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Featured Artist: Lydia Gessele of Prairie Fire Soapworks & Fiber

by The SpinArtiste on July 14, 2011

Publisher’s Notes:   I’m sure most of us who love fiber and all things fiber-related have a fascination for the historical aspects involved.  I know I do.  And, when I connect with kindred spirits such as Lydia Gessele of Prairie Fire Soapworks and Fiber, I sure wish that we lived closer.  But, for now, at least, we have the opportunity to learn more about Lydia whom I have come to know as not only a wonderful fiber artist, but also as a person who is very kind and supportive of other artists.  Lydia is also one of the members of the terrific Fiber Indie eXperience Co-op (see the Spin Artiste story on F.I.X. here).  Please enjoy getting to know more about Lydia.

Spin Artiste (SA):  I love your tag line, “Traditional handmade gifts from the past for your present enjoyment.”  Tell us what that means to you and why you selected that.

Lydia Gessele (LG):  I have always been interested in crafts and arts that were done long ago and aren’t as popular or well known as they once were. There aren’t many people in my community that knit or crochet and no one other than myself that spin, naalbind or make soap from scratch. Actually I do everything from scratch at home such as cooking, baking and making our own craft materials for school. Just like back then though, these kinds of gifts make wonderful presents because someone put their heart and time into making them; thus, “traditional handmade gifts from the past for present enjoyment”. It is also a bit of a play on word as in “present” being gifts and “present” being right now.

SA:  How did you select the name “Prairie Fire Soapworks & Fiber”?

LG:  In 2000, I started my soapmaking business so at first my business was called Prairie Fire Soapworks and I chose that name because  I make all natural soaps and toiletries and, as many know, prairie fires are a natural event in nature.   It only seemed proper to use it in the name as I live on the prairies of North Dakota and it tends to be a good conversation starter.  I have lots of people come up and ask me, as a joke,  if I used prairie fire because it burns like the old soap used to.  When I tell them the reason for the name, they decide to purchase something and give it a try. When I started spinning in 2005, and then started selling my yarns, I decided that instead of starting a new business I would just add to a good thing.

SA:  Working and living on the prairies of North Dakota conjures up a rather romantic picture… Tell us about your journey as an artist in that environment.

LG:  The artist bug first hit me when I was just a young girl. I used to marvel at how you could get colors from nature and used to take my mom’s white dishtowels outside and use different fruits, veggies and plant materials to change their colors. I didn’t know anything about mordants back then, but for a brief period of time the towels looked spectacular with their vibrant colors of red and green from raspberries and spinach. My mom wasn’t too impressed, but she put up with it nonetheless. I guess she understood my need to be creative as she was also an artist who loved to draw and write poetry. As I got older, my interests turned to making soap, knitting and crocheting. I had wanted to spin at a young age, but my one aunt who had a wheel would not allow us to touch it, let alone learn how to spin so I had to wait till many years later.

SA:  I know you have been making wonderful soaps for quite awhile (I love “Lil Pardner”!), why did you decide to learn to spin and to branch out into the world of fiber art?

LG:  I had wanted to learn to spin since I was a child and whenever I would go to historical demonstrations and watch the ladies spin I wanted to learn even more, but I could not find anyone around who was willing to teach me so I set off on the adventure myself. I started with a spindle in 2005 that a lady gave me as a gift with which some different fibers to practice. I then headed to the library to find some books on the subject, but didn’t find much at our local library so I did an inter-library loan and found a couple really interesting books. Once I started reading about it, I started practicing to see if I could even spin at all. I wasn’t about to spend money on a wheel if I couldn’t even get the technique down on the spindle.

I practiced for months until one day I was no longer drafting and parking the spindle, but instead I was drafting and spinning while the spindle spun its way to the floor. It was so exciting and exhilarating. I spun on spindles for another year or so and then moved to a kick spindle so I could get my hands, feet and brain talking together and it was amazing how much faster the yarn was coming together. In 2009, I finally saved up enough money for my first wheel and as the saying goes, “the rest is history”.

SA:    And, what do you think sets you apart as a fiber artist?

LG:  I like to get my hands into everything. I purchase raw wool and process my own fiber, dye it myself, and spin it into yarns. I know others do this as well, but I also have an overwhelming need to learn all I can about spinning and love to share it with others. I teach classes on how to spin traditional yarns as well as art yarns and how to prep fiber for the different styles of spinning. I also don’t just let myself concentrate on spinning one specific style of yarn, but leave my mind open to all the possibilities. Though I have a hard time spinning yarns I can think of a use for, I do it because there is someone out there that will see the beauty in it and hopefully give it a good home as a work of art. I feel that God blessed me with a gift and it is my privilege to share it with others whether it be through teaching someone how to spin or dye or by sharing the yarns I create with others.

SA:  In particular,  I love the bright colorways of your hand-dyed items – where do you draw your inspiration from?

LG:  I get the inspiration for my yarns and fibers from nature for the most part. I love to watch birds and insects and well as look at all the beautiful flowers and plants in nature. I had gone to college to be a wildlife biologist and parks manager and though I am not working in that field anymore I still appreciate the beauty you can find there. Sometimes I also let my daughters pick the colors for a project just from different colors they think would go good together. I have found that you can’t let someone tell you that something isn’t going to work because all you have to do is look at the different color combinations around you when you are outside.

SA:  How about your yarns?  What type(s) of yarns do you like to spin and why?

LG:  I seem to gravitate toward the thinner yarns, but I think that is because I like to see how thin I can spin it. I have to laugh because my sister is always saying, “Why do you spin it like thread?”, to which I usually have to answer, “Because I can”.   LOL.   Over the years though,  I have found that I don’t like to do it the same each time.  Since I first got my first wheel back in 2009, I have acquired 3 more and on each one I tend to spin a different style of yarn. On my Ashford traditional,  I usually only do the really thin yarns because it looks more like the old wheel you see in the history books and the women back then were spinning for clothing so they weren’t going to be spinning something super thick. On my Louet S10, I seem to spin more of the dk and worsted yarns and on my SpinOlution wheels, I do my art yarns mostly. This allows me to be creative.

SA:  OK, I’m hearing about multiple wheels here…Tell us about your equipment and your workspace(s).

LG:  Well I have 4 spinning wheels (Ashford Traditional, Louet S10, SpinOlutions Mach 1 & Hopper), a Fancy Kitty wool picker, 2 Fancy drum carders (Fine and Medium), a comb and hackle set, hand combs and a hackle all from Blue Mountain Handcrafts and a number of spindles in my arsenal of tools. I don’t have my own studio, but instead work throughout my house as I like to let my family be involved and I want my children to enjoy what mommy does so that one day they will want to join me in doing it. All of my processing equipment is used to process my raw fleeces once scoured and dried and I also take them to classes with me to teach others how to use them.

SA:   What’s on the horizon creatively for you and your business?

LG:  I am going to start vending again at festivals and shows and will be teaching naalbinding as well as organizing a monthly spinning day in my town. It might just be me and another friend for a long time, but I hope to get the word out there and let others know they have some awesome things going on in their very own community. I have started a knit night at our local library and though I seem to be the only one coming at the present time, I will keep plugging away because I always thought the old quilting bees were an awesome way for people to get together and fellowship and love to have a spinning day and a local weekly knitting group looked forward to the way the quilting bees were.

SA:  I sure hope some of the Spin Artiste readers in your area join you!  I know I would if I were closer.

You must be busy all the time, but if you had a day with nothing scheduled and could do whatever you wanted, what would you do in your studio area?

LG:  I would sit down with my new video called “Sit and Spin” by Jayce Boggs and try every single yarn on the disk. I have been wanting to learn how to do a lot of the different spinning techniques I have seen in art yarns, but with little kids around, sometimes I just don’t get enough quiet time to wrap my brain around what I see, so her video is going to be a great help.

SA:  That is a great video and would be a fun day.  Who else has influenced you as an artist?

LG:  Lexi Boeger has been a big influence as a spinner to me. She does things with wool and fibers that I never thought would have dreamed of doing. I didn’t even learn about art yarns till about 4 years ago and then I got her book and paged through and was blown away by the different things she was doing. I like how she expresses herself in her work and want to find a way to allow myself to do something similar, but uniquely my very own.

SA:   Now, to get a little personal:  tell us something about yourself that we might be surprised to know.

LG:  Hmmm! This is a hard one. I guess most people might be surprised to find out that I went to college to become a wildlife biologist, but when I wasn’t able to get enough money together to transfer to finish off my degree I took courses to become a motorcycle mechanic and I can overhaul a motorcycle if the need arose. LOL.   Kind of wild when you think about it, as where I am now in life as a stay at home, home-schooling mom isn’t anywhere near where I started out, but I love how it has turned out.

SA:  Hey, I bet maintaining your wheels is easy with that kind of mechanical ability.  Lastly, what is your motto?

LG:  My motto is to try everything at least once. I always tell my kids to try something before they say they don’t like it and I use the same motto toward everything I do in my life. There are so many other things I want to try in my fiber business like tail spinning long locks, dyeing hand-painted silk hankies, weaving and spinning every style of yarn imaginable. I feel we have to keep learning something all the time because life is short and when we feel we have learned everything there is to know then we die and I have so much more I want to try.

SA:  Your to do list sounds a lot like mine…:-)  Thanks so much, Lydia for sharing your story and spending some time with us.  Now, dear readers, would you believe that Lydia has generously decided to do a Spin Artiste giveway?!?!  Come on back this coming Sunday for the details and until then, check out Lydia’s website, Etsy and Artfire stores and I wish you mucho fibery goodness.

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