By Mary Ellen Riddle/Correspondent
Sitting on a weathered porch overlooking Croatan Sound, Beth Burns shares her life story that is bound to nature. Armed with a zoology degree, the fiber artist spent 30 years working as a fisheries biologist with North Carolina Marine Fisheries. Her Boston whaler rests at the edge of the sound, a place Burns knows like the back of her hand. Scarves and wraps fill her lap as she talks of her love of weaving and the sheep she keeps. Now retired, Burns spends time at her loom and fishing her beloved waters.
The 61-year-old Pittsburg native creates wearable art, hand towels, and blankets including scarves, shawls, and wraps that are in high demand. Her life reflects well in her smile and sparkling eyes as she describes her passion for fiber art and its colors, patterns, and textures.
Burns employs a variety of fabrics when weaving including wool she shears from her Merino and Romney sheep and then hand dyes with all-natural hues. “I just like natural fibers, earthy colors, and those things seem to always come through in my work,” she says. Combinations of neutral blues and browns and occasionally some reds, violets, and yellow greens highlight her art.
It takes patience to weave, says Burns who finds the task trying at times. “It’s a tedious and repetitive motion,” she says. But it also relaxes her. She keeps monotony at bay through her use of color and textures. The dying process especially holds surprises. Burns never knows exactly how a scarf, for example, is going to come out after she unleashes the freshly dyed work from bunched threads that help create a color pattern. She smiles like a child in awe as she holds up a finished scarf, delighted with the serendipitous result.
This aha-moment makes all the competing emotions and patience needed to understand complex math-based weaving worth it. It can take four to five days to set up the loom with a thousand threads in the mix. A glance at her loom, and one can become dizzy from all the parts and the coordinated hand-and-foot action involved. But, just as Burns spent almost half a lifetime understanding the area’s waters and fisheries, she is dedicated to learning her craft to reap the benefits—a work of art.
“You know, I always wanted to weave,” Burns says. She took her first class at Pocos in Arts School of Fine Craft in Columbia in 1996.Then she started taking lessons from a friend’s mother. “It was such a magical time,” says Burns who spent four years traveling on the Cedar Island Ferry to get to Morehead City to take lessons. Her mentor, Ferne Winborne, taught her weaving and how to use natural dyes.
Burns’ education has been ongoing since she started weaving. “I like to keep teaching myself something new, so I am always looking at other people’s patterns,” she says. She tries to take a class on some aspect of fiber art—including felting and natural indigo dye vatting—every other year. She’s used what she’s learned to craft colorful, felted, one-of-a-kind tunics, and wraps.
Burns keeps her sheep at Island Farm in Manteo where she occasionally demonstrates weaving. She feeds her sheep daily and sheers them for the wool. The animals yield about 10 pounds of wool annually, more than enough to keep Burns supplied with yarn. “People like the story—it came off Millie, and I raised the sheep, sheared it, washed [the wool] and spun and weaved it and sewed it together.” In Burns’ hands, nature and art merge to form Stunning wearable creations.
To see her latest work, stop by the Dare County Arts Council in Manteo to see it displayed at the Mollie Fearing Memorial Art Show throughout May. To view her work and contact about buying it, go to wateresideweaver.com.