Butler County guild instrumental in fiber arts 'revival'
It all started when Marilyn Merbach won an angora rabbit at the Butler County Fair.
“We got this rabbit with all this hair, and you need to learn to do something with it,” she said.
So she learned to make yarn with a spinning wheel.
That was 34 years ago.
Now, Merbach of Clinton Township raises seven cashmere-producing goats and spins the hair into yarn that she weaves into various creations such as scarves.
It wasn't long after she got into the hobby that she co-founded the Butler County Spinners and Weavers Guild in 1982. The group has about 40 members from across Western Pennsylvania.
“It was for moral support, and it's nice learning and teaching together,” Merbach said. “There were people in the surrounding territory who knew how to spin better than we did or do a type of weave that we didn't know how to do.”
The group does demonstrations at local festivals and participates in living history museums such as the Depreciation Lands Museum in Hampton Township.
Interest is growing in what's known as the fiber arts, which includes not only spinning and weaving, but knitting, crocheting, needlepoint and sewing.
“None of us do just spinning; all of us do a little bit of something else,” said Guild President Dawson Dibbern of Clay Township, Butler County.
About 13 percent of Americans were involved in fiber arts in 2012, according to a National Endowment for the Arts Survey of Public Participation in the Arts.
This compares with 12 percent who played a musical instrument and 9 percent who reported singing.
“It's exciting that we're having a revival of this,” said Karen Parsons, of Richland, a guild member who has been spinning and weaving for about 15 years. “There are a number of people who become interested from watching us spin (at demonstrations).
“To some people, it just touches their creative nerve.”
There are a number of steps involved in designing a scarf or other garments. First, the fiber must be harvested — either by shearing or by combing out loose fur, as is done with rabbits. Then it is cleaned and combed before being fed into the spinning wheel, which can yield thick or thin strands of yarn.
The yarn is then placed on a loom to make the garment directly or to make fabric, which can be cut into a pattern and sewn.
Not all fiber comes from animals. Parsons spins linen from flax flower stalks she grows in the field near her home.
“It takes hundreds of yards to make something,” she said. “I have developed the hugest appreciation for the early settlers who had to make all their clothes.”
Gerald Lenavitt, 83, of Kittanning said he got interested in spinning about 40 years ago when he learned about early American textiles through the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
“I thought I'd try it out,” he said. “It took me a little while because, at that time, there was no one around here that spun, so I taught myself.”
The guild offers equipment rentals for those exploring the hobby. A used spinning wheel can cost about $200, while new ones can run up to $1,500.
There is plenty of advice dispensed at the guild's monthly meeting and program. Lenavitt often lends his expertise to guild members, who admire his ability.
“I spin just about every day. It's just a nice thing to do in the evenings,” he said. “My working years I spent as an electronics engineer. And I'm retired from the service after 24 years. It was a nice getaway.”
Beyond a hobby
Some guild members have taken their hobby to another level. Several teach spinning and weaving at Dyed in the Wool, a yarn shop in Ross Township. Others sell the yarn or things they make.
Wini Labrecque of Jefferson Township started a farm and co-owns a textile business that develops and markets alpaca fiber for use in upholstery, drapery and other home decor.
Her interest began about 27 years ago when she was looking for something to take her mind off cancer treatments and recovery.
She started with weaving, and, about six months later, her husband bought her a spinning wheel.
“I thought, ‘I love this, I need to get into it more,' ” Labrecque said. “And it just grew.”
She has tried weaving all sorts of products, including dryer lint, she said.
At Star Weaver Farm, she has nine alpacas and is focused on expanding the use of their fiber in the United States. The animals produce soft fiber that, once spun and woven, is durable and breathable but insulating.
“It does appeal to those who like to wear natural products,” she said. “It's typically eco-friendly, sustainable and it supports an agricultural portion of the community.”
Jodi Weigand is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4702 or firstname.lastname@example.org.