Nesting in the Fibershed: West County Fiber Arts School

Written by Taya Badgley with photography by Paige Green, except as noted

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West County Fiber Arts School is a place built on sound principles and valuable skill. A forum built to ignite inspiration and provide support. A space that educates and encourages one to gather knowledge and fabricate community. A structure built upon the foundation of curiosity and imagination, the willingness to try new things and fly to new heights.

West County Fiber Arts School resembles something like a big, beautiful, nurturing nest. A nest in the sense that it took collaboration to build, passion to create, purpose to construct and dedication to sustain. All actions required to build and foster such a structure.

Let’s begin with beginnings…

Heidi Harris’s first introduction to the fiber community was in 2012 when she attended the first Fibershed Wool & Fine Fiber symposium. At first, Heidi was a bit reluctant, yet when she arrived, sat down, and listened something happened. As she puts it “I discovered that with only two materials, hot soapy water and wool, you could make something: felted material. It was magic!”

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The simplicity of combining two basic materials, wool and water, to create textiles ignited Heidi’s curiosity and introduced her to a whole new, wooly world. At once, Heidi set out to find all she could pertaining to wool fiber and how to felt it. She researched and read many, many books, attended classes and workshops. In a sense Heidi was sailing unchartered waters, flying completely out of her comfort zone into an unknown stretch of sky. Yet, somehow, even flying in the unknown, Heidi found a sense of balance. A balance she didn’t really notice was off center to begin with, “suddenly, I found part of me that I didn’t know was missing. With a background in business, I used my left brain to focus on procedure and efficiency. After I began working with fiber, I felt more whole and balanced.”

“You don’t know what you don’t know”, Heidi says as she describes her discovery of handwork. When she first attended that Fibershed event, she had no idea of all that was to come and all that was to be made. “When you begin a project, you really have no idea what the exact result with be. Taking your project farther and farther with your imagination, that’s the exciting part.” Simply talking about the possibilities that fiber work offers sparks a twinkle in Heidi’s eye, and fuels the vision for West County Fiber Arts.

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Photo above left by Kalie Ilana Cassel-Feiss

The first thread of West County Fiber Arts was spun when in 2013, Heidi Harris joined forces with Dustin Kahn—who at the time was on the Fibershed staff and as part of her job was organizing workshops for Fibershed—to build a physical structure that would help represent Fibershed and the community it fosters. Building such a structure would not only bring people together, but showcase the practical, not to mention long-established applications of wool. The project was a traditional wool Mongolian yurt. Along with fellow fiber artists Katharine Jolda and Amber Bieg, Heidi led workshops through Fibershed to construct the wool panels. Richard Waters, the owner of a camping yurt company instructed the building of the structure and frame. If West County Fiber Arts School is a figurative nest, the Yurt that stands on the school’s grounds serves as a literal sort of nest. A warm and inviting space, the yurt is adorned with felted pieces from those who built, to those who learned within its sturdy walls.

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Photo by Kalie Ilana Cassel-Feiss

Partnering once again, Dustin and Heidi began to envision and offer workshops. There was no official studio space, or class roster. Nor was there a concrete plan or established school. Yet with Heidi’s determination and dedication alongside Dustin’s graphic design and marketing skills, plus knowledge and experience of the fiber community, the two organized what was to become the first of many fiber art classes held at the newly hatched West County Fiber Arts School.

Charity van der Meer, left; Alissa Allen's class, right

Heidi’s initial motivation for starting the school was having felt artist Charity van der Meer of the Netherlands teach at WCFA while she was in the U.S. (above left, on right). An early natural dye class at WCFA, taught by Alissa Allen (above right, on lower left). Photos courtesy of West County Fiber Arts School.

Here we are on the warm Summer morning of Ashley Eva Brock’s Indigo and Oak Gall Dye workshop. Heidi and Dustin are preparing for the class, as Ashley quietly makes preparations of her own. With her dog alongside, Ashley stirs a steaming pot of oak galls and brings to life an Indigo vat. Two of Ashley’s beautiful hand dyed, handmade designs hang on a wooden ladder once belonging to Heidi’s great grandmother.

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Upon meeting her, one can’t help but notice Heidi’s warmth and calm attitude. Anticipating the arrival of students, Heidi moves about the property briskly, tidying things here and there, arranging the workstations and gathering supplies. She has a grounded, focused demeanor as she flies up and down the stairs, back and forth from kitchen to studio space. She is full of energy. Even after falling 15 feet from a tree, breaking both wrists and undergoing emergency surgeries only two months prior, Heidi is full of energy. An abundant energy and infectious enthusiasm that one can’t help but catch!

Outside, Dustin tends to the flats of vividly green Indigo plants she brought to share with the class. Dustin’s generosity, her natural inclination to contribute both her resources and talents is one of West County Fiber Arts’ strengths and founding values. As Heidi puts it “ West County Fiber Arts School is a resource for all. A place to learn and a place to share your knowledge with others. Our goal is to layer skill upon skill.”

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New and returning students begin filtering through the garden gate, each warmly greeted by Heidi, Dustin or Bodega, Heidi’s dog. A neighbor pops in to deliver a freshly baked apple cake and a lost student. Eventually all find their way to the open air studio. Whether it is the warm, inviting nature of Heidi and Dustin, the peaceful outdoor workspace, Ashley’s assured demeanor, or the common interests all share, everyone seems at ease. We sit with notebooks open and eyes wide, ready to learn, looking to discover and focused on the task at hand.

Working with various steaming pots and buckets, Ashley goes step by step through the process of making and maintaining an Indigo vat. Letting the newly prepared Indigo stock solution rest, Ashley moves onto the stewing Oak Galls. She dips a white, pre-soaked sample into the vat. After a few minutes and a few stirs, she pulls out what is now a beautiful, ochre colored piece of cloth. Finally, a use for those odd-shaped and rather plentiful oak galls!

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Following Ashley’s demonstrations, explanations and our various questions we break for lunch. Upon finishing, back to the studio we go! And boy do things get going. The scene is similar to exuberant children playing a lively game of musical chairs. However, instead of children and chairs, we are grown people hopping from stitching stations to dye buckets to rinsing bins. Everyone is bouncing here and there with a childlike sense of wonder. A sort of wonder and joy that West County Fiber Arts School and its founders seem to effortlessly conjure up.

We prepare our white fabric and fiber in the soak bucket and then slip it into a vibrantly green Indigo vat. Very carefully, so as to not create unwanted oxygen bubbles detrimental to the life of the dye vat, we remove our pieces and expose the frog green material to open air. We all wait while oxygen begins its work and like chameleons, our various textiles change from green to brilliant blue.

Standing, sitting and squatting, each student experiments and explores various Shibori and Resist techniques. Ashley shows students how to use heavy duty construction clamps and circular blocks of wood to create shapes and patterns. After unclamping her cloth to reveal a constellation like pattern of stark white circles amidst a deep blue background, one woman exclaimed in awe, “it’s a miracle! I just can’t believe it, I’m always amazed at how this works…”

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Meandering down our own paths of curiosity, we often end up with a result quite different than expected. This is exactly what Heidi was talking about when she described both the boundless possibilities and complete unknowns of fiber work, for once you place the carefully stitched fabric into the vat of iridescent Indigo the outcome is beyond your control. Taking a leap of faith, and seeing what arises from that jump can be at first unsettling, but in the end, totally freeing.

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There is a great deal more I could write about the wonders of West County Fiber Arts School and the two women who created it. But for the sake of time I will leave you with this, the heart of the nest. In a time when we can often feel disconnected and dislocated, it is places such as West County Fiber Arts School that hold us together. Reminding us that we, like the fibers we work are stronger together than apart. So often simplicity can seem a thing of the past, but in returning to and preserving these time-honored techniques we find our way back to a simpler way of being. A simpler way of making. Quite often, overwhelm can wash over us, like a piece of cloth submerged in Indigo just waiting for oxygen. West County Arts is that breath of fresh air. Authentic and open, once through the garden gate, you’re out of your head into your imagination. Enjoy.

Join Heidi Harris and a suite of many other talented Fibershed Artisan members for a workshop at West County Fiber Arts School — click here to see the full list of upcoming offerings. Don’t miss this year’s Wool & Fine Fiber Symposium, November 19th in Pt. Reyes Station, including panel discussions centered around the theme ‘For the Love of Place’ and hands-on demonstrations like natural dyeing with Ashley Eva Brock. 

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