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Farm-to-Fashion in Sky Like Snow

Hannah demonstrates her knitting machine. Photos by Christine Cole
Hannah demonstrates her knitting machine.

Written By

Christine Cole

Written on

August 16 , 2017

“Farm to Table” is a familiar term—the distribution of goods from local farms to local communities that enables us to know where our food comes from and encourages the support of our producers. I hadn’t much entertained the idea of “Farm to Fashion,” hadn’t really considered the depth of the phrase, until I met fiber artist Hannah Regier at her home and studio in Athens, Vermont. Hannah combines her longstanding interest in farming and her connection to the land, with a strong passion for the materials she uses, to make fine knit wool hats.

There are two remaining early 19th-century schoolhouses in the little town of Athens, and Hannah lives in one of them. It is surrounded by gardens, a wooded hill and an open field. Her house is separated from the small stone building that serves as her studio by a narrow dirt road and one doesn’t have to work hard to envision the place a century or two ago. It’s a ready-made picture and the scene is idyllic.

The brick schoolhouse was once one large room and is now outfitted into a cozy home with kitchen, bath, and a 2nd story loft. Just a few yards across the dirt road, sitting eye level with dense treetop branches, Hannah’s studio overlooks a wide, fast running creek murmuring over rocks as it hurries past large garden plots where straight rows of young plants wave in attention. When I asked Hannah how she came to find this incredible place that supports her unique artistry, I quickly realized that hard work and accumulated life experience brought her here. The daughter of two Vermont craftspeople, Hannah spent her young adult life in the Champlain Valley working on various agricultural and creative ventures before pursuing a career in digital product design that took her to the West Coast and India. Back in her home state now, she speaks of her home with humble appreciation and values what she has created. “I wouldn’t have come to this without everything else I have done,” she says.

Hannah has been knitting since childhood. “I’ve always loved making hats; I’ve knit hundreds of them!” she exclaims, handing me a sample. This is an exquisite alpaca and wool blend hat, stylishly designed with simple lines that would look good on anyone. Visually, I am struck by the muted colors that pattern an abstract landscape in harmonious tones across the body of the hat. The quality of the fiber, coupled with tones that seem to have risen right out of the earth, make this a sensual experience the second my skin makes contact.

I too, have knitted since I was a young kid, so learning about Hannah’s approach and being in her creative space was a real treat for me. As I looked around her kitchen, I saw her studio everywhere. It spilled over into her living space and integrated itself beautifully—wooden racks of dyed and undyed skeins, a hardwood swift for winding the yarn, wound balls of various striking colors, carefully labeled bags of mushrooms and plant materials gathered for dyeing, bags of fleece, completed hats and works in progress, and sketchbooks of notes and drawings documenting her various ideas and playful meanderings.

Everything that goes into the creation of Hannah’s hats is locally produced, grown, or foraged. “Everything is from here!” she says proudly as her hands gesture widely to encompass the world around her. Wool and alpaca fleeces are purchased directly from farms and washed, blended, and spun at a small woman-owned mill in New Hampshire. The finished two-ply lace weight yarn returns to Hannah on cones, ready for her to wind into skeins for dyeing. The loft of the Merino-like wool and the softness of the alpaca is a perfect coupling that results in a sturdy knit of lightweight elasticity and warmth.

Hannah employs both immersion dyeing and hand painting to color the skeins. This part of the process is particularly fascinating as all the beautiful colors displayed in the hats are derived from the plants, mushrooms, flowers, and roots of the area. What Hannah does not grow herself, she finds by foraging her local woods and fields. This harvesting invites a great deal of experimentation, and she shared with me the result of one fruitful chance she took by manipulating the pH balance in a decoction she made from a foraged mushroom. The final yield was a blue caught somewhere between earth and sky—a magical color that made the little wound ball as quiet and attractive as a Robin’s egg. I couldn’t stop looking at it.

Although a foundation is established, there is the freedom of chance in Hannah’s process. I found it interesting that although she measures the skeins precisely and keeps all the rounds of yarn in order as she hand paints on them, changes in tension throughout the process enable delightful variations to emerge in the finished knit. She also demonstrated how she wrapped areas of a skein together to create a tie-resist in the immersion-dyeing process. Both methods retain an element of surprise despite the structure of a plan. Hannah thinks about the landscape as she paints and the resulting abstracted patterns reflect this. The hats embody color rhythms that sing of sky, earth, water, and fire. Each is a one-off; each is unique.

The double-sided hats are constructed on a knitting machine that, like everything else, has history. Made in the 1960s, in the avocado color so popular then, it’s completely analogue and non-electric. Hannah found it in her mother’s barn some years ago and got it up and running by keeping a watchful eye on eBay to replace its vintage parts. It was evident to me that she had an intimate knowledge of its workings, its quirks, and its advantages. As in hand-knitting, the machine is sensitive to environmental changes in temperature and humidity, and this can have small effects on the gauge that influences the yarn-dyed patterning. I listened to it hum and click happily as Hannah demonstrated manually running it back and forth for each row. It worked obediently under her skillful hands as she manipulated stitches in the rows for the shaping of the hat and diligently charted her progress.

Not surprisingly, this farmer-artist’s work is bound to the cyclical pattern of the seasons. Winter is the time for research, for applying to craft fairs, and for selling hats. It’s also the creative zone where Hannah can think about and develop designs to be made in summer.

It was late spring when I visited, and her numerous garden beds held young, careful rows of various dyer’s plants that she had started from seeds indoors. In addition to tending the garden, spring marks the beginning of dying wools using decoctions of mushrooms and plant materials dried from the previous year—and making hats for the fall season. I learned that the dried flowers of Dyer’s Coreopsis produce a vibrant deep orange, and that she uses the Japanese indigo plants fresh—as soon as they are cut in August. The resulting deep, trusting blue seemed worth the complexities indigo entails.

In the summer, Hannah continues dying and knitting, while beginning the harvest for next year. Some wild plants of the summer harvest are sumac, bracken fern and goldenrod. Mushrooms are foraged from August to October—Dyer’s Polypore makes a rich, golden color that I was especially attracted to. Autumn is also the time to start to sell, update the website, and continue making hats.

Hannah’s natural curiosity and creativity are laced with a scientific approach—carefully identifying what she encounters in the fields and woods is inherent. Even the name of her business is earthbound and organic, with a little science thrown in. When I asked what inspired it, she told me that she had been brainstorming a long while for a name; she showed me the many lists columned in her notebook of possible ideas.

“Then, I was sitting at the kitchen table looking out at the sky one day and I could tell it was going to snow. You know how the sky looks right before it snows? I was watching the crystalline sky and I thought, ‘“Oh…sky like snow!”’

And that was the name that fit and held true. So, she went with it and created her own website at skylikesnow.com. I can’t say that I really know what look the sky has before it snows, but I do know that I’ll be paying extra attention next winter.

Hannah has successfully developed a harmonic balance between her art, her home, and the natural world around her. Because she uses materials from her own landscape to paint her abstract landscapes on the wool, a deep sense of place is embedded in all she creates. It reflects a woman who is happy in what she does and who she is—passionately devoted to her work and her home. Her rapport with nature is fueled by her love and respect for it and nature’s inherent element of surprise. The allowance of chance is a critical and cherished piece of her process.
I had the pleasure of trying on one of Hannah’s hats and must say that the lightness in the weight, the warmth, and the snug elasticity in the fit all felt fantastic—and it looked as good as it felt.

On weekends Labor Day through Christmas, Hannah and her beautiful hats will be in the gallery space at 4 Meetinghouse Road in Rockingham, Vermont. She will also be exhibiting at the Paradise City Fair of Fine and Functional Art in Northampton, Massachusetts, October 7–9; Paradise City in Marlborough, Massachusetts, November 17–19; and CraftBoston at the Hynes Convention Center, December 15–17.

Sign up for emails at skylikesnow.com to stay informed about other upcoming sales events around the Northeast.

Photos by Christine Cole

About the Author

Christine Cole

Christine Cole

Visual and fiber artist Christine Cole has been knitting since childhood and previously taught knitting and drawing classes in the Burlington area.

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Home Stories Issues 2017 Fall 2017 | Issue 42 Farm-to-Fashion in Sky Like Snow