WALDO, Maine — Water boiled in a big metal pot on the wood stove as Rose Whitehead set out her materials — vegetable oil soap, an old glass vase and a mound of fluffy wool, hand-dyed hues of indigo. A tan Angora rabbit hopped across the wood floor to settle down on her favorite rug beside her owner.
Whitehead unscrewed the top of a jar and took a sip of refreshing maple sap that she gathered from a tree tapped in her backyard. Then she got to work mixing hot water with cold water and soap.
“Weaving one line of an intricate pattern takes about an hour. Felting is more abstract. It’s a quicker process,” said Whitehead, 52, a lifelong fiber artist who has recently been working to expand her small business by creating a website and reaching out to boutiques to sell her products wholesale.
Whitehead wrapped the wool around the glass vase, her brown hair, streaked with silver, pulled back in a barrette of golden leaves.
The snowstorm raging outside wouldn’t affect her workday. At her home studio tucked into woods of Waldo, even a downed power line would be of little consequence. Whitehead lives off the grid with the exception of one extension cord running up her driveway, which she uses for luxuries: her laptop and iPod dock.
Gas lamps and solar lights mounted between her daughter’s artwork light her cozy home when needed.
Whitehead has been selling woven and felted accessories and decorations since she was in her mid-20s. For years, she has participated in craft fairs throughout Maine, including the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity.
Opera and folk tunes played softly as she knelt on the floor and poured soapy water over the fluffy wool, which flattened, the hues blending together in organic patterns. She then worked it into felt, rubbing it with her hands and a nonskid mat, the kind typically placed under carpets.
“It’s the modern bamboo mat,” Whitehead quipped.
This type of wet felting is called the Mongolian method, she explained.
“I love color. I’m tactile,” she said. “There’s something magical about putting colors together. It just feels good.”
The felt vase holders are extremely simple compared to her other products — felted necklaces and ornaments; silk and felted shawls and scarves; and woven hats, scarves and purses.
She knows every inch of each process, from sheering the sheep to hand-stitching mohair embellishments on a purse woven in Scandinavian rosengang pattern.
Raised by her mother and grandmother in a small Michigan town, Whitehead lived just a bicycle ride away from her grandfather’s sheep farm.
“In preschool, I was feeding bottles to baby lambs,” she said. “I was always around sheep and sheering.”
By that point, she was also learning to garden and sew from her mother. In grade school, she was knitting, cross-stitching and embroidering. And in junior high school, she was rearranging and creating sewing patterns.
It was her beloved Great Aunt Nell who suggested she might like Maine.
“She was a really big person in my life. She was the pre-Nike ‘Just do it,’” Whitehead said. “She told me that she’d taken a bus trip to Maine before and she thought I’d like it.”
So 23-year-old Whitehead set aside college to drive her 10-speed bicycle from Michigan to Maine.
“The Great Lakes were too small,” said Whitehead as she rummaged through scarves and hats stored in her daughter’s old room beside the kitchen. She appeared at the doorway with a delicate white silk scarf with felted edges in her hands. “The first time I saw the ocean, I was coming up over the hill on Route 3, and there was this moment when I thought, ‘Oh, this is right.’” She paused and smiled. “There’s no logical explanation.”
From that point on, Whitehead worked a variety of jobs in and out of Maine, but her love of fiber arts never faded.
As a cook aboard ships traveling to the West Indies, she spun island cotton on a portable loom. Hitchhiking throughout Europe led her to a Swedish textile school, where she learned weaving patterns and felting techniques. And while studying at the University of Maine in Orono, she sold her crafts at campus events.
She purchased the Waldo property 19 years ago and has been working in progress ever since. Mostly everything on the property Whitehead built by hand while raising her daughter, Lillian, now 23 and living in Portland, Ore. She now lives there with her partner Jim Truxes, to whom she is handfasted (betrothed by an ancient Celtic ceremony).
In the summer, gardens surround her modest house with board and batten siding. As a second source of income, Whitehead runs a small gardening service to maintain private gardens.
In the winter, her house is crowded by pots of parsley, thyme, sage, celery, rosemary, artemisia, English ivy and kale, a snack for Mihitabelle the Angora rabbit. And on her kitchen table are seed packets for the coming spring. Many of the plants she uses for natural dyes.
Goldenrods, which line her long driveway, produce a pale yellow dye. Onion skins produce gold and browns; Japanese indigo, denim blue; madder, oranges and reds; black hollyhock, purples and gray green; and dyers coreopsis, rusty orange and browns.
“I’m like a kid in a candy shop when I dye. I think, ‘Oh, look at the colors in my dye pot,’” she said.
Whitehead once owned goats for milk and mohair, but now she just has Mihitabelle and Joe, a cat she adopted from a local animal shelter. She often purchases material from nearby alpaca, sheep and goat farms, and also works with cottons, linens and bamboo.
Mihitabelle contributes material from time to time. Every two weeks, Whitehead combs through her long, silky coat and collects the loose hair in a container. Otherwise, the long-eared rabbit develops dreadlocks. Her hand-spun fur becomes the trim to a special, velvet-topped hat with sides of woven, hand-dyed wool and mohair.
For information about Rose Whitehead Fiber Fabrications, visit her website rosewhitehead-fiber.com. Whitehead, along with fellow fiber artist Shana Hanson, is teaching several workshops on fiber arts this spring, including a workshop “Preparing Pelts to Clothe Ourselves” on March 9 and 10 in Belfast. For information, call Whitehead at 322-3654. For more events, visit the online calendar at www.mofga.org.