Interview with fiber artist Anna Mathis

“One day we found a drop spindle. That’s the stick with the rock on the end – it’s actually a carved tool now, but that would’ve been what it was. So that’s one of the first primitive spinning tools and I love it. I was making my own yarn to knit and I was taking [the spindle] to school and dropping it behind my desk when the teacher’s back was turned, pulling it back up, winding it on my spindle, and making yarn.” – Anna Mathis

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ANNA MATHIS WAS INTERVIEWED BY MARK KILFOIL ON CHSR (97.9FM)’S PROGRAM, ‘THE LUNCHBOX,’ ON THURSDAY 21ST JULY.

Mark: Right now on the phone I have Anna Mathis – welcome to the show.

Anna: Hi.

Mark: You are… I asked you if this is the right title, you said yes – a fiber artist? Is that right? I’ve never heard of that before, so what is a fiber artist? What do you do, Anna?

Anna: I’m a graduate of the College of Craft and Design with a diploma in fine craft, textile, and fiber design. What I do is take raw wool from sheep, spin it into yarn, and weave it into cloth. Those are sort of the basis for what fiber art is.

Mark: So are you actually shearing sheep? Do you start right from that stage?

Anna: No, I don’t have any sheep myself – not yet. I do have four chickens but no sheep.

Mark: Oh, you are planning to have them yourself?

Anna: Well I would like to, but in the distance.

Mark: So someone delivers it to you. Now, this is a very old art. Is it still done with a spinning wheel and all that? That’s how I imagine it, anyway.

Anna: Yeah, absolutely. I work with all the traditional tools that come to mind; I have drop spindles, which would have been the most ancient tool and would have been a stick tied to a rock back in the day; the more modern spinning wheels, and I also have a great big loom.

Mark: How much time does it take, and how much does the transformation happen? Does a handful of wool turn into a single thread that’s ten feet long or something? How does that work out?

Anna: That would be a pretty good guess. If you’re a knitter, you usually buy skeins of yarn in about 100g, and a 100g ball would have about 200 yards depending on the weight. To make a scarf, it would be something like 1200 inches (I’m not really sure how many yards that is, but divide by 36)… there’s a lot of math involved in weaving.

Mark: How long does it take to turn out that yarn?

Anna: If I’m spinning a skein and I want somebody to knit it, it takes about two hours probably.

Mark: Ok, so that’s not too bad. I was wondering if this takes hours and hours and hours. A lot of the older arts took all day and you got a little bit out of it, so you can do this pretty quickly, then.

Anna: Well, some of it. Fiber art is a little bit broad. I delve into a lot of the different areas of the arts, so I do spinning, I do dyeing of wool for sale as well, but then for my business, Ploome Fiber Arts, I do wearable art as well, and that’s where my passion really lies.

Mark: When you say ‘wearable art,’ are you talking clothing or accessories, or what?

Anna: Both. I do a bit of clothing and some accessories as well, and I do a lot of sculptural felt accessories, and felt would be my sort of main medium. Spinning is something I do as a bit of a hobby – I’ll do it as sort of an add-in or while I’m watching TV, but it’s not terribly lucrative for me as a spinner, so I do more of this wearable art stuff.

Mark: What is felt, then?

Anna: This is what I’m doing as a demonstration at the artist’s residency at the Barracks this week, so you can come down and have a visit – I’m there from 10 until 5 most days. Felt is one of the older textiles. It’s the only textile that’s irreversible. You can’t unravel it, you can’t tear it apart – it’s fused. For felting, I take raw wool and I dye it, process it, and then I lay it out. I take some hot water, soap, and I use some elbow grease, and I keep rubbing it until it turns into a solid cloth.

Mark: I’m kind of amazed that it’s sort of – in a way – that simple. Obviously it’s intensively hard to do and a lot of work, but a relatively simple process.

Anna: Yeah, it really is. Spinning requires a spinning wheel; weaving requires an enormous loom; for felting, my main tools are my hands, some really slimey soap, bamboo mats, a tarp, a couple of towels… it’s quite an easy thing to set up and I can do it anywhere, which is why I’m doing it in the Barracks this week.

Mark: Is that the same material transformation? Is it an efficient use of wool, for example?

Anna: Oh, absolutely. With things like weaving, you end up not being able to use a lot of the yarn because the loom is so large, but when I’m felting, I really am using every bit of it, and I don’t waste a lot. So it’s a very efficient way of using the materials.

Mark: And how much time does that take?

Anna: I’ve felted a couple of sheets of fabric that I’ve actually cut and sewn into skirts and things to wear, and when I do a great big sheet of felt, it can take about six to eight hours, depending on the size of wool – that’s a big table of wool that I’m rubbing with hot water for a whole day by the time that’s over. But a scarf or something – that would only take about 2 hours – so it’s quite a bit faster than weaving, where a scarf would have to take eight hours or more.

Mark: And I imagine it’s not something you can leave and come back to – you’ve got to kind of be doing the whole thing when you commit, right?

Anna: Yeah. I pretty much sit in, get ready for the day, I accept that my hands are gonna be wrinkly like they’ve been in the tub all day at the end, and just go for it.

Mark: Do you develop sort of a resistance to it after a while, and not have to worry about your wrinkly hands?

Anna: Yeah, for sure. And my arms are a lot stronger than the rest of me from all the rubbing.

Mark: You also said you had a big loom, as well, at home?

Anna: My husband and I just purchased a house about two months ago – we moved outside of the city, we’re in Durham Bridge – and my Ploome Fiber Arts studio is set up here. The house was built in 1888 and so it’s got this old fashioned summer kitchen. It’s got a separate entrance to the house, and that’s where I’ve sort of made my studio. I’ve got my loom in there, my felting table, my spinning wheels, and all of my wool.

Mark: So when you were scouting out for houses, was that specifically something you were looking for?

Anna: Absolutely. Before this, my things were just strewn around my mother’s house, there was yarn in every room, and I was really ready to find a place where I could have it all and actually have a real studio to work in.

Mark: So with all three of these practices, they’re very hands-on and traditional. Was that the thing that attracted you to this? Or was it something else?

Anna: If you had told grade 6 me that I was going to be an artist when I grew up I would’ve laughed in your face, ’cause I’ve always been so messy, but my mother graduated from home economics, and so she was always doing things like bread making, and jam, and sort of the traditional homemaking and arts and crafts, and knitting was one of those things. I started knitting away and I just loved having a finished product. One day we found a drop spindle. That’s the rock with the stick on the end – it’s actually a carved tool now, but that would’ve been what it was. So one of the first primitive spinning tools and I loved it. I was making my own yarn to knit and I was taking it to school and dropping it behind my desk when the teacher’s back was turned and pulling it back up and winding it on my spindle and making yarn. Then my mother found a tiny little table loom. I went to talk to some of the weavers at the [Boyce] Farmer’s Market and they’re still there now, and told them about this, and they told me how to make something out of popsicle sticks to make it work. So we did, we drilled the holes and made the whole thing and I started to weave. I was totally hooked.

Mark: So this has been a passion for you since you were in high school? That’s amazing.

Anna: Yes.

Mark: And along the way has it been a progression of larger and larger looms, or larger and larger equipment?

Anna: Yeah. After I did the table loom and I had exhausted that, I went and did a co-op at NBCCD. They had me there and I was a technician, setting up the loom. But after the first month and after the contracts were signed, I knew I was going to be at the college, I found this loom on kijiji and I didn’t even know how to use it, and my mother and father were behind me 100%. We bought the loom and brought it to the house before I even knew what to do with it. This loom, my grandparents (I’m so grateful) drove all the way to the other end of Nova Scotia to pick this one up because they’re not as easy to find, obviously. So they brought this one back, and it’s the main loom that I use now. And it is quite large – it takes up a huge square footage.

Mark: Are these traditional looms or are they modern-made?

Anna: They are quite traditional. Not much has changed as far as the handicraft style of it, so the looms that I use would be more similar to the looms we had in the early 1800s before the Industrial Revolution, and then the looms that happen from then on have been mechanized and are more complex and need to be operated by more people. So I’m using a very traditional loom, yes.

Mark: So you’ve got a lot of different mechanisms and a lot of different things you do – is there a favourite? Or one that you’re most proud of in terms of the products that come out?

Anna: Probably my dyeing. I love to create colour. So many of my materials come to me white and I bring them to life with the colours and pair things together, so whenever I am working, whether I’m weaving or felting, or spinning the yarn, it’s always with the colours that I’ve designed myself and put together, and so I think that the dyeing is really where my passion lies. But I am still in the emerging artist stage as well, through all this, and figuring out where exactly I’m gonna focus. Maybe I’ll continue to do it all – I’ve got the equipment for all three – but I think the dyeing would definitely be my favourite.

Mark: So at the Barracks this week you’re showing off some of the felting stuff, right?

Anna: Yes.

Mark: And are you actually making the felt right there? Is that part of what you’re doing when you’re there?

Anna: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve got buckets of dyed wool, and silks and things, and so I’m laying it out and getting it all ready, and I’ve been fortunate to have quite a few little kid helpers this week where I’ve gotten their hands all soapy and have shown them what to do. They go at it and start to rub and rub the wool, and take some of the ease off me, so yeah, that’s what I’m doing this week at the Barracks.

Mark: So how are kids seeing it? Are they super excited?

Anna: Yeah, they’ve got big smiles. I mean, getting soapy and sudsy – it’s quite fun.

Mark: What are some of the questions people have asked you about your work this week? Have there been any that have surprised you?

Anna: Well, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about how I got into it. It is something that’s not really being practiced as much right now. I would say that this is a very good time to be a fiber artist because knitting is really up-and-coming again – it’s cool again. It’s not your grandmothers who are knitting anymore, it’s the younger people. Knitting is kind of the gateway for fiber arts. I think that knitting is really good and it really benefits people like me, who are trying to get the craft in the eyes of the public again.

Mark: Do you think there was a bit of danger in losing some of these skills and craft and pathways? Did we kind of almost turn away in this super-industrialized age?

Anna: Absolutely. That’s kind of why I do it – I don’t want to lose this knowledge. I know that we could read about it online and hear about it and see the different tools and everything else, but really learning from somebody who’s done it, who learned from somebody who did it before them and before them, it’s just such a powerful thing to keep it alive and running through our veins so that I can pass it on to somebody else, too.

Mark: Have you gotten the chance to pass it on? Have you got some plans to teach?

Anna: Yes. I have three areas within my company, Ploome Fiber Arts: fiber art supplies and materials, where I make the yarn so that people can felt or spin themselves; I have my wearable art; but then I also run workshops. This summer I’ve been getting to run Drop Spindling Basics, Naturally Dyeing with Plants, Felted 3D Vessels; Finger-less Gloves, Woven Wool-hangings; and really trying to spread this around and get some beginners in and trying this thing out, because it’s so satisfying to make something with your hands.

Mark: You mentioned something in there that I’ve got to ask you about – felted 3D… sculptures? What’s that about?

Anna: Felt can be flat – when I’m making my scarves at the Barracks this week, they are flat – but you can sculpt with it too. You can sort of create three-dimensional forms by creating layers and pockets and things like that. That’s something that is quite interesting, to anyone who knows a little bit about felt, is how to get from flat to three-dimensional. So that’s something that I teach as well.

Mark: Is that something during that felting process that you do? Or do you do that after you’ve got the felt itself made?

Anna: It’s during it. I was saying that you lay out the wool, and you add the water, and you rub it and everything else, but in the laying out of the wool, you can then alter it there. In the rubbing, there’s different things that you can do too to stretch and pull and cut to change the overall outcome of a piece.

Mark: So you have gone to NBCCD for part of your study – a lot of it is on your own – where are you finding more information? Is the internet supplying it to you or are you finding other artisans to talk to? What sort of outlets, or avenues, have you found?

Anna: The craft college was a huge influence on my learning. I also went to UNB and did Adult Education and got a whole different kind of learning there – so yeah, I would say that there are these little pockets online of different communities that I can learn from – people are posting their know-how-to for learning. Something like felt, I find, is so trial-and-error, it’s very experimental – you see if something works – whereas something like weaving which is very mathematical and there isn’t much room for error, you have to do a lot more and make sure you know what you’re doing before you go at it. Maybe that’s why I really like felt, because you can just sort of dive in and try something and you’ve only spent a little bit of time, only used a little bit of wool if it doesn’t work, and if it does work it could be something really fantastic. But the community here in Fredericton – I’ve had so many wonderful people help me out not necessarily just in the way of learning art, but learning how to sell myself as an artist as well, so I feel like I’ve had a lot of help.

Mark: All of this starts with wool – is wool hard to come by? Or is it also making resurgence? Do you have to go far and abroad to find it?

Anna: I did an interview with somebody in Scotland two years ago and he was trying to talk about New Brunswick wool, and wool being an industry that we could bring back to life here in New Brunswick. It is a bit tricky here, I will say that, but I end up getting a lot of my wool that comes all the way from New Zealand – I am sourcing it here – I’m getting it from Nova Scotia, but they’re getting it from New Zealand. It’s merino wool. That’s because different sheep have sort of different reputations with the public. For some reason, merino wool, which is the same wool that you see in your Smartwool socks at Radical Edge – it’s the softer, wear close to your body, super wool. But other wools have a bad rep and they all get put under the category – the umbrella of wool when there’s a bajillion different kinds of sheep. So people are picky and it is a little bit harder to find, but when I can, I do love finding wool from people here and making yarns with them so that people can really see that our wool is phenomenal – it really is. I do use it when I can to try and make that point.

Mark: Well, let’s hope that there’s a growth in this industry which spurs a growth in the wool industry as well. I’ve been talking with Anna Mathis who is one of the artists in residence down at the Barracks. Anna, before we go, is there a place online where people can find out more about you or your business?

Anna: Absolutely. My company is Ploome Fiber Arts. I’m on Facebook and Instagram as well.

Mark: I hope a lot of people are dropping by to get their hands dirty – and talking to you, Anna. Thanks a lot for joining me.

Anna: Thank you very much.

 

Find the audio podcast of Anna’s interview here:

The Lunchbox Interview: Anna Mathis (Fabric Artist)

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