Bayou Artist | Aleatha Shannon
article by STARLA GATSON
photography by KELLY MOORE CLARK
Aleatha Shannon says people are often surprised to find out what she does. But if they knew her story and the journey that led to her craft, they’d see it was only a matter of time before she started Willow Oak Fiber and Farm.
Through her business, Shannon raises angora rabbits, shears their fibers, and uses them to spin her own yarn. Then, she sells her handspun yarn and the items she knits or weaves with it at local farmers markets, art crawls, and on her website.
“The people I talk to at markets at things usually are like, ‘I didn’t know anyone did this still; this is a lost art,’” Shannon reveals. “[But] it’s not a lost art. It’s just a very niche art.”
Yarn spinning has only been a part of the Kansas-born artist, wife, and mother’s life since 2020, but fiber art — fine art that uses textiles like fabric, yarn, or fibers — has been Shannon’s go-to for years.
“My mom and grandma both knew how to sew and would make clothes or quilts, so I learned how to do that pretty early on,” she says “When I was a teen, I got really into sewing my own clothes. I learned how to knit as well.”
However, knitting was an expensive hobby, and like most teenagers, Shannon didn’t have much money to spare. She could have settled for cheaper acrylic yarn from places like Walmart or Hobby Lobby, she explains before admitting, “It just doesn’t feel very nice.”
She wanted high-quality material, the kind made from luxury fibers that her hometown yarn shop sold and with a higher price tag. But from the time she was a beginner knitter to adulthood, Shannon couldn’t bring herself to buy higher-end yarn — not often, anyway. She shares that she occasionally used birthday or Christmas money to treat herself, but since that didn’t happen often, Shannon wasn’t knitting much.
Years later, when she and her husband finished college and had a bit more money to spend, Shannon began knitting more frequently. As she became reacquainted with her old pastime, she stumbled upon social media profiles of people who raised sheep and spun wool. Shannon was so interested in what she saw that she had to try it herself. So, she asked for a drop spindle and wool for Christmas.
“I was really hesitant to try it,” she recalls, “because it seemed like yet another obsession that would cost a lot of money, and I wouldn’t be able to do it as much as I wanted to.”
It only took a couple of days for her to push past the initial resistance to trying this new craft. Before long, Shannon was sitting, drop spindle and wool in hand, and watching YouTube tutorials to learn how to master this skill.
Her first batch of handspun yarn wasn’t the best, she says. But she worked to improve, and suddenly, she had access to the high-quality material she always wanted. Not long after she started spinning, Shannon bought two angora rabbits, learned to care for them, and used their fibers to make her materials.
“I knew I loved this way more than any of the other fiber crafts I had ever done,” she says of her newfound pastime. “[I knew] that this was what I wanted to do. I had to buy some equipment that was expensive, and I wanted a way to pay myself back for that. Also, because I get so obsessive, I want to be doing it all the time.”
Two questions lingered in Shannon’s mind. How would she pay herself back for the equipment she already purchased and cover the costs for anything else she’d need to buy in the future? And what could she do with all of her creations? One solution resolved both issues: start a business. Thus, Willow Oak Farm and Fiber was born.
Selling fibers, yarns, and knitted goods was not only a practical next step. It was also the fulfillment of Shannon’s lifelong dream of being a professional artist.
“I wanted to be a mom, and I wanted to be an artist; my entire life, that’s what I wanted to do,” she declares.
She’s been creating things for as long as she can remember, she goes on. Drawing, painting, sewing, quilting — she did it all. Despite young Shannon’s interest in making art and desire to do so professionally, she didn’t pursue art in college. In fact, beyond the occasional 4-H learning opportunity and high school art class, she has no formal training. Everything else, though, has been self-taught.
“When I went to college, I knew I would always be doing art, and I didn’t feel like I needed to go to college to learn that,” she explains. “I knew I could learn a lot of really great things in an art program, but I decided to learn things I wasn’t sure I’d have the discipline to learn on my own.”
If not for her university’s curriculum requirements, Shannon may not have had the discipline to learn things like art history and literature, but she certainly has the drive to sharpen her skills and develop new ones on her own. Her desire to learn about her craft is more than just drive, she explains; it’s more like a compulsion.
“I have kind of an obsessive mind,” she reveals. “If I see something and am like, ‘That’s really cool,’ it just lights something up in me, and I have to find out how it works or how I can do it. It’s something I have to do. It fills my mind.”
Shannon’s “obsessive mind” works in her favor for a couple of reasons. First, it makes her good at what she does, and second, it makes her more knowledgeable about spinning and fiber art in general. That knowledge comes in handy when she gets the opportunity to have what she calls “educational chats” in settings like schools and libraries.
She realizes not everyone wants to learn how to spin — it’s a time-consuming process! — so she focuses a lot of her energy on teaching where popular fibers and textiles come from and the tools people used for fiber art in the past.
“All that work was such a big part of human history, and nowadays, people don’t think about that,” Shannon says. “They just go buy whatever clothes they want, keep them for a little while, and then they throw them away.”
Shannon wants that to change, though. She believes that, when people know and think about where their goods come from, they’ll realize just how creative humans are and have always been.
“Everything we have today is because of human creativity just building on itself,” she declares. “Fiber art is the perfect example of that. It starts with humans [thousands of] years ago picking fluff off a bush that some wild sheep ran next to, twisting it together in their fingers, and thinking, ‘Huh. This looks like kind of a useful thing. I wonder what I can make with it.’”
There are many pieces of evidence of human creativity, Shannon says, but of all of them, fiber art is her favorite. Where her inspiration comes from depends on the type of fiber art she’s doing, she explains. For example, if she’s sewing a quilt, colors and shapes influence her the most. However, with spinning yarn, most of the inspiration stems from the materials. She muses, “I see [them] and think, ‘I want to make something. I want to use it. I want to touch it. I want to wear it. I want to look at it all the time.’ You’re inspired by natural, raw materials, what humans have done with them in the past, and what you feel like doing with them.”
Shannon goes on to explain that her work has been beneficial to her mental health, as it soothes her, allows her to work with animals — “I’ve always loved animals,” she gushes — and connects her to the earth and its natural cycles. Her work is done in seasons, she explains. The first season is the birth of the rabbit. Then, as it grows under her care, it develops a new coat for her to shear and use for spinning yarn. Before long, new rabbits are born, and the cycle starts all over again.
“It just goes in this seasonal way that I think is good for humans to be connected to,” she says. “[It’s good to be] connected to a seasonal cycle because, in the modern day, we try to avoid the seasons sometimes because the temperature is uncomfortable or the bugs come out. It’s disconnecting from the earth.”
Additionally, Shannon’s work connects her to the area, and she believes it connects every customer to their local community as well.
“I like to compare [fiber art from a fiber farmer in your area] to the farmers market,” she says. “A fresh farmers market tomato tastes so much better than a store-bought tomato. For people who love textiles, fiber crafts, or clothing, [it’s] kind of the same. It’s of higher quality and connects you to your local environment. The scarf you’re wearing could be grown by animals two miles away from you, and when you put it on, you feel the connection. That’s good for people to feel.”