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Featured Artist: Tammy McDow of Black Sheep Goods

by EBlack on March 9, 2014

TM-BSG SelfPublisher’s Note:  Drive, passion and talent are three words that come to my mind when I think of this week’s featured artist, Tammy McDow of Black Sheep Goods.  While someone can learn the technical aspects of dyeing, carding, and spinning, determination and resilience are personality traits that you either have or you don’t.  As you are about to read, Tammy has “true grit” whose hard work has paid off!  Prepare to be inspired by Tammy.

Spin Artist (SA):  Tammy, tell us…how did you arrive where you are today in life and with fiber? 

Tammy McDow (TM): Well Arlene, I really consider myself a late bloomer in the fiber arts world, because I had never so much as picked up a knitting needle until I was in my late 30’s. Nobody in my family knitted or crocheted, so I wasn’t introduced to it until I found my own way there.  I’ve lived with chronic pain for most of my life, but eventually a few too many injuries (spinal cord, hip, closed head injury plus neurological damage) and more debilitating pain forced me to retire from the workforce before I even hit 40 years of age. TM-BSG purple fiber Truth be told, I went from being crazy busy, working all day every day, always on the go type of person to having life practically come to a standstill, to the point I could barely bathe myself without tremendous difficulty. The first few years off work were very difficult, because I was quite incapacitated and not able to do much at all. Slowly but surely, after years of doctor and specialist visits, a lot of physical therapy, a few diagnoses and a boatload of medication later, I was able to get to a point where I could function independently albeit slowly. I will never be the same person, nor able to do half the things I could do before (in what I call ‘my previous life’) but thankfully I am still here, and with the right medication I’m able to function and have been slowly learning how to fill my time without overdoing it (some days it’s a struggle to maintain that balance, but I’m trying).

 TM-BSG Purple YarnWith so much time on my hands, I had to fill it with something that was not only interesting and enjoyable, but also something that I could do at my leisure, because living with chronic pain doesn’t allow me to keep a schedule. I also needed a way to supplement my disability income, and since my dog would rather sleep than work for a living, it was up to me to ‘bring home the bacon’ so to speak.  That’s when Tammy, the fiber artist was born.
In the first couple of years, I taught myself to knit, then crochet, and then it was just a natural progression to want to spin my own yarn, then to dyeing my own fiber, and then I went crazy and purchased more fleece than I could possibly process in several years before I told myself to slow down! One step at a time, I have to keep reminding myself I can’t do it all in one day.
TM-BSG Blue and Brown Mix 2SA: Wow, you have been on quite a journey! You should be proud of your amazing story. You mentioned you are the only fiber artist in your family. What does your family think of the path you have chosen?
TM: That’s right. Although there are plenty of crafty types in the family, none of them are involved in fiber arts. For example, my mother used to make specialty cakes for several years until she got involved with leather work, and in her years doing that she created many beautiful things from belts and wallets to beautiful portraits tooled in leather. My grandmother (may she RIP) used to sew in her spare time and liked making quilts and throws. My son (now 23) is developing his talents as a sketch artist and has created some lovely portraits with charcoal and ink. He is also showing interest in learning about fiber arts, so we may have a future fiber artist in him as well.
TM- BSG Rose rovingMost of my family live pretty far away, so they don’t really know a lot about what I do other than “make yarn.” My mother was able to come for a few days last year to visit, and she was completely enthralled with the whole process of dyeing and spinning yarn. If she lived closer, I’m sure she’d be here nearly every day watching and learning the ins and outs of fiber processing. She was completely mesmerized by it all.
SA:  With you being the fiber artist pioneer of the family, who has been your fiber mentor?
TM: Because I’m self-taught, I spent the first year spinning with no instruction, no mentors, all just trial and error. Not being able to get out easily prevented me from joining a guild, so meeting other spinners didn’t happen for a long time. Once I started meeting others online through social media, I found a wonderful mentor in Ilga Jansons of Edgewood Garden Studio.  TM-BSG Rainbow Yarn 1I found her in my early months as a spinner, and as a newbie I had a lot of questions.  I’ve generally been the type to figure things out on my own, but if I needed her expertise, she was there to help. She gave me many helpful tips that helped me to improve my spinning and get me started with dyeing, things I likely wouldn’t have learned or done until years from now.  I’m lucky to have met her when I did, and very grateful for that.
My true love is traditional style spinning, but more recently I’ve been following the work of not-so-traditional spinners.  Ashley Martineau, Esther Rodgers, Sayra Adams, Susan Anderson,Jacey Boggs, just to name a few, are all inspiring me to get a little bolder and more colorful with some of my yarns. There are so many great yarns just waiting to be created, and with so many wonderful fiber artists out there I’m learning a little something from all of them. I’m excited about my fiber future!
TM-BSG Blue and Red RovingSA: You once said, “sometimes one door must close before another one can open. I am in total agreement with that statement.” What does that mean to you and your art?
TM: For most of my adult life I was caught up in a busy, fast paced lifestyle, going a hundred miles an hour every day all day. I didn’t know how to relax, and certainly didn’t have time to stop and appreciate the little things in life. Being a single parent, I was always busy working my butt off to keep a roof over our heads and put food on the table. What I wanted didn’t matter, it was all about my son and what I needed to do for him. TM-BSG Rainbow Yarn LineOnce my son was grown and moved out, I still didn’t slow down because I honestly didn’t know how. Over the years I’d had a few significant injuries but kept on pushing through no matter how much pain I was in, because I don’t give up easily (either that or I’m just plain hard-headed). I didn’t have time to be sick, or injured, because if I didn’t work I couldn’t pay the bills, and if I didn’t pay the bills I would be homeless.  Eventually it just wore me down, and I started feeling the pain getting worse and worse, and I couldn’t seem to do the things I always did without great difficulty.  Eventually my body just gave out and said “enough.”  Once my health had taken a turn,TM-BSG Brown and Black yarn I was forced to slow down.  I had to learn to accept that what once was my life was no longer, and although I can still do some of the things that I could before, it takes me much longer to accomplish now due to pain and fatigue. It has been a long road of acceptance and learning to live with limitations. What’s ironic, now that my life has slowed down and I’m able to take the time to really enjoy what I’m doing, is that time is just flying right by. It seems like I just started down this path a few short months ago, when in fact it’s been several years already. Time really does fly when you’re having fun! The truth is, I don’t believe I would have ever found fiber arts without being forced to slow down my life.  So for that I am very grateful. :)
SA: You care for your fiber every step of the way. What is your favorite step in the fiber process (carding, dyeing, spinning, knitting)? 
TM: That’s hard to say.  I love seeing a really dirty fleece come sparkling clean after a good scouring. I love watching colors blend together in the dye pots and on my carder. I seem to spend most of my time spinning though (probably because it’s the least physically taxing for me), so that’s my favorite from a physical standpoint, not to mention it’s also a great way to de-stress. But physical limitations aside, I really love dyeing, more specifically hand-painting, because it allows me to express myself through color.
TM-BSG Multi-Color Fiber StackSA: Speaking of expressing yourself through dyeing, your fiber colors are all over the map, in a good way! You seem to have both mild/traditional and crazy/bright colored yarns. How do you decide which way you are going to color when you sit down to dye?   
TM: It really depends on how I’m feeling emotionally and physically, and trust me that’s all over the map too! Some days the colors are harmonious and mesh well with one another, and other days they can be quite loud and opposing. I personally like the more harmonious color combinations, but as time goes on I’m learning to appreciate the colorful days too, as they’re all part of my own personal journey. I’ve always been the type of person to keep everything inside, and what’s truly beautiful to me about this process is that now I have this creative outlet and I’m beginning to express myself through my work, and as a result it’s allowing me to be more colorfully creative. Each piece is a reflection of my own journey to find peace with myself.
TM-BSG Studio 1SA: It is a pleasure to witness your journey through your art. How would you describe your studio?
TM: My house is my studio… well, it seems like it sometimes. It’s a work in progress and is slowly evolving over time as the business grows. I ended up moving my dining table into the kitchen and converted my dining room into a makeshift studio.  In my ‘studio’ I’ve set up another table for multipurpose use. Usually it holds most of my dyes with room for hand painting one or two rovings at a time. When I’m not dyeing, those things get stored away and the table is used for other things. I have set up a small carding station against one wall, with drawers underneath for supplies. I’ve put shelving units in two of the four corners, and they hold dyed fibers, locks, and other supplies. Stackable plastic bins hold more dyed fibers and locks. A large L-shaped desk in another corner houses my laptop, office supplies, printer, and a ball winder for making center-pull skeins. And of course my wheels have their space as well, when they’re not in use (which isn’t often–I tend to spin several hours a day every day).
TM-BSG Studio 3Everything gets washed, rinsed, and steamed in my kitchen, fibers lay out to dry throughout the house when the weather prevents drying outdoors, and yarns get hung to dry from a large dowel up above the triple patio doors.  The basement is full of fleeces waiting to be scoured, and I have a spare room where I store the majority of my clean undyed fiber, as well as bins full of finished product that are looking for new homes. My fiber addiction has really overtaken the entire house; in fact, it’s not uncommon for me to find fibers almost everywhere, even on my pillow (especially angelina, that stuff gets into everything)! But it works for me, and that’s what’s important.
TM-BSG Wheel LendrumSA: Which is your favorite go-to wheel?
TM: That would be my original wheel, my Lendrum ST. I love that I can spin anything from fine lace to bulky, and when I need some mindless spinning to relax or de-stress, I tend to use the Lendrum to spin my go-to yarn which tends most often to be fingering weight. I do love my Cowichan-style wheel because it’s similar to an Ashford Country spinner. The bobbin holds well over two pounds of yarn so I use that wheel when creating super thick bulky yarns, core spun yarns, supercoils, cabled yarns, etc. But 90% of the time, it’s my Lendrum that gets a workout.
TM-BSG Christmas ColorsSA: What do you hope for in your business and art this year?
TM: I do want to buy a loom and take up weaving someday, but that’s still a ways off yet. My goal for this year is to introduce some new product to my shop. I’ve just recently started listing some hand painted combed top, and I want to add more of a variety of spinning goodies. I’m thinking hand dyed locks and hand painted silk are next on the agenda, and after that, who knows? I want my shop to be reflective of who I am as an artist, so it will grow in time as I do. Slow and steady, just like me. 😉
TM-BSG Black w: Colors MixSA:  I know you have had many ups and down with your health over the years; how has fiber art helped bring you healing during your convalescence?
TM: Besides being a great way to express myself through color and texture, I am also able to do what I believe I was meant to do all along, I just hadn’t slowed down enough to realize it before. Spinning brings me peace and comfort, and dyeing gives me joy and satisfaction. Only when you slow down can you really appreciate all the beautiful things that life has to offer, what the important things in life really are, and how short life is. It’s given me a new appreciation for every single day I get to wake up and participate in my own life, and that’s a wonderful thing.
TM-BSG Yarn PileSA: That is a wonderful thing. Life is too short to not pursue our dreams. What has been your favorite part of starting up your own business?
TM: Taking health issues into consideration, starting my own business has allowed me the freedom to create my own schedule according to how I feel on any given day. I tire easily, so making my own hours allows me to do what I can when I can, and I can stop and rest when I need to. I also love the fact that I can be creative without limits. I’ve worked at jobs doing plenty of other creative things, like graphic design and magazine layout for example, but there were always limits on what I was allowed to create. And it was always someone else’s vision. With fiber arts, it’s my design… my vision, and my only limit is my imagination.
SA: Tammy, it has been a joy learning more about you and your approach to fiber Before we part, one last question. What is your favorite vacation spot?
TM: Honestly, I tend to stick pretty close to home these days. In my ‘past life’ I’d never really been on a vacation, unless you consider camping a vacation. I’ve always loved to go camping… and I don’t mean fancy RVs or anything like that. TM-BSG BSGlogoI’m talking dirt, grass, trees, water; being outdoors with nature, sleeping in tents and cooking over a fire. Skinny dipping after dark. Gosh, those were the days! Of course I can’t do that anymore, but someday I’ll have something even better: Picture a little wood cabin on the lake, with a covered porch, a comfy chair, a spinning wheel in front of me, with fiber on one side of me and a cup of hot tea on the other. Dog at my feet.  Now that is the life… :)
SA:  Thank you again, Tammy!  You have inspired me with your story and I know many others reading this will feel the same.
Readers, this was a double blot post week for me…you can read my other post over at www.fiberygoodness.com where Wool Wench and I had the “Great Thick and Thin Debate” this week.  Enjoy!

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