolidate my activities.  I am especially looking forward to the “mad scientist lab” area that I’m planning for the basement.

SA:  I can’t wait to see that!  Since you are doing everything from producing your own fiber to dyeing, then onto spinning, which of these activities are you most passionate about?

LW:  I’m most passionate about my sheep.  Being with them is calming and meditative for me.  I always wear skirts, even when I’m mowing, and they know me because of my skirts.  In fact, when I was pregnant this spring and switched over to wearing pants, they were confused at first!  I’ve also learned how to be with them.  If I acquire a new sheep that has been known to be jumpy and skittish, I find that if I spend a lot of time with that sheep, the animal will become much calmer.  I hope to always have a flock to tend, even if it’s a very small one when I’m an old lady.

In addition to loving the sheep, I very much enjoy hand-painting and blending color and spinning.

SA:  I have to say, I stand back in amazement when I look at everything you manage to accomplish and the many roles you fulfill.  How do you balance everything — wife, mother, shepherdess, fiber artist, teacher?

LW:  (laughs) My daughter helps with feeding the animals and skirting the fleeces.  I have some help with the kids which allows me to do things like dyeing.  Yes, it’s a lot, but I can’t imagine not doing what I’m doing.  It’s who I am.

SA:  What’s on the horizon for you, the farm and your fiber arts in the future?

LW:  As a professionally trained teacher, I love teaching both kids and adults and so I will continue to develop the education programs at the farm I have started.  Each new show I attend, I develop a new product or yarn line so right now I’m getting ready for the New York State Festival in Rhinebeck, NY in October.

I’m always thinking about changes to my breeding program such as introducing new colors.  In addition, I’m working with Greener Shades dyes now and developing some products out of that relationship.

In two to three years, I’m planning on being able to offer a retreat, perhaps at lambing time, where the farmhouse would offer a bed and breakfast.  Also, I’m working on offering a wider variety of products including locally milled and spun yarns in a co-op style arrangement.  I’m going to be bulking up on the CSA programs.

SA:  I love all of those ideas!  How did you go from teaching yourself to being able to conceive and launch the types of ideas you just described?

LW:  In a strange twist of events, at one point when I was producing a little fleece and making about 10 skeins of yarn, I ended up being able to invest some money back into the farm and was able to take the leap of scaling the farm up to being able to produce 250 skeins.  It was very challenging at the time, but in the end, it ended up being the opportunity I needed to be able to take a big step forward.

SA:  What is your underlying philosophy that is part of everything that you are doing?

LW:  For me, it’s all about integrity — I’m very particular about quality which extends throughout all of my endeavors.  That came from my father, who was my hero and who taught me that “Your reputation is the only thing you have”.

Also, with each change I make to the farm, I’m working towards a model of sustainability — the solar panels on the barn, for example, are providing 50% of our electricity now.

SA:  That is how I would describe you to someone as well.  I know when I buy from you whether it’s yarn, fiber or a class, if it’s not right for me, you will tell me.  You learned well from your father’s words.

Now, switching to non-fiber things — tell us what your favorite guilty pleasure is.

LW:  Every once in awhile, I’m able to sit on the bench swing and read with a glass of wine…but if I can’t do that, then, I’m pretty happy with a bowl of Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream!

SA:  Great choices!  And, tell us something about yourself we would be surprised to know.

LW:  Let’s see, I’ve already alluded to the fact that I always wear skirts. I also can play the fiddle and some flamenco guitar.

I’d like to ride a camel, own a yak and wanted to learn how to tile parts of the new house although I don’t think time will permit.  Oh, and for awhile, I was a bill collector, but I was horrible…as soon as someone told me they were raising animals, I couldn’t press them for payment!

SA:  Thank you so much, Lisa!  It was wonderful getting to know more about you and why you are doing what you are doing.  We look forward to updates — especially when you have the retreat program in place!!

So, fiber-pals, if you see Lisa at Rhinebeck, stop by and say hello!

That wraps things up for me at the moment.  I’ve got some great interviews lined up over the next month or so, but in the meantime, next week I’m making the trek from the East coast to the West coast for the Grand Opening of Pluckyfluff Headquarters!  It’s shaping up to be a very exciting weekend — the Giant Skein will be in attendance, there’s a fiber festival on Friday and then a two day workshop with Lexi Boeger.  I hope to see you there if you are going!!

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