It’s March at Nordt Family Farm. The Merino sheep, who spent winter beneath their woolly coats, have just shed them in preparation for spring—and for farmer and weaver Dianne Nordt’s timeless handmade blankets. Each year it’s like this, quiet and dramaless, as the shearer visits the farm. Each sheep is shorn and then turned out to pasture. Nordt, who has been selling her blankets since 2011, gets 425 to 450 pounds of wool from the annual exercise. And so begins her year of weaving.
Nordt sorts the wool by color and sends it off to be processed. She then then dyes it herself with natural dyes served from osage saw dust for yellows and indigo for blues. When ready, that wool will be woven into beautiful Merino wool blankets. Over the past several years, her craftsmanship has been celebrated by Garden & Gun magazine, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Smithsonian Institution and American Craft Council, among others.
Nordt has her hands in every stage of the process. She raises the sheep. She dyes the wool. She makes the bankets. And finally, she personally sells each of them.
Her daily routine depends on weather. Every morning, she feeds the sheep. In the winter, she makes sure they have hay and that their water isn’t frozen. When it’s raining, she leads them into the barn. In the summer, she finds them shade.
The rest of the day is spent weaving. She already has a sense of what a blanket will look like from the wool itself. “I see the raw wool and begin to imagine how I can design a finished product,” she said. “It’s amazing, something starts out so dirty and becomes something beautiful.”
She works in strict parameters, wanting to bring out the natural beauty of the wool as much as possible: playing colors off the innate tans and grays. It’s the natural fibers that stand out in her blankets, with simple borders, artful stripes and an easy balance of color and texture.
She said seeing the wool through every process “feels correct,” that using someone else’s wool wouldn’t be as satisfying. “There’s an ownership,” she said. “It’s my story to tell, my time, my life put into these blankets.”
Like the daily ritual of caring for her sheep, Nordt weaves something every day. If she’s not dying wool, she’s working on her loom or finishing a blanket by hand, hemming and ironing. The process starts over every year until the wool is gone.
Her blankets are available through her Etsy page and and at craft shows she attends. Like the process of growing using her own wool, “My business is simple,” she said. She sold her first blanket in 2011. It was also that year she submitted finished blankets to Garden & Gun’s “Made in the South” awards. She wasn’t sure what they would make of her entry, but one day, while she was making a blanket, they called to announce she would be featured in the 2012 list.
Since then, not much has changed about her work. She keeps to the same routine and makes as many blankets as the annual wool gathering allows. The biggest change on the horizon are the possibilities of the loom being moved to the loft of the barn or opening the farm to visitors.
Her love for weaving started in college at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she majored in fashion design. She originally envisioned living in a large city and working in the fashion industry, but began feeling disillusioned with disposable trends. It was then she started taking classes in craft and formed the idea of living on a farm where she could personally source the fiber for her work.
Nordt grew up on a farm in Nelson County and always appreciated a lifestyle centered at home that produced sustainable products. She didn’t come from a long line of shepherds, though, and attended workshops on caring for sheep and spinning wool, all in preparation for her own farm.
After owning a shoe store in Carytown and living in the Fan, Nordt and her husband bought their farm in 2000 along the James River in Charles City County. Called Riverview, she described the home as “unforgettable” after she saw it for the first time. It sits along the water with old trees lining the drive that leads to a house from the mid-1800s. They are raising their family there, as well as the flock that started in 2005 and now has about 50 sheep. She said the farm is a family effort. Like her own childhood farming, her kids are growing up caring for their annual yield.
With the wool, Nordt only makes blankets. She likes the practicality of them and the sustainable nature of wool. It’s a slow process, from growing the wool to dying and weaving. Her aims aren’t just financial, she “believes in the beauty of the process.” Nordt said she is grateful others see that and support it.
For Nordt, that slow way of living isn’t history even as many people invest in mass produced items. "Looms don’t belong in a museum,” she said. “It’s not the stuff of the past." Instead, she focuses on the renewable nature of her products. “If you disposed one of the blankets today, it would disintegrate,” she said. "In life, the most cherished things don’t go on indefinitely. Things of value don’t go on forever in a landfill.”
Photography by Aaron Spicer