Fabric of Life melds culture with crafts

  • Becky Ashenden and her husband, John Marcy, pose for a photo at Vavstuga Weaving School in Shelburne, which works in partnership with the couple’s nonprofit, Fabric of Life. The nonprofit teaches a wide range of traditional skills including weaving, pottery, making your own shelter and agricultural practices. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Becky Ashenden and her husband, John Marcy, pose for a photo at Vavstuga Weaving School in Shelburne, which works in partnership with the couple’s nonprofit, Fabric of Life. The nonprofit teaches a wide range of traditional skills including weaving, pottery, making your own shelter and agricultural practices. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Vavstuga Weaving School in Shelburne works in partnership with Fabric of Life. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Accompanied by Tonya Jones, at left, and Rachelle Ackerman, at right, Alden tries his hand at weaving during Fabric of Life’s Barn Fest last year. Contributed photo

  • Instructor John Santiago leads a pizza oven building class offered by Fabric of Life. Contributed photo

  • Giving a house concert as part of a Fabric of Life program are, left to right, George Wilson, Becky Ashenden and David Kaynor. Contributed photo

  • Mike Barnes displays his hard cider at last year’s Barn Fest. Contributed photo

For the Recorder
Published: 3/15/2019 3:39:56 PM

Two centuries ago, people needed to have the traditional skills like weaving that Fabric of Life teaches. But in modern times, Founder Becky Ashenden said, the nonprofit allows for personal enrichment.

Fabric of Life was the fulfillment of a nearly lifelong dream for Ashenden, who operates the organization out of her Shelburne home with her husband, John Marcy. Marcy, who grew up in Lexington, said he lived through a “time of transition” where the country was moving from an agricultural focus to more modern ways of life.

“All the kids worked. We cut wood, ran a tractor, raised chickens. We were involved in our family’s life on that level,” Marcy said.

Fabric of Life began with Vav Immersion weaving courses that embrace all skill levels. The 15-week courses are based on Swedish principles Ashenden learned as a young woman visiting Sweden. Fabric of Life works in partnership with Vavstuga Weaving School, also in Shelburne. Students learn a wide range of skills relative to weaving that include fabric analysis, history, designing, drafting, business management, project planning and much more.

An important feature of the course is the learning and creation of culture and community. Joan Funk of Madison, Ala., took the class in the fall of 2017.

“The class ranged in age from 21 to 60. Some, like me, didn’t know much and others were pretty proficient,” Funk said.

Funk said how inspired she was by Ashenden’s passion and enthusiasm, and how close the group became over the weeks together.

“We learned about colors, how to put them together, how to use flax and spin thread. Now I’m not afraid to work on my own loom and that’s kind of cool,” she said.

Melissa Rudder of Florence, who said her involvement with the organization is “on the back end of things,” was originally an apprentice with Ashenden at the weaving school. Rudder helped shepherd the organization into becoming a nonprofit.

With the help of the New York-based Ddora Foundation, which funds the preservation of the “applied arts of America,” Fabric of Life was able to become a 501(c)3 three years ago, and can receive grant funding for operation and scholarships for programming.

“We are looking to help people cultivate a way of life, not just how to weave,” Rudder said. More philosophically, she added, “We are in a time of tough conversations and divisiveness. In our courses, we help people get back to their roots. Maybe even roots they didn’t know they had.”

Concert set for April 7

Fabric of Life also offers courses and events on natural timber framing, timber harvest and music.

On Sunday, April 7, from 2 to 4 p.m., Fabric of Life will present Andrea & Troy in concert. The afternoon will include traditional fiddle and dance music of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia as well as Cape Breton foods. The donation is $20 for the event at 47 Bassett Road in Shelburne.

Ashenden grew up with contra music and played piano to accompany the fiddlers, she said.

“We (along with her mother) were part of that Cape Breton world a lot,” said Ashenden, who added she also visited Bulgaria with her mother in the 1980s. “We started having Balkan dances once a year in our barn. We’d decorate for a month!”

Marcy said their involvement with various folk music and dance is part of a direct line.

“Folk work, folk life. It’s an effortless segue,” he said.

Timber harvest course starts March 23

Fabric of Life’s upcoming courses will involve timber harvest March 23 and 24. The course teaches the entire process of selecting and converting trees into lumber.

Following that is a course on traditional timber frame construction that includes a hands-on building project on the Bassett Road farm. The instructor is Jeremy Miles Topitzer of Colrain.

Marcy is also looking to expand the reach of Fabric of Life to bring industrial crafts to local high schools that offer tech programs.

“We’d like to develop our relationship with them. Doing this type of teaching with students expands our relevance. More people could benefit in terms of future employment,” he said.

In hopes of having more younger students participate in Fabric of Life’s weaving courses, scholarships are offered for people 18 to 35 with the help of the Ddora Foundation.

“Fabric of Life aims to bring people together, engage them in a community and create a broader community,” said Jennifer Martin, programs and partnerships agent for Fabric of Life.

Martin, the newest member of the organization, describes the work of Fabric of Life in “four main veins.” One, she said, is “land-based. Farm, fields, agriculture, and connection with nature and how we use the land.” The second involves “working with your hands,” such as with weaving, and pottery. The third vein is a larger craft skill set, making your own shelter, Martin said. Last but not least is the integration of music and dance.

“Music culture is bringing in celebration. All of these elements weave together to make community,” she said.

Barn Fest set for June 8

Another annual event the organization holds is “Barn Fest,” which will be held on the 80 Bassett Road farm on June 8 this year. The event features traditional agriculture, hands-on handcrafts for all ages, music and dance. Locally produced foods such as wood-fired pizza, beer, wine, honey, veggies, cheeses, meats and pickles will be available. Locally produced crafts such as weaving tools, books, yarns, folk instruments and records will also be offered.

Hands-on projects will include weaving, spinning, timber framing, embroidery and blacksmithing. There will be Scandinavian and Balkan music and a potluck supper. The event is by donation and starts at 1 p.m.

Ashenden, who has a clear and great love for her organization, is also looking to create a foundation in the future so that Fabric of Life “can live on long after I’m gone.”

For more information on Fabric of Life events and courses, visit fabricoflife.org.

Greenfield Recorder

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