Nurturing a creative threadWritten by Colby Dunn
It’s an overcast day, hints of early fall in the air, and Neal Howard is in her yard in Cullowhee. Her white skirt and lace-trimmed tank top are spattered with a kaleidoscope of colors, souvenirs of many days spent in this same yard, hand-dyeing yarn that has made its way to weavers, knitters and craftspeople around the region and the nation.
Howard is a weaver by trade, and an alumna of Haywood Community College’s professional crafts program, but a love of color has kept her dyeing yarn for 19 years.
“I like color,” she says, with a clear chuckle of a laugh. “I know the science behind how our eyes work and how we perceive color, but it is still magic to me when you put yellow and blue together and get green.”
“And I feel like that about orange and pink, too,” she quips, streams of dye running over her gloved hands as they squeeze the dripping ends of a skein of silk yarn, one half a creamy beige, the other now a vibrant cobalt.
Howard is using the space dyeing method, a simple process whose execution is much like its name — each space of the yarn is dipped in a dye mixture, steamed to lock in the color, washed to get rid of excess pigment and hung dry before being wound into skeins for knitting, weaving and other handcrafts.
Although yarn dyeing and weaving are now her livelihood — yarn shops around the region distribute her products, which are also for sale through her own online business, Henceforth Yarns — Howard’s love of color and fiber began long before she stumbled upon yarn-dyeing after leaving a career as a burned-out social worker.
“My mother and her mother were yarn people, and were always knitting and crocheting and tatting,” she said. “My grandmother taught me to knit when I was 5, so I started there with a love for yarn going through my fingers.”
Shortly thereafter, following an encounter with Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Howard says she fell for color. Her parents — “to their eternal credit” — put the young Howard into art lessons that launched her creative career.
All of what she dyes today — sometimes as much as much as 80 to 100 pounds a month — is silk yarn, some pure silk, some blended with other materials, because of their uniquely luxurious feel. But she was not always so enamored with the process. In fact, her first encounter with yarn dyeing was almost a disaster.
“It was awful,” she says bluntly, laughing heartily at the memory as she swiftly swishes her hand through a plastic tub filled with a shallow layer of mossy green dye. “Because it was recipes and formulas, and I won’t say it went over my head, but it went right by me.”
But after some encouragement from her then-teacher Catharine Ellis, former head of the fiber program at HCC and herself an avid dyer who literally wrote the textbook on the woven shibori method that Howard uses in much of her personal work, she took up a studio assistantship at the Penland School of Crafts. It was there that experience breathed life into the science that once failed to interest her.
Now, her business provides enough work to keep her busy, both in the new dyeing shed her family erected in her backyard last year and in the house that doubles as both home and weaving studio. It is packed with looms of various shapes and sizes, projects in process and spools of brilliant, jewel-toned thread and marked with a small sign on the door inscribed with “Neal the Weaver.”
Most of her customers, she says, are tourists and hobbyists seeking out that one skein of yarn for that one special project, and she’s currently dyeing for the upcoming Crafts Fair of the Southern Highlands and the Southeast Animal Fiber Fair, both in Asheville at the end of this month. Howard says that, while she’s not as interested in expanding her distribution, which would require additional help for what is currently a one-woman show, she sees the future of her craft in sharing her expertise.
“It wouldn’t hurt my feelings if some of it grew,” she says of her yarn business. “But I would like to help people that have some idea, but aren’t sure of their creativity.”
When asked why she’s stayed with the business through its financial ups and downs, she says, simply “I was called to it, and I can’t help it.”
“That just sounds so hokey,” she adds, laughing, “but I moved here when I was 24 years old and had this notion that maybe I should be pursuing this art thing, and that’s the one thing that’s stuck.”
And from that, Howard has built a successful business that will always, she says, engage her.