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Spotlight: Weaving and Fiber Arts at SSFS

Spotlight: Weaving and Fiber Arts at SSFS

This May, four students in Heidi Brown's Weaving and Fibers class participated in the Sheep and Wool Festival’s "Sheep to Shawl" competition. Competing as team “Sheep Lightning” and wearing Pink Ladies jackets (in a nod to their team name’s “Grease” movie/musical reference), Quinlan, Maxine, Zoe, and Travis—plus sheep shearer Emily Chamelin—managed to shear a sheep, spin its wool into yarn, and then weave it into a shawl in less than three hours! 

Sheep-to-Shawl 2024

For the second year in a row, SSFS students were featured in news stories about this unique competition. NPR covered the 2023 Sheep to Shawl event, and this year, the story was on the front page of the Washington Post’s May 6 Metro section! The Washington Post story was subsequently picked up by the Canadian Broadcast Corporation’s podcast, “As It Happens,” and the interview with teacher Heidi Brown and student Quinlan Griffin-Polyak ‘26 (beginning about 37:40) aired on May 8. 

How did these teen weavers become so proficient that they were able to turn the wool off a sheep’s back into a beautiful piece of clothing in just a few hours? Hours of practice, diligent study as students in Heidi Brown’s “Weaving and Fibers” arts class at SSFS, and a passion for the craft!

Gwen Handler

Gwen Handler

Weaving has been offered as a signature arts offering at SSFS for decades. The class was taught for years by former arts teacher Gwen Handler, a faculty member at SSFS from 1977-2016. Gwen learned to spin yarn and raise sheep with SSFS board member and alumni parent Sally Eller in the 1970s. In the 1980s, in addition to her work in photography, ceramics, and printmaking, Gwen continued her interest in fiber arts, while raising sheep, chickens, and ponies on her farm in Westminster, MD, with her husband Larry Fisher. Gwen was also chairperson of the annual Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival starting in the 1980s, and she shared her knowledge of weaving and fibers with SSFS students for decades before retiring in 2016.

After Gwen retired, SSFS alumni parent Ellen Hartge took on the weaving program for both the Middle and Upper School until her retirement in 2020. SSFS was then fortunate to bring Heidi Brown on board in the fall of 2020 to teach the class. Heidi’s first weaving class at SSFS in 2020-2021 was a unique challenge, as she had to teach the class virtually for most of the school year, gradually introducing floor loom weaving and wheel spinning as students returned and Covid protocols allowed.  

A talented artist, musician, and teacher, Heidi has been weaving since she was 12 years old.  Heidi is an active member of the Weavers Guild of Greater Baltimore and a former member of the Potomac Fiber Arts Guild as well as the Potomac Fiber Arts Gallery. 

Weaving Class

Students who are beginners in Heidi’s Weaving and Fibers class first learn the names and functions of each part of the loom. Once they’re ready to put their foot to the pedal to “treadle”), they each create a “sampler” with different colors and patterns. Diving into Color Theory, Heidi also teaches the students about how various colors work together, and the effects they create when blended. Once students get the mechanics down, they work on a variety of individual projects, from hand-woven bags and scarves to blankets and throws. 

For the Sheep to Shawl competition, each team member has a specific role: one weaver, one shearer, 3 spinners/carders. Determining the timing for when one team member breaks off carding to start spinning, and when enough yarn has been spun to start weaving the shawl, is a carefully-choreographed dance. Therefore, Quinlan, Maxine, Zoe, Travis, and Avery (team alternate) spent time each Friday during Upper School Clubs time and on weekends practicing their technique and timing.

Weaving Class

The event itself at the Sheep and Wool Festival drew lots of attention and support from the SSFS community.  Heidi estimates that there were 10-15 SSFS faculty and staff that came out to support the “Sheep Lightning” team, along with the students’ friends and family members. Zoe shared that “having so many people come out in support was very encouraging and emotional. It really was a testament to how strong our community is even outside of campus. Hearing the roar from the crowd every time we were even slightly mentioned was the extra push needed to get through.” Avery remarked, “I was surprised at how many teachers came out to support us; I didn’t even know some of them were into fiber arts.” 

While the team’s shawl didn’t win first prize this year, their shawl was auctioned off for $250, and the weavers had a ball participating. They intend to keep participating in Sheep to Shawl in future years, having fun and working towards 1st place in the competition. Meanwhile, many of Heidi’s weaving students won other awards for their entries in various Skein and Garment categories, and Quinlan won the "Best Junior Fiber Artist" award at the festival! Mark your calendars now for May 4th, 2025 to come cheer on our weavers!  

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