There is a sector of the Maine economy that has been around for literally hundreds of years. It has only been in the last decade or so, however, that it has started to claim a name for itself and to be recognized as a robust contributor to Maine’s economic life.
Now known as fiber arts, this sector includes everything from raising sheep, goats, llamas, alpacas and rabbits to processing the raw materials (cleaning, hand-dyeing, and spinning) to quilt making, basketry, knitting and weaving. Traditionally an arena for women’s endeavors, this sector has taken its rightful place among other creative economy ventures and features high-end artistry that can be seen in galleries and studios.
A key impetus in creating this new identity is a nonprofit organization known as Maine Fiberarts. Located in Topsham, Maine Fiberarts started in 2000 through the vision and efforts of Christine Macchi who continues to act as executive director. Its mission is to raise the profile of fiber arts as a sector and to connect its entrepreneurs with the marketplace. With 300 members and a database of 3,400, Maine Fiberarts holds the big picture of the diversity of the sector along with the specifics of all those engaged in it. Their efforts on behalf of fiber arts entrepreneurs can be seen at their website, www.mainefiberarts.org.
One of their key promotion efforts is the Maine Fiberarts Tour Map of Studios and Farms. It showcases 134 fiber arts studios, farms and entrepreneurs. It can be viewed at their website. Like other tour maps that feature historic or cultural sites, it makes it easy for individuals to connect directly with producers and artisans.
Along with the map, Maine Fiberarts sponsors an open studio and farm tour on the first weekend in August. This year’s dates are August 5, 6 and 7. Macchi has seen the benefits of the tour weekend and says, “The weekend is a great blast of fun. It’s an opportunity to step inside the studio and see the artist at work. You can see the pastures where the sheep are, view how a dye process works or watch a weaver set up a loom. The best thing we can do as an organization is drive the public to the makers so they can make a connection that lasts all year.”
One of the participants in the open studio weekend is Susan Mills of Bowdoinham (www.susanmills.net). Mills has been raising llamas and using their fleece to create felt products for 27 years and now produces a line of handbags, vessels, wall art and mixed media. She has loved the opportunities that the tour weekend brings.
“Some years I have sold art right off my walls,” she commented. “There were true collectors that traveled a long way to participate in the tour, and they got a deeper glimpse into the lifestyle of the artist.”
Another entrepreneur who plans to take advantage of the tour weekend is Jodi Clayton of One Lupine Fiber Arts Boutique and Gallery located at 170 Park Street in Bangor. A fiber artist herself, Clayton was taught how to knit by her grandmother when she was 7. Since then, she has learned to spin, dye, felt and create beautiful, practical items.
“I love wool — it really speaks to me,” she says.
Several years ago, Clayton expanded her studio at Park Street into a full boutique which offers products from 100 artists. She sees her shop as an active part of Bangor’s creative economy which is bringing new life to downtown Bangor. Her hope is that the beautiful objects she offers will create support for the farms that raise the sheep and supply the raw material.
“Fiber arts are a really nice bridge between the past and the present,” she says. It excites her to think that felting — an art form that can be traced to 4500 B.C. — can be made relevant to today’s lifestyles through contemporary art expressions. “Maine is an agricultural state, so finding a way to take the raw materials and make it into functional, beautiful art is a great way to support our way of life,” she says.
To learn more about the tour weekend, and the open sites, go to www.mainefiberarts.org.
Wendy Rose is senior microenterprise coordinator for Women, Work and Community based in Augusta serving clients in Kennebec and Somerset Counties.