Weaving her way: Raising sheep is part of Freeburg artist's process

News-DemocratMay 5, 2013 

Freida and Sammy are more than just two fleecy friends Jill Kettler keeps on her family's Freeburg acreage.

"I was having a hard time finding the fibers I wanted," said the veteran weaver. "I wanted to create my own."

Enter dark-faced Freida, a Suffolk sheep, and Sammy. "He's a mutt; a blend."

Jill bought the pair as lambs about four years ago from the Rainbow Ranch Petting Zoo in Nashville. She wanted pets with benefits.

They reside in a big enclosure on the 30-acre property, munching on grass on a sunny afternoon. Sammy is the friendlier, willing to let a stranger rub his face and sink a hand into a coat so thick the hand disappears.

"I've been holding off on having them sheared, so they still have their winter coat," she said, nuzzling Sammy.

Soulful-eyed Dexter rounds out the menagerie. Hard to believe, said Jill, but the miniature donkey protects the bigger sheep.

"If there was a coyote or a stray dog around, he would chase them off," said Jill. "He'll grab them by the ear. It's like he's saying, 'Hey, I'm in control!'"

The 53-year-old shakes her head as she looks around the land that has been in her family since the 1930s and considers how she ended up with livestock.

"At 50, I became a 4-H kid!" she said, laughing. "I'm originally from Belleville. I never grew up with animals."

But the idea of having her own source of fiber was very appealing.

Jill calls her business Jill's Weavings/Fiber Finch, Hand-Woven Art to Wear. A former medical office worker, she weaves wool, linen, silk, hemp and other fiber to make scarves, shawls, vests, ponchos and other clothing, as well as a few wall hangings.

"I like to see what mixture of colors and textures I can come up with."

Happy weavers

Jill's love of looms struck when a teacher gave her a cardboard loom on which to make a small tapestry. She has been fascinated ever since. Her parents bought her first loom at 12. Now, she owns a variety, most of which she can carry around in her car, but "I've got floor looms, too."

Occasionally, she travels to fiber festivals -- "It's only about 10 percent of what I do" -- and has had her work hung in a California gallery. In August, she will make her third trip to the rooftop of Children's Hospital in St. Louis to teach young patients to weave as part of an art therapy program.

"That is one of my favorite things to do," she said.

Jill said her husband Jim has the same answer whenever anyone asks what they've been up to. "He says, 'Jill's always weaving.'"

She also works at The Bead Shop in Fairview Heights, a job she added last year after being laid off at a medical office. She has taught weaving classes there for more than three years.

"She is a fabulous artist," said owner Rhonda Berta. "She comes up with her own designs."

Jill makes house calls to help weavers, doing the warping, which is stringing the long vertical fibers or yarn held in tension on a loom, through which the shorter horizontal ones are woven.

"There are a lot of happy weavers because of her," said Rhonda. They include Jill's daughter, Emily Ramos, 28. Jill has a photo of her sitting in front of a loom at age 2, but her daughter didn't take up weaving seriously until she was 24.

"Of course I was around weaving my whole life growing up, but I was intimidated by it," said Emily, who lives in Dallas. "It's just not something you can play around with; you have to know what to do."

Emily likes to work in unusual fibers, such as sock fiber and shoestring. It's where the name Fiber Finch came from, she said, "What birds use for nests."

She works on smaller looms, creating mostly scarves and shawls.

"I consider myself an apprentice weaver to my mom."

Tedious but relaxing

It's a bit hypnotizing to watch Jill work. Standing in front of a small loom on a countertop, she worked on a scarf in variegated shades of blue, green and turquoise.

The long, nubby fibers -- thick in some places, thin in others -- were held tightly in place as she plucked three or four apart with her fingers, dipping a wood shuttle with yarn up and through the gaps from one side to the other. After each pass, she pulls thereed, which looks like a wide comb,toward her so the horizontal yarn, called the weft, creates a row that "packs" up against the last.

A fiber breaks? She knots it back together.

"It's not the end of the world if it's not perfect," she said.

A vest can take eight hours to make; a poncho 10 hours. In her five-hour make-and-take class at The Bead Place, students usually go home with a finished scarf.

"It's always fascinated me," she said of the process of weaving. "It seems tedious, but it's very relaxing." When she sells her work, scarves start at $40, ponchos at $140.

Shearing the sheep

Once a year in the spring, she hires a man to shear Freida and Sammy, then sends their wool to a company in Michigan. When it is returned four months later, she will have two oversized plastic bags full of what looks like long bundles of ecru cotton candy. Called roving, it is wool that has been cleaned and carded, which means special combs have been used to break up clumps of fleece, then align the individual strands so they are parallel with each other. That makes it ready for spinning.

While Jill does some of her own spinning and dyeing, she admits she would rather spend the time and effort on weaving.

So, she packages up most of the roving, dyes some of it and sells it in "Fiber Finch Nests" to spinners ($12 for 3 yards). The rest she spins and uses herself, though "I use our wool sparingly."

Sammy and Freida will be sheared in the next few weeks. Jill chuckles about the day that happens. She's seen the way they look at each other as their winter coats disappear.

"When one gets sheared, the other ones looks over like, 'Who are you?'"

For more information about Jill Kettler's classes, contact her at 618-539-9729 or jakettler@hotmail.com, fiberfinch@tumblr.com.

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