Friday, October 6, 2017

creative chat: Emma of Woolly Mammoth Fibre Company

It's been awhile since my last Creative Chat interview, but I've got something really special to share with you all today. This past month I had the chance to talk with Emma from Woolly Mammoth Fibre Company. Emma is a photographer and fiber artist living in Northern Ireland where she works with natural woolly fibres in the form of knitting, spinning and natural dyeing. From the moment I discovered Emma on Instagram I knew her work was something special, and I'm so super excited to share this interview with you all today- especially because she is currently in the process of opening her shop, which will launch later this month. 

So grap a cuppa and join us for this inspiring chat: 

1. If we were having this conversation in person, in a cafe what would you be drinking? Are you a coffee or tea person?

I am most definitely a tea person- no coffee for me! I would probably be drinking black tea with milk, or Earl Grey. Or if I’m feeling summery I will have a fruit tea! My current favourite is peppermint and liquorice. 

2. Tell us a little bit about what you make/do. What got you started on this particular creative journey?

I am an architectural photographer by trade, and occasionally I have pockets of ‘bad weather’ time I like to fill up, where I can’t be photographing outside. I like to craft/ make in these in between moments. More specifically I love spinning on my wheel, dyeing with natural dyes and knitting socks. I got started on this creative journey when I was at art college in London- I was studying on the photography course at Camberwell College of Art and I met a lovely crafter/ illustrator lady by the name of Kim Smith (@kimsmithhappy/ @aushopuk). We became great friends and met up most weeks to catch up and craft together, sometimes meeting at her house, sometimes at her cousin’s pub down the road. 

I arrived at her house one night for some craic (as we say here) and a bit of craft and I noticed she had a spinning wheel. I was very excited and had to learn the skill myself- Kim is an awesome teacher! I purchased my own wheel on eBay, and went on the train to collect it. I began spinning on my own, playing around with different types of wools and techniques, and really enjoyed the process. Around the same time I created an art project where I visited several sites around London, picked various dye materials from the environment, and dyed with them. I then wove a small mat on a frame loom, which included all the dyed fibre from around London. 

From there I left university and started my photography business, and hadn’t been crafting as much as I’d have liked. I knew I wanted to make more with my hands, since most days I was sitting on a computer or behind a camera in the digital world. I then joined the Ulster Guild of Spinners, Weavers & Dyers and that helped spark my interest and hone my skills. I learnt about different sheep breeds, qualities of different fleeces and different dyeing methods. They are a lovely group of ladies with so much knowledge to impart! 

In May 2017 I had a serious creative itch, and knew I had to do something about it. I was knitting a lot, and starting to dye again. I knew I wanted to experiment more with natural dyes in a bigger quantity but I couldn’t unless I had a suitable outlet. That’s when I came up with the idea of opening an online shop to sell my naturally dyed and handspun yarn. I placed an order with the wonderful Laxton’s Mill in Yorkshire for some of their lovely fibres- BFL, Masham, Wensleydale, Falkland Merino in different weights and I couldn’t wait to get started in dyeing them! During September 2017 I used a mixture of foraged and extract materials to dye with- a process I absolutely loved! I experimented with blackberries, elderberries, onion skins, logwood, madder amongst other things with some really nice results. I have also purchased some local alpaca fibre which I plan to spin up for the shop opening- it’s really exciting to work with local suppliers!

3. What does your daily routine/creative process look like? How do you structure your creative time? 

Every day for me is different- I wouldn’t enjoy doing the same thing all the time! I don’t really structure my creative time as such- I usually just have a list of things I have to complete that day and I try and get them done. I always find it helps if you have an end goal in mind- e.g. a shop opening, an exhibition planned, a collaboration etc as this provides some motivation to get things done! In general I try not to separate creative time/ other time too much, or to really think about it too much as I feel it stifles my creative process a little, especially when it comes to dyeing. “Think through making”- that’s what tutors used to tell us at art college. Sometimes with natural dyeing, you get unexpected results, and want to explore those options more, and end up making a batch of colours you hadn’t planned on. You should able to do this without making yourself feel guilty for enjoying it!  In general, if I’m having a ‘dye day’, I have everything set out the night before- dye baths soaking, pots at the ready, yarn soaking. This makes the process of getting started a lot easier! I then make my to-do list and get on with dyeing or collecting materials from my local area. Sometimes there are other bits and bobs that need done- Instagram posts, labelling, photographs which is all part of the creative process too. At the end of the day, about an hour before I want to finish, I start cleaning up work area (currently my kitchen!). 

My knitting usually takes place at night, in front of the fire in our front living room- not during the day!

4. I'd love to chat a little more in depth about your tools/workspace. Do you have a designated work area, or any special tools/favourite fibers to work with? 

I do have a designated work area for crafting, but somehow it infiltrates the rest of the house! I usually tend to craft wherever feels good that day. Generally it’s not my actual workspace because it’s so messy and unkempt- it’s not even slightly pretty! When I’m dyeing I’m in the kitchen a lot so I end up staying there to check on the temperatures etc. When I’m doing admin I go to my office and sit at my computer and turn it off when I’m finished. That where all my photography equipment, books and architecture journals are kept. 

My Frank Herring spinning wheel is quite unique- it is made in Dorchester, England and has a definite 70’s vibe to it- it is made of bent plywood. It’s quite a petite wheel, easy to throw over your shoulder to take to a demonstration. I’ve never met anyone else who has this wheel. 

I also have a noddy-noddy handmade by a local wood worker, which I love, and a ball winder given to me by my Great Aunt, which is invaluable! 

 As for fibres, I love single breed, non-super wash wool, and my current favourites for spinning are Swaledale, Gotland and BFL. All of the yarns in my shop will be non- superwash (read more about the process here and fully woolly! 

5. I'm also curious about how place affects your creative process. Can you tell us a little bit about where you live and how/if this affects your work?  

I live near the North Coast of Ireland in an old Georgian terrace house (which we are renovating) in a medium-sized farming town. Every room has a different feel, particularly at different seasons of the year, so it’s lovely to have the choice of where to work on a particular day. The weather here is temperamental, and we often see the four seasons in one day. It’s often raining. This forces a lot of indoor time, so the fire gets stoked and the dye pots get going. In saying that, I like cycling and walking and the mountains- so I am sure that this has an influence on me too. 

Although I lived in London for three years while completing my degree, the heritage and traditions of coming from a farming background in rural Northern Ireland affects my work more than anything else. It makes you aware that nature and the landscape are not always picturesque and gentle, as well as teaching you to look after what you have and to make things rather than always buying them. My great Granny used to make all sorts of concoctions and potions out of things she foraged from the hedges and country lanes, as well as having amazing crochet skills- her lace work was beautiful. I suppose all of these things have influenced me- I love colours derived from our landscape, small cottage industries, living a simple (as possible) life and working with my hands. 

6. What are you currently up to? Anything new and exciting coming up?

I am currently preparing to open my online shop Woolly Mammoth Fibre Company on October 31st! I have been busy dyeing and spinning wool, as well as getting the website ready. You could say it’s a mammoth undertaking! You will be able to find the yarn shop at from October 31st and you can find me at @woollymammothfibres on Instagram. 

Thanks so much Emma for taking time to chat with me and share more about your work. If you enjoyed this interview, make sure you visit Emma over on Instagram to say hi and mark your calendars for her shop opening on Oct 31! 

note: all photos provided by Woolly Mammoth Fibre Company

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