Publisher’s Note: With great pleasure this week, I get to introduce Elysa Darling of 222 Handspun Yarn. Elysa has successfully brought together her many talents as an artist and a crafts person to become a wonderful fiberista. Her fibers and yarns are bright, fun, and full of vitality. Elysa is also one of our Spin Quest vendors this year and I know you will enjoy getting to know her better!
Spin Artiste (SA) It is exciting to have you with us today, and we look forward to getting to know you. Please tell us your fiber story.
Elysa Darling (ED): I’ve loved playing with yarn and making things with my hands ever since I was a little kid. Although I like knitted pieces, woven fabric was my first love. I remember weaving a tiny blanket from pink yarn for a doll that I had. There was something about the texture of the crossed fibers that fascinated me. My mother taught me how to sew and I started designing and sewing clothes for my dolls out of scraps of material left over from her stash and our much anticipated trips to the local fabric store. I wasn’t fully aware of it at the time, but I was learning about drape and bias and different fiber qualities as I tried to make my own hand drawn patterns work. Both my mother and grandmother were good seamstresses and did needlework so I guess it runs in the family.
One of my first real educational experiences with fiber was when I was around eight years old and I attended a summer camp where we learned how to weave on looms that we made out of wood frames that we put together ourselves. Weaving was something I could relate to and I picked up on it pretty easily. We also dyed yarn using dye we made from plants we collected.
The love of making things by hand and close connection to my natural surroundings has stayed with me as an adult and led to me discovering hand-spinning.
A number of years ago I watched a traditional flax spinning demonstration and thought it was something I’d really like to learn how to do. I also really wanted to start weaving with good yarn, and when I saw what spinners were doing on Etsy with textured yarns and endless color palettes I set out to learn how to spin yarn the way I wanted. I had been searching for classes for a while without finding anything nearby and had kind of given up on the idea. Then coincidentally I took a short term contract for a job near a yarn store that was offering spinning classes. It seemed like it was meant to be after all. Once I had taken a few classes and read some books I was hooked. I bought a wheel soon after, and I’m now on my second and third generation of fiber equipment.
SA: Fiber is completely addictive! It doesn’t take long until you’re hooked. At what moment, or during the process of what piece, did it hit you that fiber art was more than a hobby?
ED: I guess in the back of my mind I’ve wanted to have my own yarn business for a long time. When I got my first wheel and started selling yarn to friends and coworkers then I took the leap to start selling on Etsy. I figured I needed to sell yarn to make more money to feed my fiber habit. Then I started doing shows and I realized that I really love the interaction with other fiberistas. It’s very flattering and rewarding when someone actually wants to buy something you made.
SA: Yes! That is the best feeling… know your mom is a knitter. What was your experience growing up with a fiber artist, and how would you say your mother encouraged you to pursue your fiber dreams?
ED: My mother taught me a lot of the craft skills that I have today and I’m very lucky to grow up in a household where creativity was encouraged. Both of my parents are very artistic. My father is a professional photographer, artist, and writer and my mother is skilled in all sorts of needle crafts and is into photography and beading/jewelry making as well. My mother used to make a lot of clothes for me and my brothers when we were kids. She crocheted this fabulous poncho for me in the 70’s that I loved. I wish I still had that thing.
Many years ago my mother tried to teach me to knit, but I’m hopelessly dyslexic and it was too difficult for me to catch on. It’s very frustrating because I have all these project ideas in my head that I can’t make myself. So she makes samples for me and in return gets first pick at my yarn. It’s a bit of a disadvantage for me not knowing how to knit and trying to predict how my hand-spun will behave, so I usually have her work with it first. She also helps me with shows and I bounce ideas off of her frequently. She’s a good sounding board for me and never tells me my ideas are nuts (even when they are).
SA: Sounds like your mom is a gem!
You work seems to have a very light and feminine flair. How would you describe yourcolors and textures?
ED: Since my days as an art student I’ve loved playing with color and mixing paint and dyes. I go through phases and have favorites that I use again and again until I get tired of them. I still can’t seem to let go of neon. I’m not sure if that trend is over yet or not, but people keep asking for it so I’ll keep on making it. I’ve been dyeing a lot of fiber recently and have been mixing some unique signature colors that are pretty offbeat like “Mean Mister Mustard” and “Acid Chartreuse”.
I love pairing bright or acidic colors with neutrals and using unexpected combinations. When you spin them together you get these nice little surprising moments in the yarn that catch your eye. I also use natural colored wool sometimes, but most of my palette is non-traditional. It’s not the kind of color you’ll usually find on shelves in your LYS, but you might see in a JCrew catalog. Some people are drawn to them and some people are repelled by them, but I don’t try to fit into the mainstream aesthetic so that’s OK with me.
Color is so subjective, but the one thing that most people agree on is texture. There’s something about wool especially that is so cuddly and totally irresistible that you just want to bury your face in it. If you have cats you know this to be true. Pretty much all the fiber I use has to be soft and wearable. When sourcing fiber, if it isn’t next-to-skin soft or doesn’t have a good handle then I usually pass on it (unless it has other amazing qualities or other intended purpose). If you can’t stop squeezing the yarn then it’s a good sign.
SA: I think it is great that you have highlighted pieces that have been created by other artists, from your yarn. What is your reaction when you see a completed work from your yarns, roving, or batts?
ED: I’m often amazed by how other people interpret the raw materials. Sometimes customers come back to me later and show me things they’ve made or techniques they’ve used that are so different that how I would interpret it and I’m blown away. A lot of people ask me “what can I do with this crazy yarn?” or “what do you do with those curly locks?” and I rattle off a list of cool things that people have made like felted bowls, hats, hair falls, jewelry, etc. It’s funny to think that that fiber was growing on a sheep somewhere not that long ago and then it got to me and I washed it and colored it and spun it, and then someone else took it on from there, and now it has a whole new function and form. The connection with other artists in the whole end-to-end process really energizes me creatively and sparks ideas for future projects.
You really seem committed to encouraging others to start spinning and be proud of their love for all things fiber. What motivates you to start a new breed of fiber artist?
ED: I’m pretty passionate about design and creativity and I think the fiber arts have been an under-appreciated art form for a long time. I work in other traditional mediums and I can really see a separation in the perception and acceptance between fine arts vs. crafts in the mainstream.
Most people my age wouldn’t admit that they knitted or spun until fairly recently. With the advent of Etsy, Pinterest, and the DIY and urban homesteading movements, there is resurgence in traditional arts and crafts. It’s not just for grannies anymore. People can now wear it proudly and I’m amazed to find out how many folks I meet from other areas of my life that knit, crochet, or weave.
I see a lot more people my age and DIYers that are jumping into the fiber arts and spinning especially because it’s so much more accessible and hip now. That’s due in large part to some of the more progressive spinners and fiber artists out there that have pioneered the art/textured yarn space. For me personally, spinners like Lexi Boeger really opened the door creatively and inspired me to explore the possibilities beyond traditional techniques and materials.
Part of my goal is to try to preserve heritage art forms like hand-spinning before they are lost. When I tell people that I make yarn the first thing they say is “oh, you mean like on a loom type thing?”. Then I say, “more like Rumplestilskin on a wheel” and then they get the visual. As I explain a little more I get all sorts of interesting questions and people are genuinely intrigued to learn about the process.
Growing up in Rhode Island, I’ve seen all the old mills that were once part of a vital economy and are now shut down and basically turned into museums. It’s strange and a bit sad how most people today have no idea how fabric is made, never mind yarn. Much like what has happened with the move to factory farming, the milling process is so far removed from our everyday lives that what was once commonplace is now a total mystery.
I’m fortunate now to live in an area in Northern Virginia that has so many fiber farms nearby and a strong spinning community that keeps us in touch with our roots.
I tend to think that just like with cooking, having the best ingredients is a big part of your success. A lot of people are tired of mass produced acrylic yarns from the chain stores and want more authentic materials. A big selling point of handmade is not only the quality and craftsmanship, but that it tells a story that people can connect to, and that’s the message I try to get out.
SA: We would love to hear about your wheel; what can you tell us?
ED: I started out with a Kromski Sonata because I liked the traditional look of the wheel and that’s the model that I learned to spin on. But I soon realized that the hooks and orifice where not going to work with the type of big textured yarn that I spin.
I quickly got over wanting a traditional looking design and I bought a Majacraft Pioneer which I love and now use for a lot of small projects and travelling. It’s simple and spins effortlessly and can handle most of my bigger add-ins. Best part about is that there are no hooks for things to get caught on. I also recently bought a Spinolution Mach III with the jumbo art yarn kit that can hold two pounds of fiber on a single bobbin. I’m still getting used to it because that thing is a monster and has so much power. It’s great, of course, when you want to N-Ply huge fat yarn like I tend to like to do. One reason why I bought it is because and I get aggravated stopping in the middle of spinning when I run out of room on the bobbin. Right now they are sitting beside each other vying for my attention.
SA: I know you use all different types of wheels, but what has been your favorite, and what are you spinning on now?
ED: I’m using the Majacraft Pioneer for lighter weight yarns and singles and the Spinolution for plying and big yarn. The jury is still out on which one I like better, but I have to say that when I was at Camp Pluckyfluff last year I used an Aura wheel and really loved it. I’m partial to the Majacraft lightweight design and well thought out engineering.
If (I mean when) I buy another wheel I think that will be the one. It’s a big step up from the Pioneer and much more versatile. I do wish it had bigger bobbins like the Spinolution though. The designer in me would love to create my own hybrid wheel with the best of both worlds.
SA: Ah, yes, the quest for that big bobbin…I’m with you. I love my Aura but that big bobbin on the Spinolution is awesome.
Would you consider yourself a one-project-at-a-time artist, or do you like working on many pieces at one time?
ED: I’m one of those ADD type people with unfinished projects all over the place. Some have literally been sitting there for years and I may never finish them. I used to be apologetic about that like it was a bad thing, but I’m OK with it now though. I think some projects are like sketches for paintings – they’re just enough for you to play with an idea or experiment and then you can move on to something else.
SA: That is an excellent point. Every piece of the creative process counts. How did you develop the name “222 Handspun”?
ED: The number 222 has been a lucky number for me since college. I’ve had it in my email address for ages so I guess it just kind of stuck. I thought of changing it, but it’s too hard now since it’s everywhere.
SA: It’s a great name, I’m glade it stuck! Where would you like to see 222 Handspun in a year?
ED: That’s a tough one to answer. I usually set goals for myself and somehow find a way to reach them or at least some close enough. I’d like to get my fiber out into more retail shops and do more shows but the time commitment is always a challenge with my day job. Along with doing more writing, I think for this year continuing to improve my skills and learn new techniques is a good goal to have.
SA: It has been a joy to talk with you, Elysa. I want to ask you just one more question; what was the most difficult project you have ever conquered?
ED: Probably the first time I learned to spin on a drop spindle was the most difficult time I had. That was humbling. Sometimes, especially as adults, we tend to over think things and tighten up when then things don’t work the way we want them to. Looking back now, some of my earlier yarns are pretty bad because I was just clumsily trying to figure it out as I went along. I haven’t had too many really challenging projects that weren’t of my own making somehow – either because of lack of understanding or just pure experimentation gone wrong. But in the end I think you learn from your struggles and the process of trial and error. No matter you make, even if it’s not perfect, the reward comes from the creative process and when that light bulb suddenly goes on in your head and you get the results you wanted.
SA: Thank you so much, Elysa!