The world of fiber arts is an extensive and ancient medium, involving a vast array of different yarn materials, weaves, looms, stitches and more, some of which have a history stretching back centuries.
For Belen fiber artist and weaver, Donald Pippenger, it is a world that has held his intrigue for more than 40 years — from the 1960s when he first discovered the art of latch hook and made his first rug.
Pippenger’s home studio overflows with a myriad of different fibers in every color, variety and texture, from carpet warp to unmercerized cotton to rayon and churro wool.
On a large desk, a rigid heddle loom lays idle with the beginnings of a delicate pink baby blanket emerging from its warp on which he is experimenting with different patterns for the blankets he plans to weave for his first grandbaby, due in August.
He wears a vest in smoky grey and purple hues, constructed from his own hand-woven material. The vest, he says, was fashioned by a friend and fellow fiber artist, Terri Greenlee, and was published in Hand Woven in 2011.
Pippenger claims that most of his work goes to his children and grandchildren, but samples from his different artistic phases and mediums adorn the walls, tables and chairs.
His first rug hangs behind a rocking chair, displaying a geometric pattern in earth tones, which, he said, he found in a children’s book in a bookstore in Seattle all those years ago.
“The pattern just fit right in there,” Pippenger says, admiring his very first creation.
He thought he had really fallen for rug making until his second rug ended in a debacle when he lost $500 worth of yarn that was intended to create a red, Asian-style piece.
After that, Pippenger says he decided to find a different outlet, picking up on needle point, then cross stitch when he moved to Belen and joined the Belen Stitchers group.
“It’s a progression is what it is,” says Pippenger, a member of the Valencia County group Fiber to Finish, the Belen Stitchers, the Albuquerque-based Los Araños and the Handweavers Guild of America.
“It’s very relaxing — I like to create things and I’m creating fabric,” he says. “I just like fiber, I don’t know why.”
But with age and weakening eye sight, Pippenger said eventually he could no longer do the fine, detailed work required for needle point and cross stitching.
So, while attending the 2007 Fiber Fiesta in Albuquerque, he picked up his first loom, which he says was “the most expensive piece of firewood” he’s ever bought.
“It was a piece of trash, I couldn’t do anything with it,” he said.
So he sold it and took up the rigid heddle loom instead, which he uses avidly today.
“I weave only on the rigid heddles because I didn’t like the harness looms,” he said. “So I stayed with my rigid heddles and sold the harness loom.”
The rigid heddle props against a table at one end and against his lap at the other and has two harnesses, making it a good beginner’s loom.
The going is slow on it, but Pippenger, who is all self taught with the help of Betty Lynn Davenport’s instructional DVDs and books, says he prefers it that way as it suits his nature.
The experience of weaving, says Pippenger, is therapeutic.
“It’s a great joy and good satisfaction, not many people understand or appreciate the rigid heddle,” he said. “It takes a little time — you’ve got to think about it.
“It’s not really hard, but slow. You have to count — you have to know your pattern,” Pippenger said. “I’m slower and simpler. I don’t like high tech stuff. It’s what you enjoy, and I don’t like stressful things. I don’t like to be uptight about my weaving.”
He said when he first started using the rigid heddle, he would beat his weave too aggressively because that’s how he thought you were supposed to do it. Then a friend told him it should be “like the kiss of a butterfly,” and he learned to be more relaxed about weaving and found that in doing so he made fewer mistakes.
In 2009, Pippenger entered his first piece created on the rigid heddle — an orlon acrylic and alpaca blended shawl. To his surprise, he won Viewer’s Choice and Judge’s Choice.
He says some people don’t like their work to be judged, but the Belen resident enjoys entering competitions to see how his work compares with others, some of whom have been weaving for decades.
“I like entering competitions, because then I get to see what my work is like compared to other people,” he says. “There are some really wonderful weavers and crafts people out in this world here.”
On a table rests an afghan in progress that he says he is making to enter in their year’s New Mexico State Fair. The base material is cotton monk’s cloth and he is finishing it with huck embroidery, a style sometimes called Swedish weave that was developed in the 1930s, using the rich, deep burgundy and hunter green hues of late summer.
It is twice the size of the lap robes he usually makes for wounded veterans at the VA Hospital in Albuquerque, and will be the first afghan he’s entered in the fair.
“About nine, 10, years ago, I was with the Belen Stitchers doing needle point and that’s when I began to shake and I couldn’t see my material as well, and I knew I had to do something,” Peppenger said. “So I went to a session that they had and there was this other lady that was in there — a local lady. She had started (an afghan) and I saw it and fell in love with it.”
In his love of textiles, Pippenger discovers inspiration everywhere. Last year, he said he went to the Fiber Fiesta and met a lady who was doing a style of embroidery, similar to couching, called colcha, which he says was popular during Spanish colonialism in Northern New Mexico hundreds of years ago.
Using a coarser yarn, made from the wool of Navajo churro sheep, he has been weaving various smaller pieces, such as scarves, that he calls “blanks,” which other people can embroider colcha on. However, he also does colcha, finishing some of his own blanks in vibrant, floral patterns.
At the moment, he is creating a churro and colcha scarf for the Fiber to Finish group’s color challenge, in which members create a piece in their medium that matches the color pallet of a certain picture.
The picture he is working from depicts red mesas, which he represents in the umber tones of the scarf, and a multi-colored hot air balloon, which he interprets through colorful flowers in colcha, climbing up the center of the material.
Pippenger, who often gives workshops for the Fiber to Finish group, says he plans to keep going until he can’t go anymore. And if his eye sight gets a little weaker, well, he says, he’ll just finder a bigger medium.
“It keeps me out of the bars and off the streets chasing women,” Pippenger jokes.
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