FIBER AS FINE ART: From Functional to Conceptual

The definition of fiber art according to Wikipedia is “fine art whose material consists of natural or synthetic fiber and other components, such as fabric or yarn. It focuses on the materials and on the manual labor on the part of the artist as part of the works’ significance and prioritizes aesthetic value over utility.”

Once thought of only as utilitarian, spinning, knitting and weaving made practical pieces, necessities for day-to-day life. Now fiber art has made the transition from functional to conceptual.

Zumbro River Fiber Arts Guild

“We take our art very seriously,” says Elizabeth Remfert, a founding member of the Zumbro River Fiber Arts Guild. “We are united by our love and appreciation for the various forms of fiber art and its perpetuation.”

The guild was founded 40 years ago by Remfert, Renea Bergstrom and Marge Manthei. Remfert was a newcomer to Rochester at that time, having moved from Champaign, Illinois. 


“It was the smallest metro I had lived in, and I looked around to see what there was to offer that pertained to my love of weaving and spinning. Fortunately, the History Center of Olmsted County asked me to teach a weaving class. That’s how I met the other two ladies. We held a sort of roundtable once in a while to share our knowledge and love of weaving. That’s how this all began,” Remfert explains.

They worked with the History Center and the Rochester Art Center to continue demonstrations, and the group grew. A newsletter went out; officers were elected to lead the club. They met in individual homes until they outgrew that arrangement. 

Then they met at Sons of Norway Hall in Rochester, until that was torn down, then Kelly’s Quality Sewing Center and now at the old school (Community Center) in Oronoco.

As their membership grew, so did the variety of fiber art forms that were represented. Now included are knitting, crocheting, felt making, tatting, hardanger embroidery, bobbin lace, spinning and, of course, weaving.

A Sense of Fellowship

Members come from all over: Cannon Falls, Spring Valley, Winona, Rochester and Pine Island, to name just a few. The major reason for the guild, with over 40 members, is fellowship, Remfert states. “We show and tell at each meeting, sharing our projects. We also share information, new techniques or materials. It’s wonderful to have others who appreciate your work; they are kind and respectful.” 

Joann Ronningan, a member for 38 years, agrees. “We look forward to our once-a-month meeting. It’s a time to exchange ideas and updates on what we are working on.” A group of “kindred spirits,” she calls it. A weaver at heart, Ronningan is an avid supporter of the individual members and the group. “We bounce ideas off each other, develop new connections. We also have demonstrations at each meeting so we continuously learn from each other.”

The guild invites a variety of speakers, travels near and far to observe artists, tours museums, enjoy potluck suppers and work on community projects. The members have donated over 2,000 hats to cancer patients through the Mayo Cancer Center. Join the Journey donates the yarn for the hats, and members knit or crochet them.

Several members have shared their expertise and love of the art with others through a variety of classes and demonstrations. Classes have taken place at Crossings at Carnegie, through local community education, at the History Center and in other venues.

Growing the Guild

Current president of the guild, Darrel K. Waters, has been a member for 10 years. “I think I’m the first male member,” he says. “I have a Norwegian background and work on a traditional Norwegian loom. I recently wove curtains and still follow in the old footsteps when it comes to the design and process.” 

He enjoys the group and is pleased to see it grow. “We have four or five new members just this year,” he says enthusiastically. They bring a lot to the organization and appreciate the flexibility and open-mindedness. 

New member Trish Miller says, “There is a group of 12 or so doing a year-long study of artists through the medium of fiber arts. I’m blown away by the quality and diverse free nature this group puts into their work. Yes, we meet with the large group, and often we gather in smaller groups to try new ideas and techniques.”

Celebrating a 40th Anniversary

Little did the three women who founded the guild know that the group would grow to include so many, nor that it would be flourishing 40 years later. The popularity and interest in their art is recognized by studio shows, art center collections and the market for their work. Though the guild does not have a specific retail center, individuals do sell their wares. Several members display and sell at Southeastern Minnesota Visual Artist Gallery (SEMVA) in downtown Rochester. 

The guild members will be celebrating their 40th Anniversary with a members-only gala in October at Salem Glen Winery. “We are looking forward to a great time with a speaker, food, wine and sharing the results of ‘The Yarn Challenge,’” according to Ronningan who is co-chairing the celebratory event.

Yarn for “The Yarn Challenge” was dyed in two spectrums, warm colors and cool colors, a heavier, denser yarn and a fine yarn. Members were invited to create something unique out of the yarn which was dyed by member Stacy Drenckhahn, owner of BeeLighted Fiber & Gifts of Zumbrota.  

This is a perfect example of the mission of the Fiber Arts Guild: something new to try, using methods as old as time. People are invited to join the group, which meets the third Wednesday of each month from 1-3 p.m. You can contact them at or on Facebook.

Debi Neville is a freelance writer and admirer of fabric, fibers and fine art.