Fiber artistry

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Ellison uses wool from flock for her craft

By Amy Kyllo

ZUMBROTA — On a farmstead near Zumbrota lives a fiber artisan who is surrounded by the animals which provide her with their natural bounty.

Nancy Ellison owns Ellison Sheep Farm, where she cares for 50 chickens, four goats and her collection of 12 sheep.

“They can be like your cats and dogs,” Ellison said. “Individuals that are (your) pets.”

Ellison’s flock of sheep support her extensive fiber art work. She does spinning, weaving and felting. Much of her medium comes from her own flock.

“To me, it’d be boring to not do it,” Ellison said. “I like doing things by hand.”

The artist’s sheep are a mix of Shetland, Icelandic and Gotland, plus other breeds through cross breeding.

Ellison works sheep into the design of many of her pieces. She is skilled at Scandinavian weaving techniques, some of which, she said, are complicated.

“There are so many kinds of weaving you can do that you can weave all your life and never explore all the possibilities,” Ellison said. “If I had to do a whole lot of one thing, I would be bored and wouldn’t want to do it. I like always learning something new.”

Ellison taught many classes around the area in the past.

“I’ve met lots of interesting people through the years,” Ellison said. “That’s been fun.”
In the last few years, she has stopped teaching classes, but she does teach occasional individuals. She hosts visitors at the farm a couple times a month by appointment for those who are interested in learning about sheep, spinning, weaving and more.

“Anything I teach somebody can live on, especially (if I) teach a younger person,” Ellison said.

Ellison does most of her fiber art work inside her home, but she also has converted part of the bottom story of the old dairy barn on her property into a space she can work or host visitors. The other side of the barn houses goats. In the arts area, the space has been painted white, and the gutters have been filled in with cement. A lone stanchion, which is partially hidden, stands as a testament to its earlier use.

The area is inviting, with a table and chairs, a place to heat hot water for tea, woven wall hangings hung up here and there, a small stained-glass gracing the back wall, and a bank of spinning wheels as well as different sizes of looms, some of which Ellison uses.

Ellison is a dealer of spinning wheels and looms and keeps her stock in various places on her farmstead.

Recentaly, Ellison made a shawl out of gray, black, brown and white wool she has saved from favorite sheep.

“I don’t plan too far,” Ellison said. “I just (do stuff) sometimes on the whim of the spur of the moment to get a new idea and get interested in doing it.”

One of her favorite weaving techniques is krokbragd. Krokbragd pieces are intricately woven and feature vibrant colors.

“I like doing little figures of weaving sheep and fences and people and so on,” Ellison said.

Ellison grew up as an only child.

“My mother always encouraged me with arts and crafts — me and my cousins too,” Ellison said. “When we got together, we would always do whatever latest crafts somebody had an idea for.”

After high school, Ellison got a college degree in home economics and taught home economics classes in Houston from 1966-72.

It was during this time that she learned how to spin from an older woman, Olga Torgerson, whose family had done spinning through the generations, not letting the craft fall by the wayside.

In 1968, Ellison needed credits to renew her teaching certificate, so she attended the University of Oslo, in Oslo, Norway, for their international summer school. At the university, she took her first weaving class.
Ellison has been weaving ever since.

Her work has been featured in art galleries and shows. One of her favorite krokbragd pieces was at a show in Minneapolis this winter, and this past fall, she had pieces at two shows in Red Wing.

Ellison is part of multiple fiber organizations including the Zumbro River Fiber Arts Guild, where she has been a member 45 years. Ellison said these guilds and groups provide a social life for her.
Some of Ellison’s pieces feature the natural colors of the wool from her own farm. Other pieces, such as her krokbragd weaving, use purchased wool.

Depending on the amount of wool Ellison harvests, she sometimes does the processing herself, while other times the wool is processed outside her farm.

Ellison does not breed her sheep anymore. They range in age from 9-18 years.

“(I plan to) keep on with my old sheep until they’ve all died of old age,” Ellison said. “They can just go peacefully on their own. So, that’s the retirement plan with the sheep herd.”