Spotlight: Chris McLaughlin, Fiber Artist and Flower Farmer
As a suburban child, Chris McLaughlin knew she was always a farmer at heart. Now she lives her dream raising animals for fiber and flowers for bouquets and botanical dyes.
As a kid, you hauled a little red wagon filled with seedlings planted in little paper cups around your neighborhood, knocking on doors. What was your sales pitch, and how did you get from the little red wagon to your current life on a farm?
I asked neighbors if they wanted to plant their yard with my little seedlings. They were 10 cents each, LOL. People absolutely did buy them! It was a rocky road from there to life at Laughing Crow & Company. I have a favorite meme that I found on Facebook. It says “I wasn’t born in a barn. But, I got here as fast as I could!” That about sums up my life.
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What were your other creative endeavors as a child? Which fell away and which stayed with you?
Believe it or not. I was a writer and an avid reader. I also enjoyed multi-media crafting.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people – or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I think everyone is born with creativity. We just show this in a wide range of ways! People who have a vision for businesses or discoveries use just as much creativity as anyone doing visual arts, writing, or music. It all comes from the same place in the brain and heart. And yes, I think any creative skill can be learned.
Did you always want to live a farm life? How do you know what to do? What do you love about it?
Always, always my soul craved the farm life. I always tell people I was an Old MacDonald kid born into an IBM family, LOL. For me, everything about it feels extremely authentic and honest and fresh. Farming is a whole lot of REAL. Real physical labor, real birth everywhere, real death. Real appreciation for the soil, plants, weather, and creatures. Honestly, we have never simply jumped in without some deep research and guidance from others who have walked this path before us. But after we felt we had some decent information based on reality, we just went forward and learned everyday. We still learn everyday, and I’m not being flippant, LOL!
What is your typical day like?
Caffeine, urgent emails, then out to feed the livestock. Get the water going for the flower fields and go over who is supposed to get bouquets today (or not). Once everyone’s immediate needs are met, the weeding, seed-starting, planting, harvesting, or tearing out garden beds happens.
It truly depends on the day and the time of the year. Goat maintenance like deworming, hoof trimming, etc. is done every 8 weeks. If it’s kidding season, this is an entire project unto itself. Walking the fence line looking for (and fixing) easy-ways-out for livestock or dogs is a once a week. Angora goat shearing happens every six months. Little barns and shelters need to be kept up and straw added constantly. Then there are the chickens, dogs, cats, and rabbits to tend to. That’s just the half of it!
What is the greatest takeaway you want readers to gain from your books, especially your new title, Raising Animals for Fiber?
When I wrote this book, my thought was to share some of the fiber choices, things to consider, and species comparisons for people to look at all in one place. I always wished that I had a book like this when I was first researching fiber critters to keep on our farm.
Which animals do you raise for fiber? Do they all get along, or do they “need their own space”?
At this time, we raise Colored Angora Goats for their mohair. We used to raise Angora rabbits, as well. Honestly, it’s true that some animals do fine when kept together. That said, after all the years if keeping all kinds of animals (not just fiber ones), I truly believe that it is much easier to care for and meet the specific needs of each species if they have their own spaces.
Are the fibers from different animals better suited to particular purposes?
Yes, they can be. This is a really long and deep discussion, however. Which is why I always suggest meeting local farmers and obtaining some mentors before choosing a fiber species.
Goats. (Full disclosure: interviewer had a couple of goofy pet goats for a bunch of years.) They are so darn funny and awfully bouncy. How do you get them (and your other critters) to behave for shearing?
We typically have them get up onto a shearing stand and their heads are secured. While they can move their feet around, they realize that they can’t truly run away, so they just settle in and relax. We also have a couple of different types of stanchions (stands). One of them has a food dish attached, which is my favorite because they get to happily munch on sweet feed while we play hair salon. 😀
What are your favorite things to create from the fibers you grow?
My top “creation” is actually growing the fiber itself. I mainly sell raw or washed fiber to handspinners and fiber artists. I also enjoy hand spinning for myself, but I don’t sell my hand spun yarn. Anything I spin is used for making my own hats or scarves. I also love it for weaving. I also dabble in wet felting. If I want to sell yarn, I have it sent to the mill, which gives me a much broader audience sales-wise. I also have the mill take some of the what I think of as “less prime” fiber and make it into animal leads!
What else do you grow on your farm? How do you use those things creatively?
We have a flower farm, as well. Not only are the flowers sold commercially, but I have mad love for dried flowers or “everlastings” such as strawflowers, statice, gomphrena, etc. I grow tons of them and hang them up to dry on my back deck (also referred to as the she-shed :P). Once dried, they become fodder for SO many things like wreaths, pumpkins, dried bouquets, and arrangements. We also grow plants here that are great to use as a natural dye. You may have already guessed, the mohair takes to the natural dyes beautifully!
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like? Or is your whole farm your studio?
I have areas for creating in various places on the farm. In the field we have a building called “the flower house,” which is where we collect up flowers that are harvested for the day into buckets. Our public workshops are usually held by the flower house, which makes it easy to hang up whatever we’ve created for the day to allow it to dry, etc.
The back deck to our house is my personal she-shed space. All of the everlasting flowers that are not sold to others are hanging there to dry. I make all my dried flower creations there. I have a room in our garage/shop that is a dedicated flower studio where I put together bouquets & get them ready to go to their destination. And I skirt the goat fleeces on the dining room table (which my husband painted for me). I’m also an avid sewist and have a sewing/quilting room. And, of course, my computer is where I create books and articles. 😛
How do you stay organized when working with multiple design ideas, processes and stages of development?
I have a hard time with that, to be honest. For day to day stuff, I do a round robin approach. I do a little bit for each area of our farm or our businesses. When it comes to creating, quite often I am a binge-er. I’ll focus hard on preparing fleeces for several days. Then take another few days for crafting. During the late spring and summer (the heaviest flower harvesting time), you can almost always find me in the fields or the flower studio.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? What kind?
Out with the animals and flowers, most of the time it’s just the sounds and rhythms of the farm that I listen to. On occasion, I will listen to Pandora on my cell phone. My favorite music streams out there are Adele-ish, old Jewel type stuff. But I’m also a HUGE country music fan. When I am writing, I have to have absolute silence.
What was the biggest challenge that you encountered on your creative journey? What did you learn from it?
Trusting myself. I still run into that. I’ll have an instinct for something and it seems too different than what many people are used to, then I second-guess myself. I learned that I am always happiest with myself when I just go for my personal take on things and don’t worry about what others may think about it.
Tell us about your blog and website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
I don’t actually blog in a true sense. I used to years ago, but it doesn’t suit my lifestyle anymore. My farm blog, Laughing Crow & Company Flower & Fiber Farm (laughingcrowco.com), is where I write about what is happening here — no matter what it is.
I also have a new website that needs MUCH more attention than I give it right now. It’s more about what can be done with flowers/botanicals other than used as cut flowers or even beautifying the outdoors. The “about” page starts out like this: “Some gardeners can’t keep their hands to themselves. For us, gardening is just the beginning.”
What do you hope the next year will bring?
While Laughing Crow and Company has been around for quite a while, the farm we are on now is only a year old. One of the things we have been trying to establish is for the farm to be a place where people can come and learn through live workshops. We are hosting natural dye classes, handspinning, and many other crafts. We also intend on having open houses during strategic times on the farm such as shearing.
Interview posted October, 2019.
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