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Featured Artist: Drucilla Pettibone of Petitbones

by EBlack on December 27, 2012

Publisher’s Note: What a treat we have for you, this week! Our featured artist is a lifelong fiber aficionado, who loves to share her talents and passion with the next generation of fiber artists. Drucilla Pettibone of Petitbones has embraced fiber art, old and new, by not only spinning and dying her own yarn, but also by rescuing and restoring vintage wheels. She devotes countless hours to her trade, and the results are spectacular. Drucilla is a true visionary, who values the history of our fine art, and who continually tries to provide vibrant new designs and creations for tomorrow. 
Spin Artist (SA): You mentioned that you have been involved in fiber art since you were a little girl. Can you tell us more about your fiber journey?
Drucilla Pettibone (DP): Sure!  Well, my mum is a collector and restorer of antique dolls, so she was always sewing doll clothes or making a new wig or sculpting a new limb for her dollies.  She taught me to sew and also embroider when I was very young.  I loved doing handwork, but she also taught me to use her sewing machine – which I’m so grateful for now, because even though I didn’t machine sew for years, it’s always easier to pick something back up after one has learned as a child.  Then when I was a bit older, we had an elderly neighbor called Sis, and I spent many afternoons sitting on her porch overlooking the water and talking with her as she taught me to knit.  Then as I got to high school and college age, I got more interested in boys and books, and so I neglected crafts for a while.
I should also back up and mention that it was always my dream to have a farm.  So after I grew up and worked for a while, I was able to save up and buy a mini-farm.  My vision was to have fiber animals and get back into craft work through spinning.  I searched around and met a lovely woman who raised coloured angora goats, Tina Evans of Dry Creek Naturals.  She was a dealer for Ashford and Kromski, and she sold me my first wheel (an Ashford Joy) and taught me to spin.  I also got my first angora goats from her, and then a few more later.  At that time, it was just a hobby (and a very expensive one!) but I learned a lot about caring for animals and processing fiber.  I also started going to SAFF (the Southeastern Animal Fiber Fair in Asheville NC) and learning many different aspects of the fiber work and fell in love with natural dyeing.  After a couple of years I had to accept that my land was too woodsy for my goats to thrive. They seemed to have a permanent case of hoof rot from lack of sun and pasture, so I found good homes for them, and decided to rethink my fiber venture and see if I could make it profitable.
But, of course life kept happening, and I returned to grad school, and got married, and then in 2008 my husband and I decided to sell the farm in Georgia and create a simpler life in rural North Carolina.  I’ve started small and carefully this time, with Angora rabbits, a few Shetland ewes, and more recently two Jacob wethers.  I still love caring for the animals and processing fiber, and working with natural dyestuffs.  My spinning was also hugely re-inspired by Lexi Boeger‘s work in art yarn.  The world of fiber and spinning is so vast that I am always learning, but I am interested in so many other aspects of fiber work as well, from embroidery and quilting to weaving and felting and everything in between.  There will never be an end to this journey!
SA: It sounds like you’ve certainly been on an artistic walkabout! I hear you collect and restore antique spinning wheels. What motivated you to become a wheel collector?
DP: Again, it started with mum, always dragging me around to yard sales and estate sales growing up.  I learned to appreciate things with age and patina, and as I grew up, always furnished my home with second-hand vintage and antiques.  After I learned to spin, it was a natural thing to move toward antique wheels, since they are fairly abundant and much better priced than newly-manufactured wheels!  I also have to say that the Antique Wheel, Canadian Production Wheel, and Working Wheel forums on Ravelry are lots of fun and will send one scurrying quickly down the rabbit hole of collecting old wheels!
SA: It’s wonderful that something as progressive as an internet forum can lead someone towards something as rustic and traditional as antique wheels. What goes into the process of restoring spinning wheels?
DP: It really all depends on the condition of the wheel.  I try to only purchase wheels that have all of their parts, since many are missing flyers, bobbins and whorls.  It’s certainly possible to have new parts made, but many of the wheelwrights are in demand and have orders backed up for months. I have encouraged my husband to get back into woodworking (a skill he learned as a teenager) and we’ve invested in some equipment to support my habit, but it’s always easier if all the bits are there to begin with.  Then mainly it’s a matter of tinkering…  putting the wheel together properly (muggles often get it wrong!), getting the drive band tension just right, adjusting the drive wheel supports and maidens to make sure the wheel and whorl are aligned, and then a lot of fiddling and coaxing.  Then there’s the matter of the wood and whether it’s been badly painted or varnished.  Sometimes they have to be entirely refinished, which is a lot of work, but often they just need a good cleaning and many coats of pure tung oil or boiled linseed oil (and many people have their own special recipes) to restore the beauty of the wood.
SA: It sounds like it takes a lot of effort, but I’m sure the results are well worth it. You are a big supporter of local buying, natural fibers, and minimal fiber processing. What sparked your passion for natural, sustainable, crafting?
DP: It’s mainly just wanting to work with the cycles of nature.  I have been very inspired by  a great book called “One Straw Revolution:  an Introduction to Natural Farming” by Masanobu Fukuoka – his philosophy is also known as “do-nothing farming”!  I work with fiber because it brings me closer to fiber animals and nature, and so I don’t want to add any unnecessary barriers in between.  I’m also really laid-back (some have even said lazy!) so I don’t want to make things any harder than they need to be!
SA:  Speaking of your bent towards natural artistry, you have mentioned that you do not use unnatural dyes, and sometimes you even prefer the animal’s natural coloring. What is it about the fleece/fur/hair’s organic colors that excite you? And when you do decide to dye, what are your natural dyes of choice?
DP: It’s been said that natural is always beautiful, and I couldn’t agree more.  I just prefer soft, old-looking colours versus bright colours.  The range of natural colours of wool, alpaca, mohair, angora, and so on is almost enough for me!  It’s also part of my “less is more” approach to work; why dye black when I can easily find black wool, or have a black sheep?
My feeling about natural vs. synthetic dyes also has to do with the impact of synthetic dyes on the environment.  It’s true that depending on the use of mordants, natural dyeing can be equally harmful, but I use either no mordant, herbal mordant (there is such a thing!) or pots as mordants.  It’s easy to find a wonderful range of aluminum, copper, and cast iron pots at thrift stores!  I also love to gather windfall leaves and berries on our land.  Elderberry, goldenrod and pokeberry are plentiful, and my favourite sources of yellows and pinks.
And then I do love indigo for blue and have been working with a vat ever since taking an amazing class online offered by Glennis Dolce of Shibori Girl Studios (http://shiborigirl.wordpress.com/).  When I feel the need for even more colour than I can find in season on our land, I use the powdered natural dyes from Blue Castle Fiber Arts (http://www.etsy.com/shop/bluecastle – and she also has the herbal mordant!
SA: I know you mentioned that you live on a farm with Shetland sheep and Angora rabbits, and that both of these livestock serve as an inspiration for you. In what way do your animals inspire you?
DP: Their fiber is just so beautiful!  Just having these gorgeous animals nearby makes me want to work with their fiber.  We also don’t have very many critters (six sheep and eight rabbits), so I get to know each one, and they are very much individuals with their own personalities.  It makes me feel connected with the critters and with nature to work with their fibers.
SA: I’m sure your animals appreciate all the extra love and attention you must give them. It is exciting to hear that you and your husband design and create hand-turned spindles. How do you come up with your designs? 
DP: Yes, I’m excited about it too!  My husband is experimenting with shapes based on traditional Russian and French supported spindles.  He looks over photos of vintage spindles, picks out a suitable wood, and then does what he think looks good on his lathe, and then I test it out.  Then we go back and forth from there until we have a spindle that is beautiful and spins like a dream.
SA: You have stated, “I think one of the qualities of great art is that it is complex, there is no clear agenda, no easily decipherable overarching message.” How does your personal philosophy of art play out in your work?
DP: I have said that (and you have done your homework!) but I guess that’s only part of what I think.  I like and respect political and agenda-driven art too.  There’s room for everything!  I think I was talking about amazing paintings or films or works of literature where you really have to ask yourself what they mean, and they lend themselves to many possible interpretations.  Works such as those take such skill to create and I believe them to be more able to stand the test of time.
Yet in regard to my own work, and yarn and batts, I’m not sure how it applies.  I think there is great beauty in items which take artisanal skill and are functional rather than just made to inspire –  not to mention the satisfaction in creating something that will be used to warm someone!  I would much rather make a quilt to be used than hung on a wall.  I don’t think that fiber work needs to invoke some high-minded idea in order to be ‘art.’  The debate of what is ‘art’ and what is ‘craft’ will probably rage on forever, but surely a great deal of work that some people consider ‘craft’ certainly deserves the title of ‘art’ to the extent that it affords it greater respect.
SA: What profound words; I couldn’t agree more. Can you tell us about your studio?

DP: I’m sitting in my little studio now, with Ms. Hadley (kitty) on my lap, drinking tea and looking out on a honey locust tree.  It’s one room in our little farmhouse and it contains lots of wall storage for wools and fabrics, one large table for projects in process, and a small side table for my sewing machine.  I also have one of those big square Ikea Expedit shelves with the desk coming out from it for my carders.  Then there’s a comfy secondhand sofa for sitting and spinning, stitching or napping.  I always have playing either internet radio or Netflix (usually period British like Downton Abbey or Sherlock Holmes).  The room has a door out to our wraparound porch, and I have my skirting table out in the yard and also do my dyeing outside (and sometimes in the kitchen).  I used to have my studio in a community art-space in the little town nearby, and that was a lot of fun, but I tend to work very late into the night, so I decided I’d be more productive if my work-space was at home.  I was very grateful to receive a grant this past year from the Durham Arts Council to build out this room in my house as my studio!

SA: What an amazing and generous gift; that must have been a great affirmation of your work! I know you have many spinning wheels, but do you have a personal favorite?

DP: Well, my favorite changes based on what I’m spinning!  For fat, funky art yarns, I adore Big Bertha, my beautiful vintage Cowichan bulky spinner (also known as an Indian head spinner).  She was made by Sharples and Daniels in the 70’s out of gorgeous solid black walnut.  The modern equivalent of this type of wheel is something like the Ashford Country Spinner, although I’ve never tried one of those.

For production work, in my humble opinion, nothing beats Louet. I have a vintage S-10 that does anything I ask of her.  Well, except for super thin production spinning, in which case my Canadian Production Wheel, made by Vezina in the early 20th century, is the go-to.  And then purely for aesthetics, I am partial to an 1846 wheel that an online friend rescued and shipped for me all the way from Sweden!  She came to me all broken, and is still rickety even after repairs, but she still spins!
SA: You have quite the collection. No wonder it’s hard for you to choose just one as your favorite. Your virtual spinning class seems fun and so interactive. Can you tell us more about the online teaching experience?
DP: Yes, it is really cool!!  I teach an online spindling class for Craftsy.com (http://www.craftsy.com/spindling).  They are fairly extensive video lessons, filmed in high definition – Craftsy did a great job producing them!  We go through all the basics of learning to spin on a drop spindle or supported spindle, as well as basic fiber types and preparations, and going all the way through the process to plying and setting yarn.  One lesson even shows how to spin art yarn on a Navajo spindle.  The platform is really nice for students because they can take the class at their own pace, stop the videos at any time, rewind, make notes tied to any point in the videos, and ask me questions.  We also post photos of projects, keep up with each other’s progress, and share ideas about any issues students are having. It can be frustrating to learn spindling on your own, so the idea is to give enough support that students can actually get the hang of it!  It’s been a great experience for me and I’ve come to know many new spinners.
SA: I have taken that class and it was really wonderful (see my review here).  I hope your classes continue to flourish, and you inspire many new spinners to join our fiber community. What is your ultimate form of relaxation?
DP: Oh my!  We dream of finding a farm-sitter and getting away for an exotic vacation one of these days!  A few weeks soaking up sun and food in the South of France with my hub, mum and dear friend Mathyld (http://underthepyramids.com/) would be heavenly.  But for daily relaxing, I love just sitting outdoors, watching animals graze or play, feeling the earth under me.  That drains all my tension and leaves me refreshed.  
SA: Well, it was so great, hearing from you today. Since you’re such a nature lover, I have one, final, question for you: what is your favorite scent in nature?
DP: When honeysuckle is blooming, it can’t be bested.  I also grow fennel in my garden and love the scent of anise or licorice when you crush up the fronds…mmmmm.  And the smell right now of the wood-stove getting cranked up… how can I pick just one?
SA:  Honeysuckle is a good one though!  Thanks so much, Drucilla — you’ve got me wanting to get out my stash of indigo powder and do some natural dyeing.
Well, Dear Readers, this is the last official post of 2012…I know for many people this has been a tough year and folks are looking forward to a re-boot in about a week.  I’ve got some really special posts coming up for you over the next two weeks — one is a look back over this past year at Spin Artiste and the other one, a very special surprise for you that is all about looking forward.  And, that sort of sums up fiber arts, too, don’t you think?  We are about looking back and learning from our past and then looking forward into new directions, ideas, spaces.  We use the most ancient of tools and methods and the most moderns ones, often interchangeably.  So, on that note, we push on to 2013 which promises to be the best blend of the old and the new that we can make it!

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