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A Support Group For Fiber Addicts: Big Sky Fiber Arts Guild
Montana Senior News, February/March 2015
Believe it or not, hand-spinning fibers and cooking gravy have something in common. Aside from their status as age-old household skills, the best results of both activities also happen to be as lump-free as possible. Granted anyone can learn to spin wool or make gravy but to do either well takes practice and patience.

No one knows this better than the members of Big Sky Fiber Arts Guild. This diverse group of fiber enthusiasts based in the Bitterroot happily carries on the heirloom traditions of spinning, weaving, knitting, and crocheting. In the spirit of our thrifty ancestors, some members also pull apart old pullovers to recycle the wool for knitting socks and hats while others felt the wool from yesteryear’s vests converting it into bags and bowls.
At the guild’s monthly meetings, members gather with like-minded souls to enjoy their favorite pastime and warmly encourage newcomers. For many, the experience of creating scarves, mittens, sweaters, and shawls matters as much to them as the finished products. The gentle whirring of the wheel’s turning, the soothing rhythmic rocking of the treadle, and the tactile richness of soft fibers flowing through fingers hold an appeal that only seems to grow over time.
“If inexperienced people want to learn about spinning or get better at what they do rather than just get by there’s always someone to help,” notes longtime member Marty Walters. “People are comfortable asking for and giving advice in a guild setting.”
The comfortable feeling is partly attributable to the group’s effort to avoid talking politics or religion. Some timely issues do get discussed, though. As Marty says, “Everybody is concerned about the effect of climate change on our future and about the traffic in Missoula.”
Periodically the guild features regional Spin-Ins, which also include educational programs, demonstrations, and a potluck lunch. So their mission statement very appropriately reads: to educate the public about the fiber arts and to promote knowledge and skills in the fiber arts, both by members and the public.”
“When we get together, we all want to handle the items each other makes, even if it’s something being worn at the moment. So if you don’t like to be touched, don’t go to a guild meeting; we’re all touchers,” says Leslie Taylor, a Stevensville spinner who values the friendship of the guild and the opportunity to learn from others.
Every odd-numbered year, the guild hosts a Fiber Fest, which attracts over 2,000 participants to the Ravalli County Fairgrounds in conjunction with Mule Days. For over three decades, fiber lovers from as far away as Oregon, Washington, and Canada plus vendors selling spun yarns, spinning fibers, fleeces, carders, and spinning wheels have descended upon Hamilton for the popular event. This year’s festival will be held June 12th to 14th, 2015 and feature educational workshops as well as contests for judging fleeces and skeins of hand-spun yarns.
In the world of spinning wheels—as in the world of cars—huge variations exist in engineering quality and price. More mechanically efficient than their historic ancestors, modern wheels are also more precise and nicely stay in alignment. Antique wheels, on the other hand, are often beautiful to behold but not as easy to use as their modern counterparts. Whether past or present models, they continue to be functional tools for making yarn to keep friends and families warm.
While not every guild member spins, most do. And typically the spinning is done for themselves, not to sell.
“Practice helps with uniformity, evenness, and control size of the yarn. The wheel puts the twist into the wool to make it a cohesive string, thread, or yarn,” explains Leslie. “The thickness depends on the amount of fleece you release during spinning.”
Spinning fleeces into yarn certainly isn’t a necessity these days, but that matters not to guild members. If practicality were the main point, none of them would be raising their own goats, sheep, alpacas, vicunas, and llamas just for the pleasure of creating garments from their fleeces.
According to Libby Maclay, one of the guild’s 35 members, Montana is great country for her critters.
“We don’t get too wet or too hot and it cools off at night. Goats and sheep can handle the cold as long as they can stay dry,” says Libby, who raises cashmere goats. “I live an isolated life and this gets me out amongst people and I learn from others. People like to have comrades who enjoy doing the same thing. It’s challenging to improve yourself all the time; the process is addictive.”
Guild member Deb Essen assuredly agrees. “The guild is my fiber addicts support group. It’s wonderful to be a part of a talented group of people who enthusiastically share their passions for these arts.”
Visit for more information or Montana Association of Weavers and Spinners ( to learn about other spinning and weaving guilds in Montana. Non-guild groups also meet regularly including:
·      Mission Valley Spinners
·      Alberton Spinners, Steve McEwen 406-626-4373; cell 406-531-0459
·      Whitehall Spinners, Jamie Landry 406-498-5985