Exploring Art

A Universal Craft

By Karen Ott Mayer | Photography courtesy of the University of Mississippi Museum

The Oxford Fiber Arts Festival began as a way to have fun and has grown into a culturally significant event. Join the festivities Jan. 24-27 as knitters and spinners share their talents.

Following the fan-packed football season in Oxford, Mississippi, a January event brings an unexpected mix of guests to the historic square. A four-legged guest wearing a warm, wooly coat could arguably be more important to kids than any team jersey.
During the Ninth Annual Oxford Fiber Arts Festival on Jan. 24-27, visitors may have a chance to mingle with a sheep or llama while learning how to knit or spin. After all, fiber does mean wool. The festival will be held at the Powerhouse arts venue, located at 413 S. 14th Street in Oxford.
Started in 2011, the event grew from a working collaboration between the University Museum and the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council and Knit 1, a local yarn shop.
What began also as a reason for fun has grown into a culturally significant event.
“I like to say we’re the largest and oldest fiber works festival in the state, because really, we’re the only one in the state,” says Lynn Wells who has been involved with the festival since the beginning. “We had no idea what we were doing; we just knew what we knew and thought it sounded fun!”
Originally from Memphis, Wells has lived in Oxford for more than 50 years and laughs when talking about the festival, and of course, all the fun. “The first year was really small and homegrown, but we did have a national antique garment lecturer, vendors, animals and spinners.”
This year, all types of fiber arts demonstrations will be underway such as knitting, felting, quilting, spinning, and machine arts.
A knitter herself, Wells learned later in life and has taught others. “My sister taught me to knit. She came to my house with a bottle of wine, needles and yarn. What’s funny is she taught me to cast on, knit and pearl but I kept adding stitches with every row. I asked her what I was doing wrong and she said to keep knitting. When I told her I still had more stitches than I was supposed to, she replied she forgot to teach me how to frog it.” Confused, Wells asked her sister what that meant. “She took the knitting from me and said ‘rib it, rib it’, then unraveled the whole work!”
It’s that type of fun camaraderie that a group of knitters or spinners can find together, especially when sharing their craft with newcomers. At the festival, guests can learn to knit and even little kids can pick up finger knitting.
On a more serious note, Wells explains the importance of her own craft which she taught to her grandchildren. “I told them first it’s women’s work. Men took it up then walked away. Second, I told them this is something everyone has been doing somewhere, forever. When you knit, you’re doing the same thing someone in Peru or China or Norway is doing. It’s a universal community.”

Another key point she makes is knitting isn’t just a craft to keep someone warm. “There are some breathtaking works and master knitters who create knitted art, too.”
As of 2016, festival has continued under the leadership of Andi Bedsworth, a well-known artist and vendor in the community. Specializing in costume design, Bedsworth formerly taught in the theater department at the University of Mississippi. Today, she continues to teach at Northwest Community College in Oxford.
“I didn’t want it to end,” she says. She explains how the Powerhouse became the venue for the festival. “Years ago, there was a Gee’s Bend quilt exhibit at the University of Mississippi Museum and they began talking with the folks at the Powerhouse about future exhibits.” The museum has served as host to the lecturers and other experts tied to the festival.
Like Wells, Bedsworth believes there is renewed interest in homesteading and traditional art forms. But that doesn’t mean the crafts are old fashioned. “We see a lot of cool, contemporary art work. This year, we’ll have a textile conservator.”
Bedsworth is excited about this year’s event. “It’s become even bigger. We have more than 20 vendors doing amazing work with yarn and wool. Visitors can explore new tools and products or buy a finished piece. We also have demonstrations.”
Beth Shafer, co-owner of Three Creeks Farm with her husband Steve, has been a vendor for many years. “This is a very nice small festival. It’s very artsy and they have beautiful art and a wide variety of vendors.”
A spinner, Shafter specializes in producing wool, roving and natural fiber dyes. During the festival, she will be selling different fiber products for spinning, dying, and felting. She will also be giving a demonstration. “Spinning is so simple it’s difficult,” she says. “It’s very Zen. Adults today have a hard time slowing down enough to learn the technique. Children learn quickly.”
And as if to echo Wells’ earlier words, Bedsworth adds, “It’s winter, it’s January and it’s fun to do!”

oxfordarts.com/events/fiberfest

Read More in DeSoto Magazine online.