Publisher’s Notes: I never dreamed I would see the day when this site would house FIFTY Featured Artist interviews, but we’re there. Fifty is so many…and at the same time so little compared to all the wonderful artists whose stories are yet to be told. How wonderful it is that one of the best of the best, Michelle Snowdon aka Wooldancer is the one that I will always associate with hitting this milestone. We are also coming full circle as Michelle actually contributed my first guest post way back in April 2011 — How time flies!
Spin Artiste (SA): Welcome back, Michelle! We’d like to start by hearing your “fiber story”.
Michelle Snowdon (MS): I feel I could write my entire life story in answer to this question! It began as with many fibre artists, in early childhood, being taught to knit by my mum when I was 5. My fibre journey is influenced by each of the women in my life. Both of my grandmothers were talented textile makers. Elaine, a pattern-maker by trade, was meticulous in her execution of knitwear. She had an ability to alter patterns and to create them from scratch using our measurements. My sister follows in her footsteps with impeccable knit skills. She has way more patience to knit thin yarn than I do! She is now writing patterns for our hand dyed yarn range and we are looking to launch them soon. Very exciting! My nana Doris always had a craft project going. She would crochet anything, dolls clothes, blankets, you name it, multi-coloured and whimsical.
Growing up I took a keen interest in creative tasks. My dad is a science educator, and his motto was ‘Hands-On’, and I loved that. We learn best from being hands-on, actively engaging and experiencing life. As I was to decipher later on, it was the ‘act’ of making with my hands that had me transfixed.
I went to university at 17, when I began to tune into the notion of clothing as an expression of individual and cultural identity, and of adornments as personal talismans. I enrolled in a BA(Visual Arts) with the express interest in studying a Photography major. I chose Jewelry/Silver-smithing as my Minor study. As I walked past the textiles studios every day to get to the darkrooms, I would peer in wondering if I made the right choice. Even now I don’t regret that choice, and in many ways it may have been pivotal in urging me onto my current path.
Studying photography at art school awakened in me new ‘ways of seeing’, shaping the way I now approach my subject. It taught me to zoom-in on details, revealing macro textures, my eyes sought out light and shade, contrast and balance. Studying silver-smithing gave me the gift of form and design. These elements are influential now when I’m mixing colours for dying, composing a batt, conveying imagery in my yarns and translating those elements into functional, individual wearable pieces. Photography is a huge part of my process. I have recently released my photos in print as yarn gift cards, and have a few photographc/fibre art projects on the burner.
It wasn’t until early 2000 when I embarked on the journey of motherhood that I revisited my early love for knitting and textiles. I honestly have my children to thank for setting me on the fibre art path. The earliest beginnings of Wooldancer took seed in a warm and colourful barn by the banks of the Yarra River. I would stroll by the children’s farm with my eldest daughter in a pram to see the animals. Beside a milking cow and a peep of chickens there stood a huddle of women twirling sticks with cd’s. One of the women caught the glint in my eye, shimmied over to show me how she made yarn with the stick. I was hooked. Since then I have acquired more tools than one fibre artist really needs, a house full of stash, an expanded shed full of fibre and have been perfecting my skills in making yarn, playing and pushing personal boundaries with the medium. It keeps me creatively satisfied and soothes the undulations in the daily round. Spinning is a great meditation for mothers!
SA: “More tools than one fibre artist really needs” — don’t say such a thing! You are going to blow my cover at home!! I love the name Wool Dancer. How did your “fiber” name come to be?
MS: Soon after the birth of my twins in 2004, I was teaching a knitting course at a local textiles shop. The owner asked me what I enjoyed most about spinning and I immediately replied: “it is the rhythmic, energetic spiraling energy of the wheel, of finding the balance between my core being and the tool in nurturing the twist to form and create yarn. It is fascinating and compelling, like a dance.” She replied: “You are the wool dancer!” I loved how the name evoked the energy I feel when spinning on the wheel and working with natural fibres, twisting them into form, alive and full of character.
SA: Early this year, you made the difficult yet exciting decision to leave your job. How challenging was that transition for you?
MS: At the beginning of this year I was faced with a schedule that was simply too full for me to carry out both of my interests. At first I admit to feeling it was a difficult decision. I dearly love working with young children, but I knew the answer was to let go of fear and to be honest with myself about my life direction as a fibre artist. I feel it was really an urge from the universe to define who I am and where I am meant to place myself out into the world. It was confronting in some ways, mainly letting go of a known predictable income stream! The signs were that I needed to trust that I would be supported in that decision. I am truly fortunate to have a supportive partner and family, who encourage me to live my dream every day. Of course, the support I receive extends into the world-wide community of fibre friends who are endlessly encouraging, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without you guys, as well as my students, past, present and future and indeed my Wooldancer customers. I have everyone around me to thank, and am truly grateful. I have to pinch myself every day!
SA: How is life now as a full time business owner and fiberista?
MS: In a word, stimulating! My child-free day time hours are divided around studio production and business tasks. I have 5 hours during 4 school days for Wooldancer, the time seems to go so fast when my children are at school! I try to be available for them without distraction when they are home, although I admit to wooldancing when they are happily playing around me. Being a one-woman biz is time consuming, as I am certain most of you know, and I do find I am continuously in search for that perfect balance of roles juggling household duties, creating and biz operations.
When I am not in production for art shows and markets or teaching, I am creating product for a local brick & mortar store, The Nook Co-op in Leura. I am one of 35 artisans who cooperatively manage the business, a wonderful venture that sees me both in the current role of elected Director/Chairperson and working as Retail Assistant two days per month behind the counter. I love being a part of this vibrant creative community and have learned so much working alongside other artisans.
I am now in the re-opening phase of my website which is exciting. After a hiatus on Etsy I am enjoying the process of taking my product back online. Two years ago I had to pause online shop updates while I focused on establishing Wooldancer in the local market/retail scene. I am really enjoying finding my way into the current online communities on FB and Instagram. I am working on my bigcartel site and looking to revive Woolly Wednesday Updates at Wooldancer next month!
SA: How has your family shown their support and involvement in your fiber biz?
MS: Not many international peeps will know that when Wooldancer is at shows, we are a family endeavour. My dad Geoff is my right-hand man, and attends almost every show. He co-designs and makes my stall display items, no matter how hair-brained an idea I have, he makes it happen behind the scenes. My sister serves customers with a smile when we are at shows in Canberra, and recently my eldest daughter Arliah, aka Spinstar, delights in demonstrating her awesome spinning and carding skills at local markets and has been touring with me to the Australian Wool Show the past 3 years. I am so extremely proud to show off my beautiful Wooldancing family at markets!
SA: Speaking of your daughter, Arliah aka Spinstar, what about the art would you like to pass on to her?
MS: I am the proudest mum! Arliah won a few awards at the Aust. Wool Show this year, and received much encouragement by the Woolcraft committee and friends. It was a wonderful boost to her confidence. She is in a happy place with it right now, and I’ll encourage her for as long as she remains interested in it. Observing her is inspiring for me, the way she approaches her craft with careless abandon! I teach her when she asks questions, but mostly I will let her explore the fibres and play. Children are born as creative beings. They have so much to teach and pass on to adults. I hope to influence her by doing what I love, so she can see that the same is possible and true for her life-path. If I could pass anything onto my children, I would say life is about being true to yourself, do what you love, seek out the teachers who can help with skills and knowledge, be open to the possibilities that come your way, and have the insight to make informed choices.
I adore that all three of my children love various aspects of fibre arts right now. I hope they continue to be creative in everything they do.
SA: You also make breathtaking jewelry. Can you tell us what inspires you to create fibre adornments?
MS: Artisan Yarn is a wonderfully inspiring material. Form and function play in symphony when I am designing each piece. I like my cloth to convey the beauty of imperfection, be expressive of the maker as well as the wearer. When creating adornments, I make what I would like to wear.. I’m a walking Wooldancer gallery every day! For me, adornments are expressive of personality. They are as individual as the person wearing them. I love creating adornments and seeing the right person find their expression with one of my pieces is the ultimate satisfaction!
I have to say much of my inspiration comes during the act of spinning yarn. Sometimes I see materials and have a rough idea how I’d like to enhance the character of the curls, the tangles of sari silk. Whilst in the act of spinning, I observe the materials and allow them to take me on a tangent. I try to push my own technical ability, which means each new yarn is a blank canvas for inspiration to channel-in. All of this happens in the moment, whilst spinning.
Nature is my biggest inspiration. I live in a truly breathtaking landscape in the Blue Mountains near Sydney and the scenery in imprinted under my skin. I am currently interested in how the landscape affects us emotionally and have started some new yarns & wearables around that idea.
SA: Besides being a wonderful artist, you teach a fair amount as well. How would you describe your teaching methods?
MS: My approach differs a little depending on who I am teaching. I’ll use storytelling when teaching children. Meeting them in their imagination will open-up creative will in their bodies. I will try to meet teenagers with creative experimentation. I recently discovered that spinning is an excellent discipline for teens! I feel adults often need to give themselves permission to let go of preconceived ideas to enjoy the process of discovery. It’s a fine balance between offering ample knowledge so as to satisfy the eager mind in understanding spinning, and in creating a calm and relaxing space for students to centre the body and still the mind so that the skill becomes effortless and enjoyable.
Whether it be spinning, dyeing, knit or crochet, I will teach the skills and technique, colour and design, all of the elements that help to set people on their way with the craft. For me, however, those elements are secondary to what I can offer as a teacher/mentor. I don’t want to impose my ways of executing a skill as the ‘only’ way to approach something. I choose a nurturing approach, to create a space in which people feel comfortable, happy and able to let go. We work at a fairly fast pace, treadling through techniques so as to cover lots of skills. In this way students are exposed to multiple techniques so we can then combine them and move into freestyle spinning – my specialty!
My fundamental approach is one of observation and exchange. I will observe the student with the aim of coaxing and guiding their natural way of approaching the technique. I observe where they are at, and what they are ready to embark on next, be it execution of technique or injecting artistic expression into their yarns. If I can help a student to reveal methods that are natural or comfortable for them, they will most likely enjoy their skills beyond the class or workshop, my ultimate goal! I love what I do, and this shines through when I teach, which I believe is the only way I can approach teaching successfully. I hope to be offering workshops abroad soon, when my little family are ready for me to travel.
SA: Workshops abroad — I’m crossing my fingers that you will be coming near me! Let’s talk about your workspace/studio.
MS: I work in a delightfully handmade shed/studio in my back garden. I have been gushing about my family, but really I have my dad and fiancé to thank, again! When my partner and I bought our home 4 years ago, we desperately needed storage. My dad offered to make a shed, and soon after realised that the shed had become a crowded workspace! He extended it out so I could include a double sink, twin tub washer, and almost enough space for me to spread out my carding area and be able to dye at the same time. Luxury! In true style, my stash and I have grown out of it now, and I dream of initiating a community textile arts studio, and I’m now investigating crowd-sourced funding. I’m hopeful it will come to fruit sooner rather than later!
SA: And your equipment?
MS: Is 4 spinning wheels too many?
SA: Absolutely not…:-) Tell us about them.
MS: I still have the wheel I learned to spin on, the Ashford Traveller with Jumbo set-up. My fav wheel is Poly, made by Richard Poore in NZ, with a drool-worthy hook guide that add-in lovers would squeal over, and mega brass bobbins. I can spin a crazy amount of yardage on her. Next I have a Majacraft Art Pioneer, pimped by Andy especially for art yarn spinning. And most recent acquisition is the infamous Majacraft Aura. She and I have a lifetime of friendship ahead of us!
I work with Inwood Smith drum carders. They are handmade locally and are my pick of the crop. They are an ergonomic design that allows for easy removal of the batts, and the cloth is sturdy and comes in various grades. It’s super wide so I can pack up to 150gr onto the drum! I also have a chain-driven vintage Fricke dinosaur with metal frame. Texture-loving spinners go batty over the cute 30gr batts carded on this one. I have a board carder for fluffing up mohair locks and blending clouds. It’s a beauty.
I have a few spindles, second-hand skein winders, a ball winder and the usual crew of lazy kates and niddy noddies.
SA: Your yarns are truly one of a kind. How do you put your whimsical personality in each piece you create?
MS: My philosophy is that just as each person has a unique fingerprint, so too do they have a creative blue-print. That is why you can see an artist’s distinctive style in their yarns. I can recognise a Lexi Boeger yarn, or a Karen Barnaby yarn, a YarnWench yarn, an Ashley Martineau yarn without seeing their name next to it to identify it. When I look at the yarn I can see their signature style, their blue-print. This is inherent in the way you can identify a painting by Sydney Nolan or Jackson Pollock. They have their own artistic signature that carries the authenticity of the artists making. There is no doubt that within that signature lies the personality of the maker. I guess that is what you can see in my yarns, my personality and my creative signature. I have honed my own style and application of techniques so that it’s recognisable, and that is the ultimate goal for an artist, to express themselves through their art. If I can relate to you through my yarn, we are making a connection that goes beyond the mere object. Then you get to make your mark on it and together we are in a cosmic dance, creatively interacting through our yarn-making.. I love that connotation!
SA: So true! I never worry about someone copying what I do because we can only be ourselves. What childhood activity have you never grown out of?
MS: Playing. It’s the key to releasing and allowing the creative juices to flow, especially when I feel an ebb and am desperate for the flow! Playing with my children, a game of handball, playing with fibre, anything that lifts the spirit will help begin movement, shift the blockages, and renew creative energy.
SA: Please finish this sentence for us: I spin best when…
MS: I have a glass of red on the coffee table and the children are in bed! I am most creative when spinning at night, when the moon is out and all is calm. At the end of the day when my mental state is tired, I find I can cast aside the ‘mind’ so that intuition will emerge and the light of creativity will shine through!
SA: Excellent point and all very inspiring — thank you so much, Michelle! Readers, Michelle has extended a very special offer to you: Get 15% off of hand dyed yarns and fibers (excludes workshop bookings and art wear items)at her website till midnight September 15th using the coupon code SPINARTISTE15. Click here to see what irresistable items she has for sale.
But, wait, there’s more!!! One awesome artful Handspun Yarn to a lucky SpinArtiste reader! Just leave a comment with your most favorite item by Wooldancer to win! Check out Michelle’s gallery via her website for inspirations .. You might choose her Wilde & Woolly Batts, handdyed yarn & fibre, handspun yarn or wearables! Winner will be chose by random number generator on Sunday night before 5:00 PM. This is an awesome opportunity to have a highly collectible yarn in your own collection!!
And, Readers, don’t forget there’s still time to leave a comment and win one of Melissa Nasby’s incredible needle felted masks — the deadline to enter is this Sunday, 5 pm. Click here to enter!