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Keeping watch over the sheep

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Deb Burger

By Bonnie Bailey

H&T Correspondant

Jonesborough is famous for its yarns — the town’s storytellers are world-renowned — but Deborah Burger, owner of The Yarn Asylum, doesn’t trade in stories. Her yarns are spun from sheep. And her latest project, handmade ornaments created with mixed media, come in the shape of sheep as well.

The ornaments are made using clay and yarn, a novel concept for Burger, who had never embroidered on clay before designing the ornaments.

“I have to come up with new ideas all the time as an artist,” Burger said. “I love to mix media. We could all just do the same thing over and over because we know it will be successful… but artistically that can get boring.”

To create the ornaments Burger uses a sheep-shaped cookie cutter to cut the sheep out of clay. Then, she said, holes are punched a quarter of an inch apart all over the sheep to allow yarn to be passed through the clay after firing. The first firing (called bisque firing) takes place and afterward the clay is sanded and glazed. Then the ornament is fired again.

After that, Burger said, it’s time for embroidery. Using the holes punched in the ornament, Burger ties French knots on the body of the sheep, creating the appearance of wool.

“It’s a really simple idea,” Burger said of the process and design she uses to create the ornaments, “but there are a lot of variations on what you can do with it. It’s not just sheep.”

Burger uses the same process to create other ornaments, such as hearts, snowflakes and Christmas trees embroidered with silk ribbon.

The original idea was to use a grid of holes to cross stitch on clay, she said, and the first ornament designed was a heart.

She drew a template, and that template was laid over the clay and used to punch holes according to a grid.

There are all kinds of ways you can use the yarn or ribbon in the grid, creating a huge variety of pattern opportunities, said Burger, who has been doing embroidery since she was a child of five or six.

“I’m probably not the first person to think of embroidering on something other than cloth,” Burger said, “but it was the first time I thought of it.”

The ornaments, being unique, are offered at varying prices depending on decoration, but usually range from $8 to $12 and are available at the Yarn Asylum.

The tiny shop, which has been open for just over a year, is tucked inside The Old Town Hall in downtown Jonesborough and offers a variety of yarns, all sourced from small, family-owned companies, along with a few finished projects for purchase.

“Most of what I sell are materials and knowledge for people to make their own [projects]. I very rarely sell finished goods,” Burger said. “Most of the things that are finished in the shop are for inspiration. People see them and say, ‘Oh, I can take a class and make that,’ or ‘I can download a pattern for free and make that.’”

The ornaments are an exception due to requests, she said.

For those interested in learning to knit or crochet, Burger teaches both group classes and private lessons, and she approaches teaching in a laid-back manner, organizing her classes around what inspires her students and what makes them want to learn.

Inspiration is an important part of the creative process for Burger.

“The commercial aspect is always secondary to me,” Burger said. “If I start thinking about what

will sell and if I start making something because I think it will sell, that’s the quickest way for me to lose artistic motivation.”

The Yarn Asylum is located inside 144 East Main St. and is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and on Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.