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From Sheep to Shawls: Spinning with Martha Owen

Raising sheep, spinning yarn, playing banjo—Martha Owen is a multitalended craftsperson and instructor from the John C. Campbell Folk School. We're thrilled to welcome her this April to teach two spinning courses!

Posted on January 18, 2024

Tell us a little bit about yourself—how did you get started as a fiber artist? 

I'm a resident artist at the John C Campbell Folkschool in Brasstown, NC, specializing in spinning, knitting, felt making, dyeing, and surface design. My adventure in spinning and natural dyeing began there in 1978, and I've been teaching spinning, natural dyeing, and knitting design since 1984. 

Since 1980 my extended family has included sheep (currently Corriedale x BFL, Shetland) and angora rabbits (French). I'm also a banjo player and am known to tell a story or two! 

Tell us more about your passion for sheep and spinning. 

It is interesting to be doing this as long as I have and to watch the conversation turn from "why do you have sheep anyway?" to meeting folks old and young who are using words like traceable and sustainable. I have been keeping sheep, improving my little place in the world, using them, and finding interesting facts connected with them. My interests start from the time the first people started walking the earth and the sheep followed! There are so many parts to the art of making yarn that it never gets old for me.

You're teaching two spinning classes at North House—what are the specific processes you'll cover?

Learning to spin is an intermediary craft that sits between old time technique and many eventual uses. We will work on the how of spinning in Beginning Spinning: Spindle and Wheel (April 2-4). The how to's of spinning includes details about sheep and wool, washing and preparing fleece, tools and equipment tune ups. Plus, keeping a wheel going in the same direction! Spinning is an intuitive craft and I have ways to get folks started. This is a beginners or improvers class, for those with just basic curiosity to those with some experience and own their own equipment.

Spinning for Knitting: North House Cap and Crescent Shawl (April 5-7) is for spinners with some experience and explores the basics of yarn design for a particular product. This is what happens to all of us once we decide to make some yarn. We breathe deep and start making wooly ideas! How do we change up what we do? How do we prepare fiber for a particular outcome? Can we blend our own colors? How do I set up my spinning wheel so it does what I want it to? This includes written directions and ideas for simple garments. The world is wide. We can make what we want from what we grow ourselves and prepare ourselves. Why not?

What is your favorite aspect or part of North House? What do you most look forward to when coming back to teach in Grand Marais?

I often say, this is my other folk school l because I have been at ours in North Carolina (John C. Campbell) for so many years. I love to stand by Lake Superior in all weathers and understand two very important things.....the importance of wool and the importance of the horizon line. We do not have a changing inland sea where I live. It helps me get a mental "reset" and helps me restore. And it is in my same country!

The spirit is good at  North House Folk School, a small place with big ideas, just like here at the John C. Campbell Folk School. I just walk the circle from the shoreline to the Co-op to the harbor to the school. I like to help folks understand the gifts and uses of wool and think of it as an annual pilgrimage. Going to a place as a teacher or as a student puts you into a place with connections—there are no strangers and no question is silly. The folks at North House work hard to make each class an energizing experience and I have been proud to be a part of it.

Both of Martha Owen's courses are open for registration now! Learn more about her courses or register through the links below: