Today in the Limelight we have Jennifer from Spirit Trail Fiberworks. I love Jennifer’s intense, beautiful yarn and roving colors. Getting boxes from her is like opening a gift and there are way too many things that I end up wanting to keep for myself. (Like this colorway – Wheatear.) I hope you’ve had the experience of knitting her yarn or spinning her fiber. I know that we’ve sent a lot of it out! (And now I want to move to her house in the woods….)
Loopy: Hi Jennifer! Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today. How long have you been a knitter and who taught you to knit?
Jennifer: My Mom taught me to knit when I was about 14, so that means I’ve been knitting for, oh, about 15 years, since we’re all 29, right? Ha! Just kidding. I’ve been knitting now for about 31 years, although I did take a bit of a hiatus in the 80’s when I was working in commercial real estate and being young and single, and had no time for much of anything else.
Loopy: A hiatus is ok as long as you come back to it. We’re glad that you did! What is your favorite item to knit?
Jennifer: That’s a hard one! It really depends on my mood. I enjoy knitting all kinds of things, but tend to move around. If I knit a lace shawl on smaller needles, I find myself interested in knitting something bulkier on larger needles the next time, and vice versa. Lately I’ve been knitting a lot of smaller projects ~ fingerless mitts and hats ~ things that are quick to finish and easy to carry around. I just recently started knitting a Pi Shawl from some handspun yarn, and there just happens to be a basket of yarn next to my bed that is becoming insistently louder for attention ~ some yarn for sweaters and another shawl, all items that I’m designing from scratch. In general, I really enjoy knitting projects the incorporate cables and/or lace patterns.
Loopy: You like designing from scratch? What would be the most challenging thing that you have knit to date?
Jennifer: I wouldn’t say that any knitting technique is overly challenging these days (except maybe 9 stitch nupps!). What I find most challenging these days is actually writing down patterns that I design so that they can be knit again. I have a number of garments that I designed and knitted for myself, and didn’t write anything down as I knit them. This is a pretty easy way for me to knit, as I modify and revise as I go along (I guess I have issues following patterns much the same as I have issues following recipes when I cook). It’s much more challenging for me to actually write down what I’m doing and make myself be organized in that way. If I had to pick one thing that challenged me more than anything else, it would probably be the Swallowtail Shawl I knitted several years ago, because it was the first time I knitted a triangular lace shawl and the first time I knitted nupps (and they weren’t even very big nupps).
Loopy: I had to look up “nupps”. Knitted bobbles. Obviously I have never done any of those! So how did you go from knitting to dyeing?
Jennifer: I’ve always been a creative person. My father is an architect and an absolutely wonderful artist, and my mother is an amazing quilter and seamstress as well as knitter. My grandmother was also a very accomplished crocheter, and my great grandmother was a seamstress, too, although I never met her. So, I grew up in really quite a creative household, and was nearly always drawing or painting or working with clay. In college, I majored in ceramics and fine art for a while, and always enjoyed working with color. After the birth of our first child, I quit working in real estate and then started thinking about doing something artistic again, a business I could do from home so I could be with the kids. I was knitting a lot, and started spinning in 2003 at the first Knitter’s Review Retreat. Soon after that, I signed up for a dye workshop with a friend and it was like a light bulb literally went off in my head. I knew this was what I wanted to do, without a doubt. So, I basically just started doing it and things started rolling along. I started dyeing both yarns and fibers, because when I started spinning I spent hours on the internet researching spinning fibers and found there were so many endangered breeds out there that were really interesting. So, I wanted to spin them, too (and of course dye them). It all happened very quickly, and is still evolving and growing and keeping me interested.
Loopy: It’s so nice to know that you come from many generations of people who work with their hands. That’s a great tradition to carry on. It’s also interesting to know that you were one of the very early Indie Dyers, having started your business in early 2003. So many dyers have come up within the last couple of years. That is a lot of dyeing and experimenting! How do you come up with your colorways, and do you have a favorite?
Jennifer: My colorways usually happen in a very organic way and have a lot to do with my mood at the time I’m dyeing. I used to call them “mood ways” because for the first several years, I didn’t write anything down and nothing was really reproducible. I just enjoyed the creativity of it all ~ playing with color, seeing how colors mix and blend, seeing how my mood on any given dye day would translate into a palette on the yarn. I also do a lot of painting and blending directly on the yarn, manipulating color on the canvas of the yarn. Now I do write colorways down since I’m working to do more reproducible colorways for my wholesale clients. I love dyeing because I use all sorts of colors, those I love personally and those I don’t really like. For instance, I personally don’t like purple at all and tend towards earth tones, but I love to dye with purple. Really, I love all my colorways because I love color. I guess my favorite colorways tend to be in the earth tones, since these are the colors I like to wear. Raspberry Truffle may be my favorite, but I also like Harvest Moon because I am really into deep, rich oranges these days. And I like Evergreen, and Redwood a lot. Anything with brown, green, deep red, orange … these colors are the ones that speak to me on a personal level.
Loopy: My favorite colorway of yours is Turkish Stone. And Antique Tapestry. And Wheatear. (Because I can’t pick just one.) What is your favorite part of your job? And your not-so-favorite part?
Jennifer: The favorite part is sort of hard to pick, because I really love just about every facet of what I do. I really love all of the friends I have met through this business. It has been amazing. I think the commonality of fiber passion creates a bridge between people where ordinarily one might not exist from the very start of a relationship. That shared passion just makes it easier to be open with people, and seems to move relationships from the superficiality of acquaintances to the intimacy of friendship much more quickly. I’ve made some fabulous friends that I just can’t imagine life without, and this has been an incredible gift. The other thing I like – although I’m not a hugely outgoing person, is having a booth at fiber festivals where I can meet people and talk about yarns and fibers, and knitting and spinning. I love being in that environment, surrounded by other equally fanatic fiber lovers. I get an absolute charge meeting people who enjoy my yarns and colors, and watching people in my booth touching and oohing and ahhing over yarns and fibers. It’s a kick! I also enjoy obtaining a fleece from a very rare or endangered sheep breed. It’s been amazing to me to get to know some of the farmers around the world who have flocks of rare breed sheep. It is a real labor of love continuing these breeds. Just recently, I’ve obtained fleece from the Arapawa in New Zealand and Hog Island from here in Virginia. The former is a sheep left on Arapawa Island several hundred years ago, possibly by sailors or pirates. They are similar to merino in some respects (and it is generally believed that it was a flock of merino sheep that was left on the island, for a future food source, much the same as sheep left on other islands around the world), but have evolved into a separate breed. It’s very interesting fiber, very rare, and very hard to come by. The latter is one of the breeds which was raised at Mount Vernon and Williamsburg, and is really incredibly rare. I had the fortune to come into contact with the owner of a private flock of Hog Island because the fleece from the sheep at Mount Vernon and Williamsburg are used for historical demonstrations at these sites. So, finding out about different breeds, getting different types of fleece and having the opportunity to help these breeds by selling their fibers and educating spinners about them, even in a small way, is always a thrill for me. Working with color is definitely a favorite, too, of course.
Not so favorite: mixing dyes, which can be pure drudge, especially because some are really disagreeable about getting mixed into a cohesive liquid. I actually use a blender now to mix them together, which speeds the process up immensely. And I mix larger quantities because the dyes I use don’t go bad very quickly, and even in larger quantities are not usually around long enough to go bad.
Loopy: You’re right about the wonderful connections that knitters and spinners seem to make. That’s a benefit to all of us in the fiber community. Tell us about your family and where you live.
Jennifer: My husband Brett and I have two children. Our son, Jackson, is 11, and our daughter, Caragh, is 9. They are awesome, creative children ~ Jackson is very musical and plays the violin and guitar, and last year developed an immense passion for The Beatles. Caragh is obsessed with horses and rides as much as she can at a local stable.My husband and I built our house two years ago on my parents’ property in Rappahannock County, Virginia, which is at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains near the Shenandoah National Park. It’s a beautiful, very rural area, and we all really love living out here. We have 9 chickens and a VERY large dog, Phoenix, who is a cross between a Great Pyrenees and an Anatolian Shepherd, and a huge goofball. We built our house in the woods and had to cut down a lot of trees, which we were able to use in the house for flooring, siding, countertops and shelves. Our house is still a work-in-progress, with a lot of the “cosmetic” work like painting and such still to be done, but it’s wonderful and we see woods and trees from every window. Our house and land really inspire me. I love being here and working here, watching the seasons turn and the light change. It’s really all an inspiration for my yarns and colors, and a wonderful, peaceful place to live. Eventually, I hope to build a separate studio but at this point I am doing all my work in the laundry room, which we designed large enough to do this. I have a separate top-loading fiber washer in addition to the household washer and dryer, a large, deep sink and lots of shelves for dyes and supplies. It works pretty well, but I have stuff spread all over the house these days as I’ve quickly outgrown this temporary space. My husband is not too crazy about the smell of wet wool, which can be difficult given how much wool is wet around here, between processing the endangered breed fibers and soaking yarns. So, hopefully some year soon there will be a separate studio built where I can work and hold classes and other fiberly activities. ‘
Loopy: I loved the photos of your house and surroundings. I could move there in an instant. And it sounds like you have plenty of room to build your dye-studio workshop one day, which will be fun! Does anyone else in your family knit?
Jennifer: Both of our kids have knit for several years and are learning to spin now, too. I taught knitting several years ago when they attended a local Waldorf-based school, and taught them both here at home. Caragh has finished a scarf or two, and they both have 5 or 6 projects going right now. (Obviously, they are more process oriented, whereas I am product oriented and really can’t stand having a lot of projects going at once).
Loopy: Are there other hobbies that you enjoy?
Jennifer: It’s interesting, because knitting used to be a hobby, but in many ways now it’s business. I feel compelled to knit with my own yarns most of the time, to make booth samples and design patterns and things like that. I try to keep my spinning as a hobby, just for me, and don’t spin yarn to sell. Although I do spin a lot of samples of the fibers I have for sale to show what they’re like spun up. Last year my husband gave me stained glass lessons for Christmas, and I really love it. I’ve made several windows and a new door for my great-grandmother’s china closet, which was broken when we moved. So, I’d like to keep doing this because it’s so different and not tied to what I do for a profession. (There was a minute there where I started envisioning knitting-inspired stained glass to sell, but I quickly gave myself a mental head smack to stop it!).
Loopy: I remember seeing that stained glass project on your blog last fall. It looked like a fun project! What would be your favorite way to spend a day off?
Jennifer: If I was alone, I’d spend the day with a cup of tea and my knitting or spinning, and probably the A&E version of Pride and Prejudice. Or a book, because I love to read, too. If my kids and husband were home, going for a walk in the woods either around the house or up in the Park and then grabbing dinner at a local restaurant, maybe going out to see a movie in the evening, would be a great day off.
Loopy: Both versions sound like a nice relaxing day. Anything else you’d like to add?
Jennifer: Thanks for interviewing me! I’ve been reading the interviews on your blog and always enjoy them, and feel honored to be included!