Follow a long, dirt road through the Smoky Hills State Forest and you’ll find Bruce Engebretson’s studio tucked among hardwoods and pines.
Here, he spins, dyes and weaves in the ethnic tradition, using techniques that he learned from pioneer weavers.
It’s a quiet, unhurried avocation.
There’s no talk of rushing. No electronic beeping or technically advanced machinery.
Only patience and the creak of aged, wooden looms.
Not too many generations ago, weaving and knitting skills were relied upon to make household textiles that provided warmth, comfort and basic needs, says Engebretson.
He’ll be demonstrating the loom and spinning wheel for the Pine to Prairie Fiber Arts Trail, a weekend-long event showcasing both traditional and contemporary textile art forms. The grand opening of Minnesota’s “first fiber arts trail” is April 8-10.
Similar to Art Leap, it includes 16 self-guided studio tours, demos, artist talks and workshops from Bemidji to Fosston.
Engebretson will talk about his iconic weaving style and hold demos at Northern Woolen Mill in Fosston.
“I eschew the word ‘artist,” Engebretson said, preferring instead the broader term “artisan.”
Any worker skilled in a trade - whether weaving or plumbing - is an artisan, he explained.
By day, he’s a full-time emergency medical technician for White Earth Ambulance and a part-time nurse’s aide at St. Mary’s Hospital in Detroit Lakes.
Originally from Height of Land, Engebretson discovered traditional weaving as a 12-year-old at the Minnesota State Fair. A demonstration captured his young imagination.
His grandmother had a spinning wheel, which he “forced to operate.”
“I did spin, however poorly,” he said.
Fortunately, Norwegian relatives came to visit one summer, offering tutelage and setting him “on a better course.”
Later in life, Engebretson learned to process and spin flax into linen from a Finnish friend, Anni Putikka.
One of his great mentors is master weaver Norman Kennedy. Kennedy learned the trade from the last of the professional hand weavers in Aberdeen, Scotland. In 1974, he founded the Marshfield School of Weaving in central Vermont.
“I had very good teachers,” Engebretson said.
His studio currently houses eight old-style looms.
More are in storage. He won’t confess how many he, in fact, owns.
“I have enough. Put it this way: I’m not in the market for looms,” he said.
He acquired them from all around the world - the Baltic countries, Norway, Sweden. Others were found in Boston, the White Mountains of New Hampshire and even Duluth.
His oldest loom was built in the 1780s, the newest in 2012.
He has constructed his own looms as well.
Some are built for specific tasks, Engebretson said, but all of the ones he owns are multi-purpose. They are all handcrafted.
He uses raw wool, linen and rummage sale castoffs for his textile projects.
“The weaving I do I try to make affordable,” he said.
Top-quality threads are harder to come by, he notes. Most mills are gone. Wool is spendy at $25 per pound.
Engebretson handspins a lot of yarn for knitting and a certain amount for weaving. By doing so, he saves $150 in materials.
One blanket requires six pounds of spun wool, a pair of mittens 6 ounces.
He purchases acrylic yarn for baby blankets, though. “No one wants a wool baby blanket,” he joked.
His goal is to make one blanket per winter.
He mostly gives away his homespun work - rugs, blankets, dish towels, sweaters and mittens - as gifts to friends and family.
He’s been experimenting with natural dyes, harvesting materials from the neighboring forest. Birch leaves gathered around midsummer yield “a good, clear yellow.”
“If you boil almost anything, it’ll give you some shade of yellow,” he said.
Water lily roots produce black. A South American insect called cochineal boiled with rhubarb leaves results in carmine, a shade of red.
He will gather and test hazelnuts this summer. His small reference library offers guidance.
“Dyeing is truly a science,” he said.
Starting in June, he’d like to form a natural dye study group. It will meet the first Saturday of the month.
He offers private or group instruction by appointment. “All inquiries welcome,” he said.