Inside Textile Designer Elizabeth Eakins's 240-Acre Farm
When she landed in New York City in the late 1970s, Elizabeth Eakins, a Pittsburgh native and Berkeley grad, had simple expectations. “I thought ‘I’ll just be the rug lady—the person that people want to come to and get rugs,’” says Eakins, who learned to weave when she was 11 years old. She happily envisioned a life where she would provide genuine service making useful and enduring handwoven textiles out of natural fibers. She anticipated that this path would be gratifying and that the world would be a warmer and softer place. And it was.
Then some 25 years into it, she bought a farm, upped the ante and transformed her entire life.
Nordeen Farm occupies 240 acres in the historic Tallgrass Prairie of Kansas. The topography is composed of rolling hills, creek beds and open pastures. Eakins lives and works here with her second husband, Jerry Wigglesworth, a lawyer who went back to school to study farming. The two met at a conservation fundraiser, and after a 14-month courtship marked by long hikes and lots of conversation, tied the knot. Together, with the help of three Great Pyrenees, they nurture 100 Border Leicester sheep and grow the crops to feed them.
Though sometimes idyllic, pastoral life is rife with drama. “Nature is the driving force behind everything, and nothing is a given,” says Eakins, describing their constant state of preparedness for the next storm, the next predator or the next lamb. In lambing season, Eakins and Wigglesworth split middle-of-the-night shifts to bottle-feed newborns who’ve taken up temporary residence in their kitchen. Though the challenges are great, the rewards are greater, and the couple is committed to raising unstressed, healthy animals with extraordinary fleece. “It’s like having 100 children,” says Eakins, who relishes the responsibility but also seeks respite every now and again.
Thankfully, her version of sanctuary is accessible in the 1876 limestone farmhouse. Originally built by Swedish brothers as a two-room/two-story house, previous owners expanded the overall footprint before Eakins and Wigglesworth made their mark, taking down walls, painting the oak floors gray and whitening the overall space so that light could move freely about. Save for a few pops of color from Eakins’s signature hand-printed textiles and handwoven rugs or perhaps a plein air painting, a minimal, soft palette dominates and keeps the warm prairie light at bay.
In the farmhouse, rooms are ample but not cavernous, and furnishings, culled from Wigglesworth and Eakins’s inventories, are pretty but not precious. The Scandinavian influence is strong, a result of Eakins’s personal history au pairing in Norway straight out of high school and exploring the entire region afterward. Eakins has amassed a collection of fine Swedish antiques, but has also painted some “junk” to meld with the style. The round coffee table, for example, was a brown oak dining table before Eakins cut it down, refinished it, and turned it into the perfect game and puzzle table for her grandsons.
This timeless aura of calm also presides at the loom house. Just 50 feet from the main house, the newish structure serves primarily as Eakins’s lab. Here, surrounded by the colors and sounds of nature and an occasional NPR podcast, she experiments with new color combinations and weave structure while keeping an eye on the flock. The simple environment, sparsely furnished and devoid of ornament, encourages focus, and Eakins adores this sacred quality. “It’s church-like and predominantly quiet, and I’m very comfortable with that,” she says.
While Eakins still goes back and forth from her Connecticut studio, Kansas is home. Approaching 60 and fully invested in her brand’s sustainability, she is neither stagnant nor bored, but full of energy and the desire to keep learning. She has a wonderful life partner and a wooly flock that have unwittingly taught Eakins much about herself. Feeling privileged, inspired and grateful, Eakins continues to make textiles from nature’s best and is giving her best back to nature.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2015 issue of Connecticut Cottages & Gardens with the headline: Nature's Best.