Open Spaces

Crafting au Naturel

A New Spin on an Ancient Craft


story and photography by April Anderson

NaTural fibers connect artisans across time. The Smithsonian Institution cites archeological evidence from Europe that dates back 20,000 years—fragments of knitted cloth excavated from Dura-Europa (on the Euphrates River) circa 256 A.D., and knitted socks in Coptic Egypt from the 4th and 5th centuries. Linen, cotton, wool, and silk were staples of the textile world until the introduction of synthetic fibers. With the roll out of nylon stockings in 1940, the textile industry started moving toward more economical petroleum-based polymers “as strong as steel”.

Such competition combined with the global stock market crash of 2008 led the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization to proclaim 2009 the “International Year of Natural Fibers”. Its stated purpose was "to raise global awareness of the importance of natural fibers not only to producers and industry, but also to consumers and the environment”. In the Barrington area, artisans are crafting and marketing a variety of fabrics and knits with naturally-derived fibers.

A change of media

For Wild Grass Art Studio artist Karen Plummer, the journey into working with natural fibers began when a friend invited her to take her skills from painting on paper to silk.

“The way you work with watercolor on a piece of paper is very similar to working with dyes on silk,” explains Plummer, stretching out the silk she paints like a canvas. “I stand above it and work over it,” she adds, using a chemical with the consistency of rubber cement to draw the image she has in mind. Next, she applies dyes with a paintbrush, steams the silk to set the colors, then rinses her creation in a bucket of hot water mixed with special detergent to remove excess dye. “I keep rinsing the silk until the water is clean,” says Plummer, noting some pieces have been washed 6-10 times.

Working with silk was just the beginning of Plummer’s journey into natural fiber media. Attending the Fine Art of Fiber at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Plummer watched an artist friend demonstrate needle felting with wool and bought a kit to make needle felted flowers. Quickly producing three flowers, she decided to try her hand at making a felt hat. Forty hours later, Plummer completed her first wet-felted hat, and eventually other hats and purses, but left behind much of this time-consuming craft to construct fairy house LED nightlights. “I work from nature and try to do things organic,” Plummer concludes.

A connection to earth

Good Toast Handmade’s owner, Emily Côté, shares this commitment to crafting with natural fibers as a way “to be as close to the earth as possible.” Initially working with more economical synthetic fiber, Côté was introduced to natural fibers by a friend “as a matter of quality” and has worked with flax, hemp, organic cotton, wool, and alpaca fiber (both suri and huacaya). “I started thinking about sustainability as a whole, and that’s what led me to working exclusively with natural fibers,” explains Côté. “This conviction came from wanting to live more responsibly.”

Spinning the strong fibers of flax and hemp, Côté confides, “It makes me feel a thousand years old, [and] part of an ancient practice. I can almost feel the hands of those who sowed, cared for, and harvested the plants.”

Côté makes hats, socks, shopping bags, wall decor, tank tops, and bracelets that she sells through farmer’s markets, as well as her online store ( One of her favorite fibers is suri alpaca because it grows in silky locks that Côté finds easy to card and spin.

A way to use resources

After attending an animal expo at Arlington Racecourse, Karen and Jim Tomaszek convinced their friend Linda McGill to go into the alpaca business with them, and the three opened SafeHouse Farm Alpacas in 2005. The partners initially focused on buying, breeding, and selling alpacas; but with shearing in fall and spring, fleece was starting to pile up.

“Instead of accumulating bags of fiber, we decided to do something with it,” says McGill.

Karen Tomaszek, the crafter in the group, began to make knitted headbands, scarves, socks, hats, and crocheted rugs, finding the soft, flexible alpaca fiber to be easier to work with than the stiff acrylic fibers she had formerly employed. Next, both women began to make dryer balls. By 2013, the Tomaszeks and McGill opened Ye Olde Alpaca Shoppe in a little room of the farmhouse to sell their wares.

Separating each fleece according to the animal it comes from allows crafters to know the animal that contributed to their project and connect with another living thing. As farms disappear, so do the natural fibers that weave strong communities. Learning to craft with natural fibers is one way to support local farms and pass on a sustainable art form for generations to come.

Fiber Facts

Alpaca is a lightweight insulating fiber that’s stronger than wool. Suri alpaca fiber is straight and silky while huacayo alpaca fiber is soft and shorter. Alpaca fiber comes in 22 natural colors and blends well with wool, mohair, bamboo, and silk.

Cotton is almost pure cellulose. Soft, breathable, and easy to wash, cotton is the world's most popular natural fiber.

Flax is a cellulose polymer with a structure that is more crystalline than cotton, Flax fibers are stiff, but adept at absorbing and releasing water quickly.

Hemp consists of 70 percent cellulose and low levels of lignin (8-10 percent). Hemp conducts heat, blocks ultraviolet light, and has natural anti-bacterial properties.

Silk has a triangular structure that refracts light like a prism, giving silk cloth a natural shimmer, and it can be easily dyed.

Wool has natural patterns that make it easy to spin. Wool provides more bulky insulation, but is resilient, elastic, and durable.

Learn more about natural fibers

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April Anderson is a naturalist and freelance writer who can be contacted at