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Featured Artist: Rachel Bingham of 44 Clovers

by EBlack on April 9, 2013

RB-44 C me at the medomak fiber arts retreat 2011Publisher’s Note: When most people walk through the woods or gaze at a snow-topped mountains, their thoughts remain on the landscape before them, but for Rachel Bingham, her thoughts flow right to fiber!  Rachel, of  44 Clovers, is a fiber artist with a bent towards history and nature, striving to maintaining the purity of the art, the fiber, and even the dying process. This self-taught fiber master is truly inspiring me to look at the world a little differently, with eyes searching for the next fiber project within every tree, flower, or berry.

Spin Artist (SA):  Thank you for joining us, Rachel. Let me start by asking, what is your fiber story?

Rachel Bingham (RB): My fiber story started for me at a really young age. I was about 6 years old when I began to be interested in fabric and sewing. Our mother made us special outfits and I was fascinated by her scrap box. I had the most fun going through it, folding the shiny fabrics and experimenting with making outfits for my dolls. I especially loved clothing my stuffed Sylvester Cat. I also dreamed of sheep. I LOVED them and was so fascinated when I saw one (or many because they are never alone). We lived in rural Maine and a family had a flock up the road from us. I just felt a really special connection to them. As a pre-teen, I learned how to knit but quickly got bored with the stiff yarn I was using. Being really into painting for most of my life up till that point, the knitting took a back seat for a while but I thought about fabric and sewing all the time. My sister brought me to thrift stores and I loved the vintage fabrics I’d see. As a teenager, I started quilting and made a quilt for each of my three sisters and one for my mother. I was really happiest when I was making things with my hands. When I was 18, I picked up knitting again and this time it took off! I’ve been knitting voraciously ever since.RB-44C foraged plants yarn collection A few years after I picked it back up, I taught myself with out using patterns, how to make hats and mittens. I then taught myself how to use the drop spindle and found I loved knitting with my hand spun so much more. A few years after that I invested in my first and only wheel. I started buying fleeces at local fairs and started to experiment with koolaid and solar dyeing. Then, over the last 5 years or so, I’ve begun exploring natural dyeing with pigments and foraged plants. I’ve learned needle felting, nuno felting, and weaving. I love going back and forth between all these skills and having several projects going.  I am currently doing the acid dyeing for Portland Fiber Gallery. Soon I’ll  be teaching for the 4th year at the New England Fiber Arts Retreat from July 28th-Aug 3rd: Nuno felting, natural dyeing and foraging, and drop spindle (http://www.medomakretreatcenter.com/newenglandfiberartsretreat.php). I will also be at Squam, a Taproot Gathering from Sept. 11-15 teaching natural dyeing (http://www.squamartworkshops.com/savethedate).

SA: What an amazing past, with some incredible future opportunities ahead. Speaking of your past, who would you say played the greatest role in your formative years of fiber art?RB-44C cedar sachels vintage fabrics

RB: There have been quit a few people who have inspired me especially in the last few years. But in my formative years, I didn’t have anyone who spent a lot of time with me teaching me these skills. But I would say history played the biggest role in my formative years. For as long as I can remember, the way my creative and learning process has worked was to go back in time and research just enough information to get me inspired to try something new. Because I really couldn’t stand listening to a lot of instruction when I was kid, I was just too excited and wanted to get started. I would make mistakes, burn out, or end up going in a completely different direction. Sometimes I found it discouraging, but I always would return to a project because I’d feel guilty leaving it undone. I’ve realized that really is the best way for me to both learn and really feel what I’m doing creatively. I really enjoyed as a kid and still do, any museum exhibits on textiles because I am fascinated with how fabric was made, where the materials came from and how it was gathered. I have always loved knowing how the origins of something came to be.

SA: There is nothing like discovering the roots of fiber art; what an amazing teaching tool!  Even though I’m sure you’ve had a few people who encouraged you along your journey, you seem to be mostly a self-made fiber artist. What would you say were the benefits and difficulties in teaching yourself how to do so many aspects of fiber art?RB-44C mediative knitting all koolaid solar dyed hand spun

RB: I’d say the benefits were it always kept my creative process fresh. Being an artist from such a young age, I was never big on following an example. I certainly got inspired by others and their work, but I never spent a lot of time trying to do something just like someone else. It was so important to me as a child to be completely original that sometimes it really slowed me down. It would also really frustrate my teachers when I had a deadline. Getting a bad grade in something didn’t really faze me. However, if I made the most original car in wood shop and got a D for speed, I was still so proud of it because it didn’t look like anyone else’s. The benefit of it for me is I guess, it keeps things new and fresh for me to always be thinking of what I haven’t done before.

SA: Sounds like, from a young age, you knew what you wanted from your art, and truly established your independence.  You have shared that you have quite a connection with sheep (even down to your name). Can you tell us more about your relationship to those majestic animals?

RB: As a child I knew sheep where my favorite animal. I think I may have asked for one when I was young. I was/ am so attracted to their fluffiness! and their potential to make others warm. They are providers of warmth and for some reason that always struck me as such a wonderful job even as a kid. My mother told me when I was young that my name meant “little ewe”. I was also born on Easter morning in the Aries sign, which is the Ram. Between all three, and the fact that I adored sheep, it felt so natural to me to have a connection with these animals. I really hope to someday have 2-4 or at least be more involved with taking care of them if they live on family or friend’s land. In very recent years, I’ve taken a few shearing classes which were quite an adventure! For right now it feels wonderful to me to work from a fleece to a sweater.

SA: I’m sure your love for sheep and nature has greatly impacted your work. Would you say nature itself is your greatest muse? And if not, what is, and why?RB-44C indigo dyed

RB: I would agree. Sheep, the landscape, color, it all really impacts my level of inspiration. The air and texture of nature, especially when I’m outside in any weather, really keeps my creative self alive and flowing. Like a magical energy that only comes awake when I am outside.

SA: It is clear that the great out-doors is your source of inspiration, and you have really embraced an organic style. You are an amazing grassroots dyer, using whatever you find in nature to dye your wool. What inspired you to dye in such a primitive style?

RB: Since I was a young kid, I always had such a strong connection with nature. Daffodils, little grape hyacinths, fern, moss, lichen, tiny pools of water on rocks, mica, samplings, the sap bubbles on trees, I loved it all and loved exploring and finding new treasures, When I first learned of dyeing wool with plants and vegetables, it was such a revelation to me but also such a familiar feeling, like, of course!RB-44C rosehips collection Also, an even further reason to be outside rediscovering those plants I’ve known for years and seeing this new potential that has been there since the beginning of time and I could figure out how to do it?! That just blew me away. It still does.

SA: For those of us who may not be familiar with the methods of plant based dying, can you explain the process for us? And can you share what you have found to be the benefits of your techniques?

RB: When you want to dye a fiber whether it’s a plant based fiber like cotton or flax or a protein based fiber like silk wool, camel, alpaca, angora, or cashmere, it needs to soak in water for about 30 minutes. This is long enough for each individual fiber to absorb the water which helps it to absorb the color. With most plant dyes, but not all, need what is called a mordant. The mordant fixes the dye to the fiber in such a way that does not let the color  just wash out. Some may fade a bit over time and with lots of sunlight, but really for the most part, the color stays. Prior to the mid 1800’s, plant dyes were used along with copper, tin, and the heavy metal crystals and powders for the mordant. After the invention of synthetic dyes, plant based dyes were used less and less and have nearly died out. Today, the few of use who have the curiosity to try this have found other methods that are safer like using alum which is non toxic but should still be used with care. Also, experimenting with the timing of the mordant can add to your technique base. I have also found some time saving techniques and ways of using copper and tin in a much safer way.

SA: I love that you have come up with some new twists on some old time methods —  What has been the most outlandish natural material/plant you have dyed with?

RB: I really love and have so much fun with all the plants I collect. Every experiment and dye pot is like a religious experience. But Lichen really REALLY blows me away. Depending on the species, location and how it’s prepared, lichen offers a variety from faint grey green, maple, red, pink, and purple.RB-44C collecting rosehips on peaks I’ve yet to reach the reds, pinks and purples but I do have a jar fermenting now that has been going for 6 or 7 weeks. Something very different might come out of it. My most favorite thing about lichen is this: after it’s dyed into wool, the wool smells like sweet wood and it lasts there forever. It is an amazing woodsy smell that my friends and I like to refer to as the woodsy man smell. It’s musky and lasts through many washing. I have socks to prove it!

SA: I think you’ve got something there. The “woodsy man” socks sound like a new best seller to me! I’m interested to hear about you spinning. How would you describe your spinning style?

RB: I’d say 80% of the wool I spin is from Maine Island raised sheep. I buy the whole fleece and after skirting a little further, I gently wash in small batches in my kitchen sink and dry outside or by my wood stove. Theses fleeces are so lovely and soft full of long crimpy fiber. I LOOOVE working with these fleeces. And because I love them so much, I try to keep the fleece alive in the yarn, spinning very soft fluffy single with some crimp popping out.

SA: Can you tell us about your work studio?

RB: My fiber studio is in the upstairs of our house. A spare room that my fiancé gave me for my fiber.RB-44C my fiber studio It was already painted a very pale golden pink when he moved in 10 years ago. It’s a lovely room with two built in book case and a large closet. It fits everything I’ve got very comfortably. I have a nice collection of vintage fabrics and notions that I store in an open organized way so I can see them. I have my 1963 aqua singer sewing machine set up and ready to go. I keep my wool chest and large yarn basket in plain view as well. I also just acquired a very tiny four harness metal table loom. I love this space and I try to keep everything organized but also visual so I can easily move from one project to the next.

SA: Sounds like your studio is a reflection of your love for fiber history; a true homage to the past. What wheel are you using to spin up your masterpieces?

RB: I have a Mazurka Kromski wheel. I’ve had it for 8 years now! I love it so much. It is beautiful and so easy to use. It’s a real treasure in my life <3

RB-44C ferry riders indigo and madder dyed lattice mittsSA: I know you have lived in Maine for 30 years, but you mentioned that you recently moved to Peaks Island, in Maine. How has this change-of-scenery influenced your recently created pieces and your overall artistic process?

RB: The same day I moved to Peaks Island is the same day I quit full time job. Not only having a lovely big house and such a loving and amazing partner to begin nesting with, it’s placed in such a picturesque community. Seeing the ocean from many windows in my house, the smell of the air, the sounds just outside my house, have really relaxed me in a way I’ve been waiting for a long time and in a way I didn’t realize could happen. Living here has really helped my creative process not just flow but keep it on a continual flow. I can stop doing a project and pick it up later and not too much momentum was lost.

SA: I’m happy to hear you found your place in Maine, and even happier that it is helping you produce such beautiful pieces. What is the story behind the name “44 Clovers?”

RB: I have always loved the number 44. As a 4 year old, I adopted it as my favorite number when we had to move from California to Maine in 1982. My Dad was part of the Naval Squadron VP44. So I knew it was a super important number and a number that was often in our house and driving onto the base. (My mom loves to tell this story) When I was 4 she brought me in for a check up. I weighted 44lbs, was 44″ and I was 4. I asked the Dr. why I was not happen like a square. I also loved to collect 4 leaf clovers. I had more luck with it than my sisters (who really gave up to easily and didn’t have the obsessive drive like I did).RB-44C maine island fleece solar acid dyed It didn’t help that I really gloated to them whenever I found one and they did not. One day, one of my sisters was so annoyed with me for finding one, she took it and ripped it up. I think her was of making amends with me about that was getting a tattoo in college of a 4 leaf clover and writing a poem about that day in her writing class. It’s one of my favorite stories of us when we were young. As I got older, I formed a real fondness (an obsession actually) with Ireland. The idea of clovers, shamrocks, sheep had so much appeal to me. And when I started studying it further in school, I found just how fascinating it was. The traditional music, the culture, language and history. I’ve now been a total of 3 times in the last 15 years and am now there on a forth trip for my honeymoon.   I’ve always kept Ireland close to my heart and it’s history and culture has played a role in my inspiration with a lot of my art work for a long time.

SA: I love the name even more, now that I know the story behind it! Thanks again, Rachel, for sharing with us. It has been a delight. Let’s close with this: what is your fondest fiber memory?

RB: I was having trouble thinking of this because I have so many! But while just writing about my Ireland trips, I remembered what it was. In 1999 during my 2nd trip, I was there for 5 months. I lived back and forth between Avoca and Greystones for two months during the summer. While in Avoca, I would walk into town with friends to go to the chip shop (thick cut vinegar salted fries) and to the tea shop at the Avoca Handweavers Mill. I LOOOVED this place and was just enamored with it. It is the oldest handweaving mill in Ireland. One of their styles of blankets that they sell is of fluffy jewel toned tartan throws woven with mohair. RB-44C all my yarnThe mill was usually open to visitors and you can observe men and women sitting at the huge looms and operating them. I asked someone walking around if I they had yarn that I could buy. They said they did not but to hang on a minute… they came over with a large card board box, I mean it was HUGE, I could fit inside it, and plopped it down at my feet. The guy said, here, you can have this if you want, and walked away. Inside was piles and piles of mill ends of mohair and bouclé. They gave me a plastic bag and my friend and I shoved all the yarn inside giggling hysterically. We dragged this home over a mile’s walk and for 2 weeks we wound every color into a large balls of yarn. I went home with 20 colors of wool. Loving Irish music, I bought myself a Bodhrán and stuffed all the yarn balls inside the case for the flight home 3 months later. I still have some of this yarn left and have made very good use of it.

SA:  Thank you so much, Rachel!  I am always so inspired by fiber artists such as yourself with a lifelong passion for what you do and the deep connection you have to your work. 

Readers, please check out Rachel’s etsy store as well, but you will only be able to check out her past sales right now because as Rachel mentioned she is in Ireland enjoying her honeymoon — let’s give her a big congratulations!! 

But, wait — there’s more!   Rachel was kind enough to provide a beautiful giveaway — it is a hand sewn needle case.  I have it to give to one of you and I can vouch for it — it is really beautifully made…I WANT IT!!!  So..to get it, you need to do the “usual” — leave a comment here letting us know which part of Rachel’s “fiber story” resonated with you the most.  Extra entries for sharing on Facebook, Twitter, etc.  Just leave a comment letting us know that you did.  The deadline to get your entries in for this giveaway is Sunday, April 14th at 5:00 PM EST.  Best of luck to all!

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