Coming up tonight on this week’s Featured Artist piece is Manuela Brice of Lunamuse Fiberart!
Looking over Manuela’s work and words, the two words that come to mind are soulful elegance and ingenuity. This little snippet from her profile on her Etsy page tells me she is a lady after my own heart: “Originally born & raised in Germany I got transplanted to the United States in 1995. My biggest moving box contained my Ashford Traditional Spinning Wheel, tons of knitting needles and pounds of fibers in various stages of incarnation: raw, washed, carded, natural, dyed, spun, knitted…”
Spin Artiste proudly presents the Manuela Brice interview:
Spin Artiste (SA): Let’s start at the beginning – how old were you when you began your journey as a fiber artist and what has been your path?
Manuela Brice (MB): When I was five, I taught myself to knit from my mom’s one and only knitting book and basically got hooked on knitting and crocheting before or while I learned reading, writing and basic math skills. Thankfully, I know those by now efficiently enough which comes in really handy for following patterns & designing your own..:-)
I remember working on my first sweater when I was ten, a garter stitch rippled lace sweater in a thick and thin cotton boucle yarn, knitted in one piece top up with sleeves cast on along the way…I remember the sleeves did not turn out well and I had to rip them out a few times, but would not give up until satisfied with the results…by the age of fourteen, I had become a passionate knitter — no pattern or style was too difficult and soon I worked with my own cables and color patterns. Next, I created a wardrobe for my Barbie doll by downsizing knitting patterns from a French knitting couture pattern book. Crazy, if you ask me now…
I continued to knit every possible pattern out there, made mistakes, learned from them, taught myself new tricks and then started changing patterns to adjust fit and style to the wishes and needs of my family and friends. I loved knitting for other people and enjoyed the challenge to capture their individuality in the finished piece.
During my high school years, it was not unusual for me to knit at least one or two sweaters per month plus the occasional pair of socks, hats, scarves, mittens, depending upon the season. I took my knitting everywhere, even to school. My chemistry teacher, for instance, understood that knitting supported my brain function in absorbing abstract concepts of science and math and was very supportive of my passion. Not only did I become the proud owner of a creative, handmade and one-of-a kind wardrobe, but knitting also provided me with a social safety net during my teenage years of angst and awkwardness.
Knitting also counter balanced my intense focus on intellectual studies during high school and university with emotional and sensory experiences, thus allowing my heart forces to breathe instead of getting “stuck in the head”.
For my sixteenth birthday, my grandfather gave me wooden knitting needles and loftily spun yarn that was plant dyed and ‘organic’. It was beautiful to work with, soft in colors, warm and comforting to the touch, and I realized there was more to yarn than the commercially processed offerings I had been working with so far.
Soon afterwards, a yarn store opened in my hometown, specializing in silks and mohair yarns that were hand painted right on the premises. Needless to say, they should have charged me rent with the amount of time I spent in there! I loved the sensual overflow my eyes and fingers were exposed to and just could not get enough.
I started to make my own yarns in my early 20’s. I had switched universities and at the time, I completed additional vocational training in Social Therapy in one of the Camphill Communities in Germany. I was running a sheltered workshop guiding developmentally disabled adults in processing wool, dyeing fibers, spinning, knitting, crocheting and weaving; thus, learning, teaching and practicing hands-on all the steps of wool processing myself. For many years, I was blessed to bear witness to the healing heart-opening qualities of wool processing, spinning and knitting.
Every spring, we would watch the shearing of our flock of sheep and pick the best parts of the fleeces for our wool processing endeavours. Picking of the fleeces and “teasing” of the fibers were the next steps, getting as much straw, vegetable matter and dirt out of the wool before we would card it into batts on the hand-cranked carding machine, two old-fashioned bath tubs would be filled with hot water and soap, each holding about two pounds of wool batts at once. The batts would soak overnight, then get rinsed and laid out on wooden racks to dry. Now the wool was ready to be spun au naturelle or plant dyed. I also blended our wool with mohair, silk or other fibers on a huge industrial carding machine.
Once having mastered the challenges of the wool processing, I, of course, wanted to learn how to spin as well. Now, spinning requires patience, endurance and peace of mind, which I had the (sometimes painful) opportunity to learn besides getting my hands and feet coordinated. But, once mastered, spinning will also give patience, endurance and peace of mind. However, I have to admit that I was a very impatient young maid with high expectations and got rather upset that it took so long for me to spin an acceptable thread. It bothered me so much that it followed me into my sleep and at some point, I actually dreamt that I could spin the perfect thread. I still clearly remember holding the fiber in my hands and moving my foot on the spinning wheel treadle and I felt the perfect harmony of all the elements working together in just the right way. When I woke up, I right away went to sit at my spinning wheel, “remembering” the dream and started spinning just like I had in the dream.
My uneven thick and spongy singles turned quickly into well-balanced singles. Then, I discovered how much more fun it is to spin up thinner singles and ply them into all kinds of new yarns, bringing out the character of the fibers better and then creating “designer” or “art” yarns, mixing and matching different textures and colors, even adding some commercially spun accent yarns here and there.
My love affair with fibers and knitting is still going strong after thirty-three years, with the occasional crocheting and sewing flings here and there…I even learned to weave on floor and table looms. The only difference now is that I use mostly my hand spun fibers in my design creations. I always liked challenging patterns, intricate Aran cables, challenging Fair Isle color work or the most delicate lace. However, with my growing appreciation and inventory of hand spun yarns, I also came more and more to appreciate simplicity in pattern and style. Oftentimes a simple stockinette stitch or ribbing pattern will bring out the best in hand spun yarns regarding liveliness, luster, elegance and boldness in character. I have simplified my designs in the course of time to allow the hand spun yarn to speak for itself and allow its vitality and beauty to bloom.
The focus of my knitting work has been on adult sweaters, jackets and accessories (hats, scarves, gloves, socks), until the birth of my son in 2002, which naturally extended my interests to baby, toddler and children’s items. Lately, my focus has come back to women’s accessories, as well as coats, vests and tunics.
SA: What a journey! I would have loved to have been able to knit along with you when you were a teenager – I made lots of unique things for myself to wear at that age as well — With such a rich history of learning and experience, how would you characterize your approach to your work as a result?
MB: My design approach is intentionally inspirational and magical…I keep myself open to the wonders around me and draw from there, be it nature, the wonderful fibers that go through my hands, natural or dyed…there is beauty to be found everywhere and sometimes I am blessed enough to catch some of it and weave it into my work.
I embark on a very artistic and organic journey with my original knit designs, starting out with a vision and often times ending with a garment either close to that vision or totally different from it. I take chances and allow serendipity to be at play.
My knit designs have a three-dimensional approach; the person, the yarn, and my vision for both, especially when I accept custom orders. I take into consideration my customers’ wishes and the qualities and character of the yarns I work with; thus, creating a unique design that expresses the vision for that particular person and the yarn.
In any case, the garment is what it wanted to become by means of yarn, pattern style and personal taste. Spiritual imprints, art materialized into the sensual world.
I do draw ideas and inspirations from various knitting magazines and knitting books; however, it rarely happens that I “just knit” according to just one pattern.
Since I grew up in Germany, I learned the Continental way of knitting. I also taught myself the American way of knitting when I worked with developmentally disabled adults in America, in order to teach and help them with their knitting projects.
I prefer to knit my projects on circular needles and whenever possible in the round and, for instance, will not hesitate to adjust a pattern written for front and back to knit it in the round. It is easier, faster and reduces the seaming process at the end. It also works great for hand spun yarns that don’t come in the very same dye lot or texture like commercially processed yarns.
At Lunamuse Fiberart, I offer a variety of finely hand knitted garments, hand processed hand spun yarns and spinning batts using fibers from sheep, mohair goats, alpacas and llamas that live happily on small family operated farms as part of the family. It is very important for me to stress the fact that no animal has to give up its life to give us fibers to wear! I wish the vegan community as well as PETA would provide better education and information about this: yes, we should boycott the harsh and cruel procedures that the commercial wool industry is putting the sheep through, but not at the expense of hand-spinners that work with the fibers out of admiration, appreciation and respect. Shearing of the animals is part of the natural cycle of life and needs to be done to ensure their well-being.
SA: Thanks so much for expressing those views…It’s so true that once you are getting fiber from a shepherd that truly cares for their flock and then transform it into yarn, it’s so much more enjoyable to work with — it arouses a lot of passion in people — what is it specifically about working with fiber that makes you feel passionate?
MB: First, there is the concept of art materialized into the sensual world — I am still fascinated and humbled that I can create endless pieces of art with “two sticks and a string” that serves fashion and function! Every time I touch new fibers or go through my stash, I feel excited and pleased about working with it. There are endless possibilities of creating with the different fibers and colors. There is just no end to the excitement of handling a new fleece, be it raw, washed or dyed into beautiful fibers. Even coarser fleeces whisper of great possibilities and offer their yearning to be made into something useful.
Second, there is knitting and spinning as meditation practice — When we knit or spin, we are focusing on what’s in our hands. Even though thoughts are still present, there’s something being created by us, something that is calling your mind to it so we’re not solely concentrating on sadness, stress or other negative emotions. It wasn’t until I took up a daily meditation and yoga practice ten years ago, that I realized I was in a meditating state of mind when spinning or knitting, focused but calm, actively engaged but relaxed at the same time, totally in the moment of the fiber gliding through my fingers but also acutely aware of my surroundings.
And, third, there is knitting and spinning as therapy — When we work with colors, we work with feelings and provide nourishment for our soul. The natural color spectrum of wool allows us to feel grounded, while the spectrum of the rainbow in dyed fibers allows our souls to take flight. Lighter colors like orange and yellow helps to lift our moods, while darker colors like blue and purple can make us feel safe and secure. Green has a calming effect, while red is stimulating, creating positive energy.
In spinning, we activate our will and our thinking, handling the fiber with our thumb and fingers. While spinning, the top of the spinning wheel (the flyer), our arms and our chest create a triangle of healing energy for our will and our thinking to be balanced in harmony with the forces of our heart, resulting in peace of mind, calmness and a quiet happiness.
SA: All so true! Let’s get into some nitty gritty details — What materials do you like to work with?
MB: I started out spinning only sheep fibers that I had hand-picked from the flock and hand processed myself. Next, I added mohair and silk. For a few years, I kept two Angora rabbits and happily added their fibers into the mix. I also experimented with Afghan and Samoan dog hair, camel hair and cashmere and finally, got interested in tencel, viscose, and other man-made fibers.
My favorite fibers to work with now are mohair, llama, suri alpaca and long-stapled sheep fleeces like Lincoln, Coopworth, Wensleydale and Border-Leicester. I love the luster and shine those fleeces have and I love the way they process by hand. I love to spin those fibers with a long draw — it feels like painting the fibers into the wheel in big long strokes.
I still enjoy spinning silk and recently discovered the joys of bamboo, banana fiber, soy silk and optim merino.
I have been known to use a rather experimental approach when it comes to dyeing fibers, although I have been trained by experienced teachers and learned from workshops and books. I was very lucky to have a dyer’s garden for awhile and was able to create magic with nature’s predictable resources resulting in sometimes unpredicted but always welcome creations. Oftentimes I would just pick something (flowers, leaves, bark) and throw it into the pot. I would always exhaust the dye bath until only a hint of color would be left on the fibers that way creating variations and progressions of the same color way, that could either be blended together or used with other colors. The possibilities were just endless! If I really did not like some results, I would over-dye or blend the fiber with different colors on the drum carder.
There is always a way to create something beautiful and pleasing to the eye (“by accident”) out of a mistake!
SA: And what equipment do you favor?
MB: The only tools that I use are my washing machine or the sink to clean the fibers (purchased after sampling them extensively for quality, uniqueness and character), a stainless steel pot to dye fibers in and or already spun yarns, and a hand-cranked Ashford drum carder to mix fibers and colors into spinning batts.
I overall do prefer to spin my fleeces right from the washed locks, teasing apart the locks as I go, even the mohair fleeces. I prefer to spin my alpaca and llama fleeces unwashed because I find they handle better. Usually there is not much dirt, mostly only dust in those fleeces which falls out easily during the spinning process and the finished yarn washes up quite well.
I have had access to many spinning wheels in the course of the years, but my favorite one is still the first wheel that I bought myself after having learned now to spin: the Ashford Traditional wheel.
I love to preserve and enhance the fleece’s characteristics when I transform them into yarns. Although it has been one of my self-set goals to produce fine and smooth knitting yarns by hand with a minimum of tools involved, creating the art yarns is where I let go and let loose guided by intuition and inspiration of the fiber’s beauty!
In general, the less electronic and automatic tools are used in fiber processing, the more of the fibers’ natural healing and warming qualities stay alive.
The less soap is used in the washing process the more lanolin is retained in the fibers. Lanolin is a product of the oil glands of sheep or mohair goats, extracted from their wool. Lanolin is an emollient in many skin care products, cosmetics and medicines. A lanolin-rich yarn keeps the skin smooth and acts as a natural water repellent.
My yarns are spun from fibers that have not gone through any harsh chemical treatments. It is often these chemicals that people react to when they believe that they are allergic to wool Only a few people have a real allergy to lanolin. Most allergic reactions are caused by toxic chemicals that are used in commercially processed yarns.
I can even feel the difference when I work with commercially processed spinning rovings. They are nice and easy to spin up, but do not quite feel as ‘alive’.
Hand spun yarns have a warmth, beauty, shine, luster, character and comfort that touches the heart and is hard to match by machine produced yarns.
SA: So, Manuela, where to next?
MB: I have been very focused on changing and adapting patterns for my hand spun yarns to the extent of creating totally new and different patterns, which I have liberally shared in knitting groups, with friends and loyal customers.
The next step for me, now, is to work on translating my design short hand into written up patterns for those designs that I knit with my hand spun yarns and make them available to the knit community at large.
I have had good experiences working with small boutiques in the past creating designs complimenting their inventory, and always welcome new opportunities.
I also would like to incorporate weaving into my creative process again and design accessories and garments with woven fabric using my hand spun yarns.
SA: That’s so exciting to hear about the patterns — one of the missions of Spin Artiste is to help answer the question, “it’s beautiful yarn, but what do I do with it?” so we will be anxious to hear more about your pattern development as well as seeing your hand spun yarns incorporated into some woven pieces!
Shifting back to introspection, what inspires you?
I am constantly looking at fashion and interior designs for interesting construction lines, planes and patterns.
Sometimes inspiration comes in between breaths on my yoga mat.
Sometimes I “see” a new design in a dream.
People inspire me: their lives and experiences, their hopes and dreams, their hardships, struggles and sacrifices out of love…
SA: What represents happiness for you?
MB: My dream of happiness includes (but is not limited to) a lot of fibers in various stages of incarnations, me having all day to play with it — preferably in my cute little house on an island off the coast of Maine AND getting paid for it!
Until this dream comes fully true (I did get the house a couple of years ago, so I am basically halfway there), I will continue to share my knowledge and passion for fibers and knitting with others, which I often do on a volunteer basis for free.
SA: Now, I have a few fun questions for you starting with who are your heroes?
MB: We all take turns being heroes in each other’s lives. Oftentimes we don’t even realize what an impact — positive or negative – our words and deeds have, but we are true heroes when we give of ourselves, our time, talents and assets, selflessly from our hearts without the expectation of rewards and prices.
SA: I think we will find that after reading about you, Manuela, many people will be inspired — I know I am.
Tell us something about yourself that people might be surprised to know.
MB: I grew up in Southern Germany by the Lake of Constance with the snow-covered tips of the Alps in the background. My home town, Ravensburg, was first mentioned in 1088. In the Middle Ages, it was an Imperial Free City and an important trading center. The “Great Ravensburg Trading Society” (“Grosse Ravensburger Handelsgesellschaft”) owned shops and trading companies all over Europe. It was founded by the Welfs, a Frankish dynasty in Swabia who later became Dukes of Bavaria and Saxony and who made the castle of Ravensburg their ancestral seat. By a contract of inheritance, in 1191 the Hohenstaufen Frederick Barbarossa acquired the ownership of Ravensburg from Welf VI, Duke of Spoleto and uncle of both Frederick Barbarossa and Henry the Lion. With the death of Conradin in 1268 in Naples, the Hohenstaufen line became extinct. Their former estates became imperial property of the Holy Roman Empire. Like many other cities in Swabia, at the end of the 13th century Ravensburg became an Imperial Free City in 1276.
I have been part of a local artisan scene for as long as I can remember. From Germany to New England’s rich crafts to beautiful and sunny Sonoma County in Northern California to avant garde Asbury Park at the Jersey Shore, I invite local elements to be part of my design process, every piece of land calling on a different part of the soul waiting to be expressed.
In my other lives I am mom, wife, yoga teacher and practitioner, writer, painter and singer…who loves to wear hand-knitted, hand-spun socks to bed even in the heat of the summer…:-)
SA: Finally, Manuela, tell us what your motto is.
MB: “Follow your heart”
Luna Muse – creative inspiration of the divine…
A life-long passion for spinning, knitting & wearable art — where fiber craziness meets fasion designs.
SA: Terrific! Thanks so much, Manuela — it has been thoroughly enjoyable getting to know you as a person and as an artist. Please stop by Manuela’s fabulous website and her Etsy Store to see her terrific designs!
Manuela has graciously made available to Spin Artiste readers one of her original designs which will be coming your way in an up-coming special edition of Spin Artiste.