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Farms and Fiber–a Comprehensive Unit of the Weaving Arts by Eileen

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

Student feeding alpacas at the Green Farm, Vashon Island

If you are free this weekend, consider heading over to Vashon Island to the Green Farm.  They have a herd of alpacas  (related to llamas—smaller, good for fleece) and will be shearing them Saturday, May 23rd. You can visit and learn more about the process on Saturday at Vashon Island Alpacas: 10133  SW  204th  St., Vashon, WA  98070.

The Lake and Park School—all 67 of us—boarded two coach buses on blustery morning in May and headed to the island;  one third of us spent half the day at the Green’s;  another third went to Maggi McClure’s farm  to see sheep and sheepdogs.

Children hearding sheep at Maggi’s farm.

 Yet another group moved further south to a llama farm. ( The llamas had recently moved with their owner, Kelly Hubbell from a ranch in Montana. The land on the Vashon “ranch” is much smaller than that of their former home, so  Kelly thought about downsizing her flock. But, because llamas operate as a social herd, they realized there was no way they could consider giving several members away, particularly after a llama died, and, as Kelly told us, the others took turns staying near the body until it was removed.)  At each venue, Lake and Parkers had different opportunities to participate in the care and enjoyment of the animals.  


Experimenting with making yarn from fleece.

In teaching the youngest children, I  have often given them the task of taking a piece of yarn and weaving it around a picture from a magazine,  a cut-out of a pumpkin, or a Valentine heart,  sewing card style. Good for finger dexterity. And, just as often, have taught children to take up two sticks, popsicle or found on the ground, and showed them how to weave yarn around two crossed sticks—turning the sticks each time, making  “God’s Eye”, or “Ojo de Dios” something I learned to do a long time ago at Camp Fire Day Camp. But, until this year, I have not focused on the piece of string itself. Where did it come from?

With this unit on Farms and Fiber, we have gone back to the source. Recently, in our study of rocks, we incorporated a conversation about the making of early tools—a stone, at first on its own. Later, a hammer, once that stone had leather straps attaching it to a piece of wood. When we provide our children the context in which early invention took place, we marvel at our species’s ingenuity. For all our current technological prowess, children at Lake and Park School are coming to terms in the elementary grades with a much older, but no less revolutionary technology.  

Now when we pick up that piece of string, we wonder:

Did this piece of fiber come from an animal?  A plant? 

If an animal, was it a sheep?   Since our trip to Vashon, we have broadened our thinking beyond sheep.   A llama?   Do we use llama fleece for yarn? Alpaca?  (Do humans make yarn from alpacas?  Yes, we now know.)  But, it is most likely that this piece of yarn is from a sheep.  

Working with llamas.

Who sheared the sheep?

We began the unit with a few families making it to a shearing event at Kelsey Creek Farm in April. We have been reading Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder in several literature groups. In it, we see an illustration of pioneer day shearing tools and learn of the deftness involved in the process.  We wonder about how a whole fleece can come from an animal if the animal is still alive? With Almanzo, the young protagonist of the story, we celebrate how he outwits the adult shearers—if you haven’t read it for awhile, pick up a copy just to read that chapter.

Who washed the wool?

Washing the fleece brought back from Maggi's sheep farm.

Thank you to Cara Phillips, Rees’ mother, for bringing in a big container and showing us one way of washing—just let the dirty fleece soak in the warm water with dishwashing soap. Let it soak all day.  At night, put it on a screen to dry. The next days thereafter, pick away at the debris that is in the fleece: the bits of blackberry vines and grasses, those particularly hardy seeds that like to stick onto things, Velcro fashion.

Who carded the wool?

Carding wool at the llama farm.

We have all enjoyed a classic picture book by Tomie de Paola—Charlie Needs a Cloak.  Shepherd that he is, his cloak is full of rags.  In this story, he shows us the process, step by step, of moving from shearing to finished cloak.  We see his carding combs and walk over to pick up a classroom set. Children have been figuring out how to card over the span of this unit.

We were impressed by our guest speaker Linda Strykler, a spinner and weaver. She demonstrated her skills to us the week before our trip to the farms. (Earlier, North Room children had traveled to the Rainier Senior Center to see her in action, as she instructed seniors.) Linda demonstrated how to deftly move all the fiber from one carding comb to the next.  

Learning to use the carding machine.

At the alpaca farm, children got to feed alpaca fleece into a carding machine. Manually turned, the machine moves the fleece forward, with many burrs on a cylinder untangling the fleece and turning a handful of fiber into a ‘bat”, which can be used as filler in a quilt or may be spun into yarn.

Who spun the wool into yarn?

Linda demonstrating spinning at school.

Each of the Vashon farms had an expert spinner showing us how it is done. Not easy, they say. Easier to break the yarn off than to add another section to it.  So we watch. At school, Cara shows us how to spin on a handheld device called a spindle. It is a small wheel turning in her hand and we may wonder—what came first? The potter’s wheel? The spinner’s wheel?

Some of us remember Katrina Hawking bringing in clay as we made plates featuring mythological scenes from  Ancient Greece mythology. Hawking mentioned in her presentation that the wheel was invented by the potter.  That makes us wonder even more–  What came first?  The pot or the cloth?

Using a hand-held spindel.

We look down at what we are wearing with new eyes. This piece of woven stuff that has been turned into something to wear had a whole long history before it became this item. We wonder about sources of fiber other than animals—plants!  How did people ever think of it? Taking flax and spinning it into thread.  Next we think of the miller’s daughter in the Rumpelstiltskin story. How did her father ever come up with the idea of spinning straw into gold? Did anyone ever spin straw into yarn?

We read that story and remember another—the Sleeping Beauty tale where the protagonist is injured by the spindle. Where are the spindles on the wheels we have seen? A child asks about that at the alpaca farm. The spinner tells us that the traditional wheel had a sharp metal spindle for a bobbin. There are still some around, she says, but now people have a wooden bobbin. We remember the fairy tale king’s decree to burn all the spinning wheels in the kingdom and realize that people have been spinning for a long, long time.

Who colored this yarn?

We remember Charlie picking chokeberries to dye his yarn and think of a Navajo weaver in The Goat in the Rug, who dug up yucca roots and chopped them to make color for her dye.  One day at Triangle Park, Beginning Room children watch as Maudie Johnson, a substitute teacher with a background in environmental education, shows us how to dip fleece in yellow made from the tumeric spice and red from purple cabbage. We have a different kind of success when vinegar is added. Another day, we will put fleece in boiling water colored with food coloring.  

Now we move beyond the piece of yarn going around the God’s Eye sticks and realize that what we are holding in our hand is a little loom. So, is the paper project, where strips are woven in and out;  so is the cut out pumpkin, in its own way, with yarn being woven in and out the paper punched holes.

Who will weave this yarn on a loom?

Weaving on a cardboard loom in the classroom.

Children throughout the school have been weaving on cardboard looms. Primary and Big Room children carefully designed their weavings before beginning the process of putting weft thread through the warp. Designs and finished products are on display, some with poems,inspired by the mechanics of weaving, next to them.  There is weaving, too, on paper plates, the product at the end being a round design. Large circle designs are made using a hula hoop for a loom frame.

Weaving at the Green Family Alpaca Farm.

Children wove on wooden looms at the Alpaca Farm. They took to it pressing the levers in sequence, moving the shuttle through the weft fibers, pressing levers in sequence to place one color of thread and then another into the fabric. What a step forward in technology that loom represents! We think of the story of Spider Woman, a tale from the Navajo tradition.  Her loom had no levers to help her.  Rather, she painstakingly picks up each thread and weaves it, in and out in and out. Sister to Arachne of Greek mythological tragedy, Spider Woman is warned not to weave too long. But the process of weaving becomes too engrossing for Spider Woman; she succumbs to the fate she has been warned against. An engrossing story, it was read throughout the school. Children in the Primary Room spent two days illustrating an aspect of  Spider Woman that particularly engaged their interest.

Working with parent support in the weaving room.

We have set up a workplace for fiber arts.  Parents join children for an hour or two when they can, to teach knitting, support a five year old’s embroidery, supervise twisting of fleece into yarn on a handheld spindle.

The work that has come from this unit runs deep and touches on a taproot almost as old as humanity. 

Knitting at a farm.

Knitting at school.

Hands are involved as never before–this is really learning by doing:  picking up two sticks to weave, or two sticks to knit, or one stick to turn something soft and fluffy into something long and sturdy.  Minds are engaged in pre-designing a weaving,  in continuing a pattern.  And the scope broadens.  We look at the effort before us in wonder at the universal nature of the task.  

Camille Hayward

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