2020 Folklife Apprenticeship Feature: Kathy Evans & Margaret Bruning, “Sheep to Shawl”

The West Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program offers up to a $3,000 stipend to West Virginia master traditional artists or tradition bearers working with qualified apprentices on a year-long in-depth apprenticeship in their cultural expression or traditional art form. These apprenticeships aim to facilitate the transmission of techniques and artistry of the forms, as well as their histories and traditions.

Kathy Evans and Margaret Bruning in Kathy’s fiber studio in Bruceton Mills. Photo by Emily Hilliard

Kathy Evans of Bruceton Mills is leading an apprenticeship titled “Sheep to Shawl: The Art of Raising Sheep and Creating Fiber Arts,” with apprentice Margaret Bruning of Elkins. Evans is a fifth-generation farmer and owner of Evans Knob Farm in Preston County where she cultivates Certified Naturally Grown vegetables and raises sheep and poultry. She teaches and exhibits her fiber arts both in West Virginia and across the country and has been featured in Modern Farmer and Morgantown Magazine. Bruning grew up on a goat farm in upstate New York and has been a lifelong fiber artist. She and her husband David raise sheep at their homestead in Randolph County.

Kathy Evans weaves on a rug loom. Photo by Emily Hilliard

Kathy Evans – Master Artist

I was born July 8, 1962 in Morgantown, West Virginia. Raised near Bruceton Mills on my grandparents dairy farm after the death of my mother when I was seven months old.

I’m currently living on a Certified Naturally Grown farm as a fourth generation farmer about 18 miles from where I grew up. My husband, Reid, and I were married in 1978 and moved immediately onto his family farm near the West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland border. We assumed operation of the farm in 1990, but were actively helping his father with the farm until his father passed away in 1988. We now have 3 acres of Certified Naturally Grown vegetables, raise pastured poultry for meat and eggs, beef cattle, and sheep. We sell at the Morgantown Farmers Market as well as provide a CSA for local residents in Bruceton Mills and Morgantown.

We began raising sheep in 1994 when our oldest daughter joined 4-H. Around that time we also went to Prickets Fort State Park and toured the village. That day there were spinners and weavers demonstrating in and around the cabins. I had read about this, but was fascinated to actually see the art in action and up close. The interpreters were amazingly patient and informative with all of my questions. The following Christmas Reid bought me my first spinning wheel. I was taught by other spinners in our area and also by reading books and watching videos. A few years into my new passion I took a weaving class at the Morgantown Arts Center. I didn’t have a loom at the time, so my experience was limited to that class. From there my skills grew as well as the number of looms, knitting and other treasures. I know have a studio attached to my home dedicated completely to the fiber arts.

I began selling at art and craft shows in the late 1990s. They included the Stonewall Jackson Jubilee, Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, Preston County Buckwheat Festival, Springs Folk Festival, Rhinebeck Sheep and Wool Festival, among other smaller more local craft fairs.

Kathy Evans and Margaret Bruning discuss Margaret’s final project at Evans Knob Farm. Photo by Emily Hilliard

Description of Art Form:
The description of fiber arts is as varied as the number of fiber artists. Learning the sheep to shawl process is fascinating. Taking the raw wool directly from the sheep and working with it until is becomes a beautiful piece of work to wrap around you or someone you love is deeply satisfying.
The process has many steps, and each one has its own version to create different effects, which will change the appearance of the finished piece. I feel that is one of the wonderful things about the fiber arts, you can take the same fiber, change one or two steps to create so many different items. The possibilities are as endless as your creative juices.

Yarn made from Evans Knob Farm sheep wool, spun and dyed by Kathy Evans. Photo by Emily Hilliard

Artist statement:
Sheep to shawl is a part of who I am, as far as my everyday life. I get up in the morning, I tend my sheep. On cold days, I am preparing fiber or making something with it, everyday. My family farm, Evans Knob Farm, is a fifth generation farm in Preston County producing Certified Naturally Grown vegetables, poultry, eggs, wool, and more. My grandmother was a quilter, she did some crochet, but I wasn’t brought up in fiber arts. It started 33 years ago for me when my husband and I took our children to Prickets Fork State Park where I saw raw wool being spun on a traditional style spinning
wheel. I was mesmerized. Another lady had a huge loom and she was weaving. I admired the coverlets and asked a lot of questions. A few years later, our daughters got interested in showing meat sheep. While at the county fair, our daughter Becky fell in love with a beautiful Romney sheep and we ended up bringing the Romney home. Shortly thereafter I realized I needed to learn what to do with her wool. So I asked a neighbor for some pointers. And the rest is history, as they say.

Margaret Bruning at the spinning wheel. Photo by Emily Hilliard

Margaret Bruning – Apprentice

Margaret Bruning’s life can best be described as eclectic with a tendency toward traditions in art, food, and nature. She was a 25-year professional arts administrator serving as Director of Civic Art for Los Angeles County and Associate Director for Scottsdale Public Art in Arizona. She had the opportunity to foster the careers of artists and help many communities create public art that tells their story. Margaret commissioned artworks in all media, from community events to traditional sculptures to large-scale fiber art pieces that now hang in municipal buildings. Those underpinnings are woven with the fibers of her Italian ancestors and from her family of origin with its New York roots. In 2017, Margaret relocated to Elkins, West Virginia, where she enjoys a true melting pot of cultures and traditions, steeped in community and folk arts. After her mother Elena Sette Bruning passed, Margaret and her husband David Long brought her small fiber
flock in early 2019 to their partial off-grid mountainside homestead.

Margaret grew up in rural dairy country in upstate New York raising dairy goats, learning to sew and embroider, and preserve food. When it comes to processing wool and using it for fiber arts, she has over many years established herself as a hobbyist in dyeing wool, dry needle felting, crochet and spinning, contributing many products to her mother and sisters’ farmers market business as one of the founding vendors of the Troy Waterfront Farmers Market. Margaret believes that “through the lens of creativity we can learn about our place in the world, better understand issues of the day, and dream up possibilities for the future. Food, creativity and nature are the ultimate portals for individual empowerment and societal vitality.” Margaret and David also operate a homestead based nonprofit organization called Poe Run Craft and Provisions, which offers events and activities centered on nature, food, art, and community. She holds a Masters Degree in art history from Arizona State University. Margaret was born in Huntington, New York in 1971.

Master artist Kathy Evans and apprentice Margaret Bruning tie a skein of yarn. Photo by Emily Hilliard

Description of artform/tradition:
Through this apprenticeship, Margaret is learning the art of “sheep to shawl,” in which the artistry begins with raising the sheep, continues in processing the wool, and finishes with the production of fiber arts such as handspun yarn and textile weaving. She sees her on-going creative pursuit a tribute to those who came before her, giving value to their handiwork, honoring their passions, and enabling the passing of the torch of long lasting cultural traditions.

Sheep to shawl has a long West Virginia history. Market lamb and wool for clothing and weaving had reached peak numbers of more than 800,000 head in flocks all across the state in the late 19th century. However, as the 1900s progressed, and people and farming moved to the midwest United States, livestock production in West Virginia declined. According to a West Virginia Public Broadcasting story by Roxy Todd, in 2016, there were only 36,000 recorded sheep. And there is a real demand for good shearers, a physically demanding trade with a steep learning curve. Historically, the state’s rugged terrain precluded large-scale farming, but is ideal for smaller livestock like sheep. Today, there is once again a growing demand for household and market lamb and wool.

There is also a strong contingent of weavers and knitters, some come from long lines of artisans, working with wool in the sheep to shawl tradition. Organizations in Randolph County like Mountain Weavers Guild (Elkins) and the hand weaver’s shop Ben’s Old Loom Barn (Davis) are doing their part to keep this Appalachian tradition alive, with members of all skill levels giving public weaving demonstrations and supplementing their incomes through sales of products. The Mountain Weavers guild has been ongoing since 1968. Designated by the National Endowment for the Arts as a “Living Treasure,” early member Dorothy Thompson, and founder of Ben’s Old Loom Barn, was also recognized with a prestigious National Heritage Fellowship in 2000.

Margaret Bruning spins yarn. Photo by Emily Hilliard

Artist statement:
I learned the homesteading way of life from my parents, particularly my beloved mother, Elena Sette Bruning, while growing up on a small dairy goat farm in upstate New York. With the folklife apprenticeship I hope to continue Mom’s sheep to shawl education with another farmer I highly
respect, Kathy Evans of Evans Knob Farm in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia.

Mom remains a guiding light in my creative and community endeavors, whether in wool arts, or food preservation, or in a crazy new idea all together. Elena was raised in Italy until the age of 16. While living in New York and raising her family, she became an intrepid farmer, nurse, and fibers artist. Elena was a founding member of the Troy Waterfront Farmers Market with my sisters. Her story was published in the local papers. Mom taught me and many others to spin and knit. Despite living across the country in Arizona then southern California, I spent most of my vacations on the farm and continued to work alongside Mom in caring for the sheep and processing wool. Mom lived according to the belief that knitting was a start to finish holistic process that began with rearing the sheep and included being alongside them in all phases of their life. It wasn’t until later that I realized she was the first pioneer woman I knew. Many of Mom’s homesteading efforts were ephemeral, coming and going with the seasons. Yet, her boundlessness and grit shaped my world view.

2020 Folklife Apprenticeship participants in sheep to shawl, Margaret Bruning and Kathy Evans. Photo by Emily Hilliard

The apprenticeship program grants are administered by the West Virginia Folklife Program at the West Virginia Humanities Council in Charleston and are supported in part by an Art Works grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. West Virginia Folklife is dedicated to the documentation, preservation, presentation, and support of West Virginia’s vibrant cultural heritage and living traditions.