Interviews

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I have invited Shawn O’Hagan of Island Sweet (blog, Etsy shop) to tell us about her fibre art.  I enjoy her yarns and knitting so much, and I thought that it would be great to ask her a little abut her process:

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Can you please tell me a bit about yourself?

I was a painter for 30 years. I have a Masters Degree in Painting. 10 years ago I decided I didn’t want to paint anymore. I no longer enjoyed the “art scene”. I felt I had nothing left that I wanted to paint. In the summer of 2000 I did an artist residency in Terra Nova National Park in Newfoundland, Canada (where I live), and took only fabric and thread and needles. I began making “fabric collages” – just playing with colour and texture. I wanted to make things that people could use – not just hang on their walls, so my collages became pillow covers and quilts. A few years later I picked up a rug hooking kit and began rug hooking with a passion.

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How long have you been working with fibre, what induced you to start and what craft did you start with?

I have always been a knitter. I was selling my knitwear (mostly hats and baby clothes) in shops and through the Craft Council. 2 years ago I was in New York City, and at PurlSoho, I picked up a skein of yarn from “Ozark Handspun“. I didn’t know that this kind of yarn existed! I knew immediately that I wanted to knit with that kind of yarn but couldn’t afford to buy it, knit it, then sell the product for a profit. So I needed to learn how to spin.

I am especially inspired by your spinning: can you give me some idea of your creative process?

I began spinning with a drop spindle in January 2008. I used this (along with hand carders) for 6 months. I used this early spun yarn for accent in my handknit scarves. In May I purchased a wheel (the Ashford Kiwi). In June I went to the Spinner’s Loft in Nova Scotia and took a wonderful 5 day workshop on the basics of spinning (I wanted to learn how to do it right, and then make it my own…) and in Oct I got a second hand Louet drum carder. By then was I confident enough about my yarn, and spinning in large enough quantity, to begin selling it.

Do you work from the fibre to your idea or from your idea to the fibre?

Sometimes I start a skein of yarn with an external inspiration – for example – a flower in my garden. Or a work of art (I still draw on my art background). Or a colour combination I see in a dress in a fashion magazine. I keep a sketchbook for ideas – colour combinations, titles etc.

Sometimes I just choose colours almost randomly and after the skein is finished I decide what it reminds me of. Often one skein of yarn leads right into another with just a slight variation.

Where do you find your fibre and how much of the processing do you do yourself (dying, carding, etc.)? What do you look for in fibre for your work?

I buy most of my fibre undyed from Louet in Ontario. I use it in its natural state – white, grey, cream, brown, black. For colour I use natural plant dyes. I use what is around me – dandelions, lily of the valley leaves, goldenrod. Or I buy natural plant dyes in powder form from Maiwa in Vancouver. I have just purchased their Cipa dyes (they are acid dyes but with fewer chemicals in them) in order to get brighter colours. I buy colourful roving from other etsy spinners. I use all types of fibre – wool – shetland and blue faced leicester are my favourite. Mohair fibre locks for texture. Plant fibres such as bamboo and hemp. Soysilk is my all time favourite. I add angelina or firestar often for a little glitter.

Can you give me more information about your spinning technique? Do you spin from batts or roving? Do you bring in locks and other materials as you spin or do you incorporate everything you will include in the yarn when you process your fibre in preparation for spinning?

I lay down a “base” colour (usually with shetland or blue faced leicester). Then I start adding more fibres for colour and texture. I then run it all through the carder one or two times depending on how much blending I want at the end. I may add more fibre locks to the batt as I am spinning so the locks will stand out even more.

What kind of spinning equipment do you use? Is there anything you want, but don’t have yet or that you have, but feel wasn’t worth the money?

I’m happy with my wheel and equipment. I’d love to have another wheel that is more portable (like the ashford “joy”). I take my wheel to craft shows and markets, and to the cabin, so more portability would be great. But a second wheel will have to wait…

I always want to make wonderful singles like some of your yarns like this one:

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But I always end up with the single being too over spun to use that way — do you have any advice on how to fix that problem?

I almost only spin singles. Plying is too regular for me. It somehow feels that it encases the yarn, binds it up, and doesn’t allow it to breathe. To avoid over spinning I think just play with the tension.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to start spinning and is inspired by your yarns?

If you want to start spinning – start with a spindle. It’s easy and cheap (I bought mine on etsy for $12.00). You learn the “feel” of the yarn. You get used to drafting. You’ll know soon enough if you want to get deeper into it. And don’t aim for perfection if that’s not the look that you want.

Your knitting is also lovely.  I enjoy your style of knitting, but I have trouble taking the full plunge into being as freeform as your work is:

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Do you have any advice on how to overcome timidity in relation to colour and how to loosen up?

I sell my knitwear. Because of this, the pattern can’t be too complicated because it would take too long to knit and I wouldn’t be able to make any money. I’ve simplified all my patterns to very basic shapes (for example, my baby pullover is basically 4 rectangles – 2 large and 2 small). The interest lies in the yarn. Be brave with your colour choices. Keep an eye out for what colour combinations are exciting to you and make note of them.

Finally I have a mundane question that always fascinates: do you make a living from your fibre art? How close are you to it? Is it a goal for you?

And yes – I basically make a living from my fibre. I teach 1 art course in the winter term at the local university but aside from that, it’s all fibre. I live in Newfoundland where it’s easier to live simply and cheaply. I sell my yarn and knitwear on etsy ( I sell in craft shops and at craft fairs [such as the Toronto One of a Kind]). I work hard. Being self-employed, and working with fibre, it’s rare for me not to have fibre in my hands from 8:00 in the morning to 11:00 at night. I’m trying this summer to cut back…

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