Knitting together a crafting community

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Laura C. Fraizer raises sheep and makes animal sculptures from the wool.(Daniel Wirtheim)

by Daniel Wirtheim

Laura C. Frazier sat behind a glass case that surrounded her miniature needle-felt sculptures of a donkey, owl, sheep and cat. The sculptures, each one no more than 6 inches tall, are made from sheep’s wool that Frazier sheers herself.

Her small table and needle-felt animals occupied a far corner of the atrium, just yards away from the Stitchin’ Brewer table where Charla Haley-Caudle, who Frazier had taught the needle-felt technique, worked a spinning wheel.

It was Dec. 19 at Krankies 2015 Winter Craft Fair. Hundreds of shoppers meandered through the atrium in what was hyped to be the biggest craft fair yet and the first held in the BioTech Place.

They shoppers meandered along the tables adorned with crafts as Frazier sat behind her sculptures and worked on a needle-felt horse. She takes stringy tufts of wool and jabs them into a matt with a handheld needle until the wool turns to thick, matted chunks. The hairs are coarse enough that two pieces of wool will stick together without adhesive. Once she makes a rough outline of a horse body she begins to sculpt. The body of the horse had a beige, natural-wool color but that will change later, when she uses acid dyes.

“I don’t get to make horses very often so I was excited to make the donkey, being in the horse family,” Frazier said. “They’re a good guard animal. It was fun to give it a personality, make the ears wonky and the tail just right. Attention to detail is what I do.”

She had sculpted with clay all of her life but when she married into a sheep-raising family, she found a new material to work with. Frazier learned the needle felt technique on a tour of another farm and quickly realized that she could make realistic animal sculptures in a way that clay had never allowed her. She started with sheep and quickly moved onto other animals.

“I feel a spiritual connection to the animals and the process of artmaking,” Frazier said. “Everything meets for me in this needle process. I have always felt that animals have been friends through thick and thin. I’ve raised horses through my twenties. Three dogs a cat and seven sheep and I feel a deep connection to them.”

Typically, Frazier makes needle-felt sculptures by commission — most of the time a client’s dog or cat. But the sculptures in her glass case were made during her fellowship with the NC Arts Council, which ended in September. She was selling wool from her farm and the animals, but the donkey was priced extra high because she’s okay with holding onto it.

It was Frazier’s fifth turn at Krankies Craft Fair and the connections she’s cultivated in those years spread across the atrium. She’s known for her needle-felt art as well as the pack of Gulf Coast Natives — the only true native American sheep — that she keeps on a farm just northeast of Winston-Salem.

Walt Bartnikowski, a knit-artist who specializes in Angora wool, has seen Frazier since her first craft fair. He’s a bit shy, with not a lot of business acumen, he admitted. Bartnikowski creates eccentric wool clothing — mostly hats — out of Angora wool, an expensive material harvested from rabbits.

Bartnikowski describes the tradition of Angora wool as being passed down from a long line of Eastern European craftsmen in a move not unlike the way Frazier taught Haley-Caudle to needle felt.

At the fair, screen-printed textiles were popular, as well as handmade jewelry, paintings, soaps and nearly every other craft known to the southeastern United States. But within the array of merchants there’s a pattern, a common thread: Knitters and wool workers know one another. Perhaps that can be said about practitioners of any craft, but no social connections are as clearly distinguishable as those in the wool and knitting community.

The wool- and knit-artists appeared to have better social connections than, say, the wood-spoonmakers or the screen-printers. There were more screen-printed items than knitted ones at the fair, yet finding a community of printers was difficult.

A woman sold flour-sack towels bearing the screen-printed shape of North Carolina and denied feeling a sense of community between herself and the other screen-printers. One artist and screen-printer Woodie Anderson said that she had worked with other printers before at an artist collective but didn’t really interact with those at the craft fair. And Kayla Jones, who was selling a collection of wooden spoons, said that she knits with friends on the side but makes the wooden spoons in solitude, even though she has a studio with other woodworkers.

Megan Maddox who traveled to the craft fair from Virginia Beach had some kind of answer. She sat behind a table of colorful, knitted creations while wearing a purple tie-die shirt. Her metallic and purple needle that matched her shirt kept moving as she looked around and nodded towards the other knitters she had met earlier.

“I don’t know what it is about knitters,” said Maddox. “They just get things.”

Laura Frazier and her knitting friends will be at the Old Salem Cobblestone Market that begins Jan. 16. You can find her needle felt work at farmgirlarts.com.

  • There’s definitely an overarching sense of community at the Krankies Craft Market and has been for years. It spans artistic media and age, etc. I’m so glad to be part of this event!