Stephanie Smith’s nimble fingers and the single knitting needle she holds are a rhythmic blur.
By KIMBERLY WINTER STERN
Special to The Star
An emerging pair of socks dangles from the flexible needle, gently swaying in time to Smith’s graceful movements.
“I’ve made six or seven pairs of socks for others,” said Smith, of Prairie Village. “I thought it was time to make some for myself.”
Moments before she pulled the sock project destined for her feet from a well-worn bag, Smith assembled a display of knitting and fiber accessories taken from her personal collection on a table in the meeting room at the Old Mission United Methodist Church in Fairway. There are patterns, books and other tools of a fiber artist.
As Smith continues knitting, she nods her head toward the assortment of items piled on the table behind her.
“I’ve taken most of the past two weekends to comb through my things,” said Smith, her eyes focused on the socks. “I asked myself if I would ever live long enough to do this pattern or that. If the answer was no, it was packed for tonight’s Swap and Shop.”
Smith is a former president of the Fiber Guild of Greater Kansas City, an organization established in 1975 that represents a diverse group of knitters, quilters, bead artists and others with interests in fibers. Members possess a wide range of backgrounds and skill levels, but the common thread is a passion for the fiber arts.
The room slowly fills up as other members of the Fiber Guild trickle in from the bitterly cold and snowy night.
A lone male joins the 30 or so females, many outfitted in fashionable scarves, hats and mittens that appear to be anything but off-the-rack purchases.
In addition to sporting wearable art, some clutch tote bags brimming with colorful and fluffy balls of yarn, needles of various sizes and original works-in-progress.
One woman lugs a small wooden spinning wheel and sets up shop at the corner of one of four tables configured in a large square in the room’s center. She threads delicate-looking yarn through the contraption and begins to spin the fiber.
Another hauls in a jumbo plastic bag that’s crinkly from the arctic temperatures outside and stuffed with bundles of unspun wool.
As she props the unwieldy sack against a table pushed up against a back wall, some women eyeball the bulging bag from their seats.
The fiber artists casually mill about, catching up. At 7 p.m. Fiber Guild co-president Terry Kuehn, owner of Foxy Crafters in Belton, calls the group to order.
Meeting tables are scattered with fuzzy balls and skeins of yarn and printed agendas. The soft clicking of needles provides a soothing background noise as Kuehn ticks off the business items slated for discussion.
“Let’s get through this before the chaos ensues,” announced Kuehn, referring to the Swap and Shop scheduled at the meeting’s conclusion.
Each January and July the Fiber Guild hosts an informal buy, barter, sell or bequeath session following the meeting’s business portion. One person’s castoff is considered another person’s treasure.
The 2014 slate of officers is read; Kuehn gently reminds members about the donation of nonperishable food items that is part of the Fiber Guild’s payment to the church in return for use of the meeting room.
Scholarships are discussed, including one designated for a member to attend a conference or workshop to advance skills in the area of fiber arts. Community outreach, the organization’s website and next fall’s participation in the Renaissance Festival are additional topics.
And it is business as usual at the Fiber Guild of Kansas City’s meeting — until the crafters, knitters and fiber artists begin show-and-tell, listed as number six on the evening’s agenda.
An animated, unscripted and unchoreographed fashion show of sorts unfolds as Fiber Guild members around the table — and potential members perched in chairs on the sidelines — describe a piece they are wearing that was made by another member of the guild or by their own hands.
And any notion of a knitted or weaved item as being primitive or homemade is quickly dispelled as the works of art are introduced.
Shirley Ingerly of Kansas City has a scarf wrapped around her neck that she made flying to and from Portland, Ore., to visit one of her children.
Now the 10-year member of the Fiber Guild is immersed in a new scarf creation.
“This,” said Ingerly, peering at the length of yarn in her hand that represents a nearly completed scarf, “is eyelash yarn and it will have a piece of mesh ribbon running through it.”
Members of the guild murmur approvals.
Next to Ingerly is Marci Blank of Lenexa, whose handcrafted fashion business is dubbed Th’Red Head.
“This hat,” she said, glancing at the half-finished item propped on her hand, “is made with glittery yarn and has lots of texture. That’s my thing.”
The next fiber artist, Lorraine Stevens of Leawood, is in the midst of creating a cowl scarf that sparkles like newly fallen snow.
“It’s very short so far,” she said, holding the piece up in the air.
Cheryl Goodwillie of Lenexa, a retired apparel construction instructor at Johnson County Community College and now the Fiber Guild’s fashion forecaster, identifies the trendy scarf she’s wearing as one made by a member.
“I purchased this at the Creative Hand Show and Sale” in November, she said, referring to the annual event held at Old Shawnee Town.
Victoria Tramposh of Prairie Village shares the white hat she is crocheting, balancing it on her fingers and lifting it for the group to see.
“I made three hats for my two daughters and my new daughter-in-law from Chicago,” said Tramposh, “plus five others, and I’ve given them all away. I plan to put a flower on this one.”
Tramposh designs the patterns, sometimes blending them, and never uses the same yarn.
“Lots of calculation is involved, including me trying on the hat numerous times,” she explained.
Lauri Davidson, a former Raytown School District language arts and journalism teacher and secretary of the Fiber Guild who lives in Prairie Village, handles a pile of cozy mittens she dumped from a bag.
“I made these from 100 percent wool sweaters that I found while poking around a thrift store,” she said.
Each fiber artist takes a turn at show-and-tell, including Kuehn, who wears a cotton-blend sweater knitted from a pattern she tested for a woman living in Reno, Nev.
Kuehn performs a quick twirl to show off the garment’s front and back.
“I finished it and then tore it all out,” said Kuehn as the group collectively groaned. “But for me it was 40 hours well spent, not lost.”
One item on tonight’s Fiber Guild docket elicits contented smiles and congratulations from around the tables.
The Creative Hand Show and Sale, which celebrated its 31st year last November, is a joint effort between the Fiber Guild and its sister organization, the Weavers Guild of Greater Kansas City, established in 1954.
November’s 12-hour, two-day event featured 65 fiber artists and drew 1,100 eager shoppers to Old Shawnee Town Hall in Shawnee. The show is a display of artistry that included handcrafted fiber-related products and creations, fiber technique demonstrations and a fashion show.
Creative Hand is a much-anticipated juried show and sale of art-to-wear by members who work all year creating treasures from various techniques and fibers.
The Fiber Guild and Weavers Guild groups are almost self-sustaining, with members providing raw materials to spin their creative magic.
Take Fiber Guild member Jamie M. Root, who calls herself a shepherd and fiber artist. She lives in Waldo but raises sheep on a farm south of Harrisonville — and harvests the wool for her work and sells to other members.
A member of the Fiber Guild since 1992, Root and her sister began raising and shearing their own sheep in 1999.
“I provide enough wool for my good friends to buy and create things,” says Root, who has a degree in animal science. “I love the whole process of fibers because I can control everything, from my breeding program for the type of wool I want to end up with to the kind of finish on the yarn I make to dyeing.”
Root, who painted throughout high school and college, said segueing into fibers made perfect sense.
“From creative idea to execution I guide each step.”
The process Root goes through to create wool once her herd is sheared is complex. She washes the wool to remove dirt and lanolin, dyes and cards it, and spins it to take out the loose fibers.
Root creates hats and other items from her wool and also sells custom wool to other fiber artists.
In turn, those artists spin the wool into yarn to weave, knit or crochet unique treasures while others sew, felt and bead hand-dyed fabric into stunning, museum-quality fiber art pieces such as jackets, shawls, accessories, scarves, home décor, table linens and hand-spun yarn.
The Creative Hand Show and Sale is a cooperative effort, with artists required to work a shift during the weekend and help in setting up and tearing down booths. It not only attracts holiday shoppers in search of one-of-a-kind gifts, but also other artists and those interested in pursuing fiber arts.
Niki Fatout-Waltonen of Blue Springs, a member of the Fiber Guild, attended a Creative Hand show several years ago.
“I taught myself to crochet nine years ago when my son was born, learning from books, blogs and YouTube,” she said. “I sell my crocheted items, and a friend said I should check out the show.”
On this night, Fatout-Waltonen wears a long circle scarf she made from an original pattern.
“What I saw at Creative Hand was an amazing presentation of creativity,” she said. “I knew I wanted to be a member of this group.”
Part of the proceeds from the Creative Hand Show and Sale support nonprofits such as CERF (Craft Emergency Relief Fund), Alpacas for Autism and Heifer International.
As the Fiber Guild’s agenda draws to a close, Kuehn announces the Swap and Shop.
Members — including several newbies who have joined this evening — circulate the room, browsing items, making deals, bartering.
Some women continue to work on projects and others seek out advice on a problem they’ve encountered in their fiber arts pursuits.
Cindy Brendzel recently relocated to Overland Park from New Jersey with her husband. The Fiber Guild was one of the first things she did after unpacking boxes.
“Over the years I was part of the New York City spinning and knitting guild,” said Brendzel, whose husband grew up in the area. “It was important for me to find this connection again here. I joined tonight.”
A husband-and-wife team, Brian and Sharon Heimes, also are newly minted members of the Fiber Guild. Brian is a neonatologist at St. Luke’s and Sharon is a retired pediatrician.
The couple raises 52 alpacas on a 100-acre farm outside Bonner Springs — an idea that was sparked when Brian, a night owl, saw a 3 a.m. television infomercial in 2000.
“The spot was about owning alpacas and the fleece that’s harvested from them,” laughed Sharon. “He was fascinated. We spent 10 years researching what we needed and three years ago we bought our first animal.”
One of the most important myths about alpacas, the Heimeses stress, is that they are not llamas.
“Many people think the two terms are interchangeable,” said Sharon. “And they’re not.”
Brian, who weaves, knits and machine knits for relaxation, grew up on a farm and thrives on producing something for people to enjoy.
“We participated in Kansas Alpaca Farm Days and also the Kaw Valley Farm Tour last year,” he said. “It’s a great way to educate people about how alpacas, how we shear them once a year for their natural fiber.”
Sharon crochets and felts, a popular technique that removes the scales from fiber such as wool and fleece.
“You take that fiber and literally rub it with your fingers or agitate it in a washing machine with hot water and soap,” she explained. “The stitches are knitted into felt.”
As the Swap and Shop winds down, The Fiber Guild meeting disperses as quietly as it assembled.
Some members drift into the night with their art or newly acquired treasures.
Others, such as Root and the Heimeses, head out to tend herds and packs of animals that are wearing some of the most fashionable fibers of the season, just waiting to be sheared, their wool spun, knitted and crocheted into beautiful art.