Wooly world

Fiber artists and farmers weave art and agriculture together on the Island.


The history of fiber arts on the Vineyard runs deep. Sheep were brought to the Island by European settlers as early as the 1600s. “Sheep were used for both meat and wool,” M.V. Museum’s research librarian, Bowdoin Van Riper, said. “At one point, there were 15,000 sheep on the Island, but that changed during the Revolutionary War.” The event that Van Riper is referring to is commonly known as “Grey’s Raid,” which had a big economic impact on the Island.

“In September 1778, General Grey arrived in Holmes Hole Harbor, now Vineyard Haven, with orders to requisition livestock, munitions, and municipal funds. When the naval vessels departed, they had relieved the Island of 10,000 sheep, 300 oxen, several tons of hay, weapons and ammunition, and the contents of the town tills,” Norah Van Riper, Bowdoin’s wife and an independent historian, added. “It took nearly 30 years for the Vineyard’s sheep population to rebound, and the ensuing years were lean times economically, without all that wool to sell.”

Weaving, knitting, and sewing are often viewed as female-centered activities, but this wasn’t always the case. “For much of Western European history, weaving was a line of employment performed by men trained in the field,” Norah said. “However, some rural households saw the value in employing their wives and daughters in producing cloth, and so there were some women who took up weaving in the 1700s.”

“The people who were spinning and weaving in their homes were doing it for their own families’ needs,” added Bowdoin. “Not for leisure.”

So when did creating textiles turn from necessity to art? “The sort of self-fulfillment aspect of fabric arts comes much later,” Norah said. “There is a real difference between ‘I do this because I need the money,’ versus ‘I can show that I have the time and money to do this.’ By the middle of the 19th century, fewer people were required to do the drudge of fiber work due to industrialization.”

“Being able to buy machine-made cloth freed wives and daughters from the labor required of them, leaving them more leisure time,” Bowdoin added. “At this point, fiber arts starts to become a symbol of leisure, and we see more individuality and creative expression working its way into the process.”

Historically, the popularity of fiber work seems to ebb and flow. “During WWI, there was a big push to use your knitting skills to make hats and gloves for the war effort,” Bowdoin said. “Once the war ended, we were back to folks doing it because they liked it. Then WWII came around, and we saw the domestic arts put back on a pedestal.”

In the late ’60s, women’s liberation came into play. “At that point, many women were rejecting all of the things that had been forced upon them as domestic arts,” Bowdoin continued. “Home economics taught in school began to fade, and it became cheaper to buy clothes from stores.”

“Skip ahead to COVID, and there was a huge resurgence in fabric arts. Knitting and crocheting became popular, because people had time on their hands,” Norah added.

On the Island, there are numerous talented fiber artists who recognize and celebrate the history, joy, and artistry of fiber arts — no matter the era. Using various techniques, these artists create a plethora of products, from high-end felted sculptures to more pragmatic pieces like scarves, mittens, hats, and potholders.

Anna-Marie D’Addarie is the creator of Hatched, an original brand of handmade items that come from donations that didn’t sell at Chicken Alley Thrift Shop — one of the largest streams of ongoing financial support for M.V. Community Services. D’Addarie is also a self-described queen of upcycling. She teaches people how to turn old items into something fun and useful. She also teaches knitting, crocheting, weaving, hooking, and spinning, and runs the Fiber Tent at the Ag Fair with Liz Toomey.

D’Addarie works closely with Chicken Alley Thrift Shop manager Jessica Tartell to keep Hatched alive. “The items that volunteers and I make come from things that couldn’t sell or wouldn’t sell at Chicken Alley,” D’Addarie said. “I take the items and repurpose them, sell them at craft sales, and give the proceeds back to Chicken Alley.”

Some of the items D’Addarie creates include denim bracelets made from blue jean hems and embellished with old jewelry, wine bottle holders from shirts, reusable scrubbies (cleaning pads) and cat beds. “Scrubbies are made with batting, cotton, and three layers of the netting from old wedding dresses,” D’Addarie said. “They were wildly popular when we first made them, and they sold out at the Chilmark Holiday Flea Market. The cat beds are made from old sweaters and old pillows. “We hand-sew them using big, fat tapestry needles and yarn,” D’Addarie said. “I use nearly every inch of a tie, shirt, or pair of pants. Nothing goes to waste.”

Fiber artist Prin van Gulden is a part-time instructor at Sterling College in Vermont. She also travels around the country teaching fiber arts. One of the places she teaches is at Slough Farm in Edgartown. Van Gulden and the executive director of Slough Farm, Julie Scott, met at Sterling College, which they both attended.

“Julie and I were both focusing on sustainable agriculture in college, and became fast friends. We’re still friends, and we share fiber ideas for the month of February.”

Why February? Slough Farm holds a monthlong celebration of sheep and wool that they cleverly refer to as Feb-EWE-Ary. They offer fiber arts activities for all levels, primarily using their own farm-raised wool, for two weeks every February.

Though Van Gulden and Scott share an interest in agriculture, Van Gulden focused on fiber arts. “I’m an animal person, and as a kid I was really into arts and crafts,” Van Gulden said. “I even had a pet sheep. I learned how to knit, spin, and felt. What’s kept me passionate about fiber arts is that I’m passionate about traditional skills that connect cultures with the natural world — our place in the ecosystem.”

This February, Van Gulden ran a “Beginner Weaving Workshop” at Slough Farm. There were about eight students in attendance, creating their own wall hanging on small looms. Lauren Lindheimer and her daughter, Sophie Lindheimer, were two of the students in attendance. “Sophie and I have taken a number of classes together. Last week we did a sheep-tanning class. It was hard, but so cool,” Lauren said.

Twenty-five-year-old Sophie Lindheimer has a job that requires her to be on the computer all day. The classes at Slough give her an opportunity to take a break from the screen: “I moved here from NYC, and I’m really enjoying making traditional crafts — working with my hands, and meeting people.”

Sue Carroll was taking the weaving class for the first time. “I told myself that there is a first time for everything. I’m just trying not to screw it up,” Carroll laughed. “I used to say to myself, ‘When I get old, I’ll try this thing or that thing.’ Well, I got the old part down, now I wonder, ‘Can I still learn new things at my age?’” Looking at her weaving project, it seemed pretty clear that she could indeed learn new things — and was doing a pretty nice job at it.

Island fiber artist Debby Ware began partnering with Dr. Michael Jacobs and his wife Genevieve, who have several Cormo sheep. According to cormosheep.org, scientific breeding has given the Cormo a remarkable range of commercial virtues, suited to both the wool and meat industries, including white high-yield wool, soft, dense fleece, resistance to fleece rot, and more.

“With their wool, I create one-of-a-kind miscellaneous animals, which I sell at the Farmers Market,” Ware said. “I’d been a knitwear designer for over 50 years. I sold kits and ran workshops all over the country. One day I was at the Artisans Fair and I saw Michael there with his wool. I’d known him for years, but it occurred to me, ‘Why don’t we collaborate?’ even though I had been using colorful cotton for years, not wool. And I love it. Michael has spectacular wool — it’s delicious, very soft and lovely to work with.”

Speaking of Michael and Genevieve Jacobs, this couple owns Pasture Prime Farm, where their Cormo sheep live. “Genevieve is really the one taking care of the sheep,” Dr. Jacobs said. “She feeds them and worries about them. She’s a retired nurse, but still a nurse at heart, which shows in her deep love for our sheep.”

The Jacobs got their first sheep 11 years ago. “Liz Packer, who has a farm and runs SBS Grain Store, actually gave us four or five sheep to start with, to see how we felt having them,” Dr. Jacobs said. “We then bought six Cormo sheep from a place in Western Massachusetts, when they were about 3 years old. We’ve had six to 10 sheep for the past 11 years.”

The Jacobs raise their sheep for wool only: “We don’t slaughter them. We bury them if they die,” Dr.Jacons says. “Genevieve knows every sheep by name and cares about them as if they were part of our family.”

The Jacobs sell their wool at the Farmers Market, and have a deep respect for the history of sheep farming on the Island. “Sheep farming on the Island is very well established — goes as far back as the American Revolution. I’m aware of that, and I want to be respectful of sustaining the history. And I love to be around animals,” Dr. Jacobs said. “I think we need to appreciate what animals can do for us. These sheep make a product that is useful for clothing that isn’t synthetic. Having animals has taught me a lot about animal husbandry, and sustaining something that isn’t necessarily profitable, but is an important contributor to the Island.”

Slough Farm’s Julie Scott has always loved animals of all kinds. “Livestock farming is what I always knew I wanted to do,” Scott said. “When I first started working on the farm, I loved the idea of it being a partnership with the animals. I also love to connect people with local fibers, and educate them about our fiber animals.”

According to its website, Slough Farm is a nonprofit educational farm, committed to the integration of small-scale, sustainable farming and the arts through educational programming.

Scott is also the vice president of Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society. “We always want to support other shepherds. One way we do this is by bringing in shearers at different times of the year. Anyone who has sheep can use her services while she’s here,” Scott said.

Allen Farm has been in the family since 1762. Though the Allen family grew everything, sheep were their main product. “I’ve had my business for about 40 years or so,” Clarissa Allen said. “I took over the farm after college, and I have a little shop that’s open from May through Christmas.” Right now, Allen says, they have roughly 68 sheep on the farm, and will have more in the spring during lambing season: “We create sweaters, hats, scarves, and signature vests, and sell our yarn to other artists.” Allen also sells organic meat, and works with a company in Central Massachusetts that has a large loom, allowing her to create queen- and king-size handwoven blankets. “I feel very connected to the process of making beautiful handwoven items from local wool,” she says.

There is a strong historical collaboration between sheep, farmers, and artists on the Island — each depending on the other for survival. And though some farming and fiber arts methods have changed due to industrialization, the ever-changing world of the internet, and the vast array of options people have both professionally and creatively, fiber arts doesn’t appear to be disappearing into the abyss. In fact, fiber arts is so popular on the Island, the Agricultural Fair dedicates an entire tent to it. There are also signs that a new generation of fiber artists is on the horizon, as Island kids have numerous opportunities to learn about it.

“Island Grown Schools, for example, teaches about fiber arts,” Julie Scott said. “My daughter wakes up and asks, ‘Is it school day or a felting day?’ I don’t know if there is a kid on the Island who doesn’t know what felting is.”

Allen Farm: 421 South Road, Chilmark. 508-645-9064. Email allenfarmmv@gmail.com or visit allenfarm.com/index.html.

Pasture Prime Farm: 26 Orchard Rd, West Tisbury. 508-645-5057. Email tractordocmv@gmail.com. 

Slough Farm: 15 Butler’s Cove Road, Edgartown. 774-549-5400. To join the email list, visit sloughfarm.org/contact. Website is at sloughfarm.org

For more information on Cormo sheep, visit cormosheep.org/history.html.



  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this article. How lucky are we to live in a place where farming and raising livestock is valued, and the creative use of the wool produced can grace our bodies and homes. We own several of those items. I rest under an Allen Farm blanket as we speak. Next to me is another one from the Alpaca Farm, and I wear my knee warmers gratefully. The Alpaca Farm was not mentioned in this article. I’m curious, why? It’s such a treat to visit there, and see the alpacas in their environment. When they are strolling about at the fairgrounds we can even pet them. They have a booth at the farmer’s market, too. Is there a reason they were not mentioned? Thank you for the well written article.

  2. Hi Marie, thanks for taking the time to read the article and to comment. This particular article was focused on sheep this time around. As a writer, I always hope to include as much information and people as possible in any given story. Alas, space is our nemesis – our articles are only a part of the overall content being covered each week. Hopefully I’ll be able to cover Alpacas at some point too, as I’m also one of their biggest fans. Thanks. – Allison

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