LAKEBURN, New Brunswick - "Knitting is in again," author Margaret Atwood said in a recent radio interview. In Atlantic Canada, I'm not sure it ever went out of style. The weather here is like New England's, plenty of rainy days and even longer winters. That means lots of time for needlework.
It's what people here have done for centuries. The shops sell knit gloves and socks, crocheted shawls, hooked wall hangings, woven placemats, and more.
Just a few miles east of Moncton, London-Wul Fibre Arts brings together the old and new aspects of handwork as a new économusée, a small network of skilled artisans who work full time on their craft. Each économusée welcomes the public and is a combination of cottage industry, open studio, museum, and store, offering demonstrations, workshops, exhibits, supplies, and finished items for sale.
At London-Wul, owner Heidi Wulfraat devotes herself to the techniques and traditions of hand spinning. But spinning is only one part of the experience. Wulfraat raises sheep, goats, and rabbits, shears them for their wool, collects plants on her land to produce dye, spins and hand-dyes the wool, and then creates one-of-a-kind designs.
Much of her business comes from selling supplies, among them skeins of colorful hand-dyed wools, hand-turned knitting needles, pattern books, and kits to make your own project.
But this was hardly what she had in mind when she and her husband bought these 140 acres in the mid-1990s. Wulfraat has a degree in animal science, and her flock includes about 60 animals, including 30 angora rabbits, seven angora and cashmere goats, and 17 sheep, including Shetland crosses, Horned Dorset crosses, Lincoln and Romney crosses, and pure Jacob sheep. There are also two dogs and a smattering of geese and chickens.
"Making a living with needlework was nothing you'd know at the time," she says, "but looking back it was there." She grew up in a household steeped in handiwork. "My grandmother supported her children on embroidery at some point, and she lived with us. Even my brothers did some needlepoint."
After college, Wulfraat apprenticed at a textile museum in Dorchester, southeast of here, to learn to spin wool, and continued exploring on her own and with others to learn felting, rug hooking, and lacemaking.
Some of her study partners show up for a weekly "sock walk," taking an evening stroll before they settle down to knit. Another night it's a group of lacemakers working together to make lace patterns out of silk, linen, and wool.
Wulfraat is in her third year as an économusée and says she gets several bus tours a week. When I arrive at 10 a.m., there's a group waiting at the front door. They're not a tour bus group, but about a dozen men, women, and children from the Multicultural Association of Greater Moncton Area. Gentille Mutoni, 5, from Democratic Republic of the Congo, skips in hand-in-hand with Juliana Lopez, 4, from Colombia.
All are recent immigrants learning English, and they have questions: How long did it take to build this building? You own all this yourself? Do you milk any of the animals? "No," Wulfraat answers with a smile. "I'm just not a morning person."
Seokgyu Lee, 3, from South Korea, holds a piece of fleecy red spun wool up to his cheek. Wulfraat hands around a large furry brown mitten that she made out of the hair of her dog, a Tibetan mastiff. Gentille and her younger sister Irene, 4, reach out to touch it and hand it back and forth.
We all walk down to one of the fenced pastures to see the goats. They hang near the back of the pasture for the first few minutes, but wander toward us after lots of high-pitched calls from the kids. Wulfraat leads one of the angora goats named Louie over, holding him by a rope. He stands beside her and lets everybody stroke his coat.
It has started to drizzle so we head back inside for a demonstration on how to spin wool into yarn. Wulfraat hands a small spindle to each person, gives a quick lesson, and everybody sets to work. Evens Estime, young man from the Dominican Republic, sits side by side with Gentille, Juliana, and Irene, and all four turn their spindles around and around with solemn focus. When it's time to go, Wulfraat comes to each person with a pair of scissors, snips off the ends of yarn and knots them, leaving each with a length of spun wool to take home as a souvenir.
If it hadn't started raining, Wulfraat might have included a trip into the gardens to pick plants and then boil them down to use for dying wool. She's planted woad, which has been used for centuries to make blue, but lots of the colors come from weeds. "You get a soft green from dandelions," she explains. "In the fall we're full of goldenrod, and use that for a rich burnt yellow."
She walks outside toward one of the pastures as the visitors leave. "You could run a fiber arts store without animals," she acknowledges, "so it's self-indulgent - because I like having them around. I couldn't just have a yarn shop in Moncton."
She prides herself on having a no-kill farm, where the animals get a little more babying than on the average farm. "We bring the animals in at night," she says. "That's probably not conventional. Our sheep - they don't like to get their feet wet. There's a bug zapper in the barn, and fans on hot days. The animals call the shots around here."
Kathy Shorr, a freelance writer in Wellfleet, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.