Emerging from her farmhouse in Garland, Susan Watson walked out to the hilly pasture in her backyard, carrying a bucket of grain.
“I wonder where those rascals are,” she said, walking toward a group of empty buckets on the ground. “I’m going to try to sneak out there. Now watch me run like hell.”
Watson jogged over to the buckets on the ground. That’s when the stampede began.
The bleats of dozens of sheep filled the air as Watson filled the buckets with grain. Within seconds she was surrounded, and struggled at times to remain on her feet as the animals competed for the last bits of food.
“That’s what’s known as knee-deep in sheep,” Watson said, smiling as the animals finished their midmorning snack.
In addition to her work as a sheep farmer and an employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Watson is well-known as a fiber artist. She and many others like her here in Maine are hoping to experience a similar stampede this weekend, when dozens of sites including studios, galleries, mills, farms and museums around the state will be open Friday-Sunday, Aug. 7-9, for Maine Fiber Arts Tour Weekend.
The triennial event, coordinated by the Topsham-based nonprofit organization Maine Fiberarts, is designed to give the public a glimpse at the creations and processes of artists and crafters as well as behind-the-scenes operations and the fine art side of fiber creations.
“There is huge interest in this field from people who want to keep their farms going or get back to the farm, craftspeople who are taking their work to another level and the public at large who really love to see how things are made,” said Christine Macchi, executive director of Maine Fiberarts. “It’s just a wonderful event.”
Watson’s farm is one of more than 100 sites listed on the recently updated Maine Fiberarts Tour Map, assembled by Maine Fiberarts, which catalogs the work of many fiber artists in the state.
The map, updated every three years, was created by Macchi and Carol Jones, a graphic designer who also uploaded the map and an accompanying list of artists online. The map will remain current until 2012.
Fiber arts seem to be getting a lot of attention this year in Maine and beyond. The University of Maine’s campus gallery in Lord Hall hosted an exhibit this summer, “Intertwined,” featuring the work of 29 Maine fiber artists. The United Nations declared 2009 the Year of Natural Fibre.
Watson said she was just happy to have visitors at her own 26-acre Midsummer Night’s Meadow Farm during the last fiber arts weekend in Maine three years ago.
“I had these two really wild ladies come in a red convertible,” said Watson. “They had come up from Boston, and had seen all these different sites all over the state. They were high-end customers. One was a media consultant, and they just took the weekend and went on this road trip through the state. They came here and I had a great visit with them.”
Macchi said host sites saw thousands of visitors during the 2006 weekend, and there were inquiries from 29 states and Canada. The interest has extended beyond the weekend event, and some artists and crafters reported brisk sales as a result.
“They’re getting more visitors and we’re seeing an increase [in interest] from the last time we did this,” Macchi said. “People are making excursions to Maine [such as] going on yarn crawls, going from farm to farm.”
Visitors to Watson’s farm, including a room she uses to display her soft, colorful wool-felt scarves, jackets, hats, wall hangings and hooked rugs, will probably hear her sheep before the animals come into view.
Watson has 45 sheep on the farm; most are Corriedales, but others are Cotswold sheep from the Kelmscott Rare Breeds Conservancy Farm in Lincolnville.
Although she sells the meat at a farmers market in Newport, Watson raises the sheep primarily for fiber. The Corriedales produce a fine fiber, while the Cotswolds’ wool is a bit thicker.
“The Corriedale fiber is soft and great for felting, which is really important to me,” Watson said. “[The Cotswolds’] wool is a lot different. I use that for these rugs because the wool is really substantial and gorgeous to look at, especially when their fleece is grown out and they’ve got these long, lustrous curls.”
Watson also likes her breeds because they come in colors beyond the white most people associated with sheep. Her animals are white, but also gray, brown and black, all of which she can incorporate into her work without using dye. When Watson does dye her wool, she uses acid-based dyes similar, she said, to those found in food.
“It’s a good dye for the protein fibers like wool and silk because it attaches to the fiber really well,” Watson said. “It has minimal impact environmentally, and the dyeing I do on the wood stove so I don’t use any petroleum or fossil fuels for my dyeing process.”
Watson has been around sheep all her life. She learned how to raise the animals from watching her father, Neal Watson, a retired veterinarian who still has his own flock and occasionally helps her out if there’s an emergency during lambing season. Her mother, Viola Watson, is also a fiber artist.
Susan Watson didn’t take to felting and hooking until about 1993. In the years before, Watson had worked for the USDA mapping soils in Washington and Piscataquis counties. Around that time, when her work shifted to a desk job — she’s now a project coordinator working with first-time farmers and many women who take up farming — Watson turned to fiber arts.
“I swear, it was being removed from all of the colors and textures of being out there on the landscape every day,” she said. “I started doing the hooked rugs and felting right at that time, and I’ve been doing the felting and rugs ever since then.”
Watson plans to celebrate Maine Fiber Arts Tour Weekend with felting and rug-hooking demonstrations, a tour of her handmade felted yurt, a lamb barbecue — and, as most of the fiber artists hope — some sales and connections with potential customers who are traveling the state with the tour map in hand.
“The map, I think, is unique to this state,” Watson said. “I just got done doing the Camden Harbor arts show and they were saying, people from New York and all over who come to stay want to see unique things. I gave the map out to a lot of folks who were visiting and summering, and they’re absolutely thrilled there could be such a resource that provides all this information.”
For more information about Maine Fiber Arts Tour Weekend or to see the tour map online, go to www.mainefiberarts.org. Free copies of the map are available at rest stops on the interstate, including the Center for Maine Craft at the Gardiner exit, Maine Fiberarts in Topsham, and locally at the Page Home and Farm Museum in Orono. The map will remain current until l 2012; visitors are urged to call ahead before visiting a fiber arts site.