Publisher’s Note: When life gives you lemons you make lemonade, and when life gives you fiber (and a wheel)…the possibilities are endless. Renee Jones of Carolina Fiber Company is a great example of this philosophy. She found her way to fiber and never looked back. Renee creates fiber pieces that are a tip of the hat to all things local and sustainable. She has been creating all sorts of fiber art for years, and through an amazing set of circumstances she got herself a wheel and has found a way to use fiber as a business, lifestyle, and medicine for life’s bumps in the road; no lemonade needed!
Spin Artiste (SA): You mentioned you put your heart and soul into your fiber work. Can you tell us about how you became a lover of all things fiber?
Renee Jones (RJ): To be honest I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t involved with fiber in one way or another. Growing up I was surrounded by family members who were always sewing, crocheting, or tatting so I know that’s where it all began.
When I was a teenager, I was on a trip out of town and came across a knit shop. It was beautiful, amazing and quite different than the discount yarn store I had grown up seeing. I ventured in and bought a learn-to-knit kit. It was a rather unsuccessful attempt but I continued with garment sewing, quilting, needlepoint, embroidery and crochet. Years later I picked up knitting again after my second child was born.
SA: It is amazing how one little moment in life and one little knit shop changed your life. Now, I know you’re a multi-tasker, being a full-time mom, fiber artist, and sales associate at your local yarn shop. How do you manage your time so well?
RJ: I don’t know, it just works for me. Keeping busy is where I’m comfortable. My kids are in high school and elementary school so it’s not like I have little ones who need constant attention.
Working at Knot Just Knits and teaching classes there has been a wonderful way to connect with other fiber enthusiasts. I rarely sleep past 5am. My internal alarm clock makes sure of that. Waking early is helpful because I have more energy in the first half of the day so I’m able to get a lot done that way. Quite often I’ve spun a yarn or two, carded a few batts or washed fleece before the sun is up.
SA: Wow you really know how to make time out of no time. We could all learn from you, I’m sure! So even in your sleep deprived state, what gets your creative juices flowing?
RJ: Anything really, but people watching would be a huge part of it. I live in a great community just outside Chicago with great architecture (The Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio is less than 2 blocks from my home), beautiful gardens and really interesting people. It would be difficult to live here and not be inspired.
Lately we’ve made several trips to Chinatown and to the old Marshall Fields – these are two great areas for winter inspiration for me. The Tiffany ceiling in Fields is one of my favorite Chicago landmarks and every time I’m in there, I look like a tourist seeing it for the first time. But the main part of creative inspiration comes from my three children. They are constantly giving me new eyes for things I wouldn’t have seen. One daughter is an animal lover and manga style artist who has sold her work on Etsy as well as special events. My older daughter has a love of all things vintage and is a budding film photographer and artist in her own right. And, my youngest is a little guy who finds and collects items that most of us would pass up as trash. All three of them have their own distinct styles and characters that I find creatively energizing.
SA: Sounds like you have a family of creative geniuses. So I hear you won your first wheel on Etsy! Can you tell us about your prize wheel? Do you have any other wheels you spin on these days?
RJ: I’m glad you asked this question because it’s one of my favorite stories! It happened just after my mom had died and I was having quite a difficult time finding my footing in life. Even sewing, knitting and crochet were just meh – I’d lost my creative mojo so to speak.
The holiday season was approaching so I had been doing some shopping on Etsy and bought a few items from a shop that was celebrating their one year anniversary. With each purchase you were entered into a drawing for a number of prizes with the grand prize being a Louet S10. To be honest, I ordered a couple hand poured soaps and forgot about the drawing until I got the email saying I had won! It really tickled me to have won the grand prize! And I’d always wanted to try out spinning so it gave me something to look forward to, something else to focus on. Looking back, I like to think of it as a gift from my mom because she would have wanted me to move on from that bad place. If ever a hobby or a craft can help heal, this one has really done that for me.
To answer the second part of that question, having one wheel would be akin to having one pot to cook in or one shirt to wear and I’m just not that Spartan of a gal. Right now I’m down to 3 wheels, my Majacraft Aura, my Country Spinner 2, and my Louet S10. But I’d really like to add a Spinolution wheel to the collection since they are made in the US and spin like a dream!
SA: That is a great story! Your life seems to be filled with serendipitous occasions. You have said, “I truly believe that wheel and the people it brought into my life to be one of the biggest blessings that I enjoy each and every day.” Who are some of these blessed artists who have come into your life, and how have they impacted you over the years?
RJ: I’m not sure I can put into words just how life changing that wheel has been. Not only did it give me back my creative mojo but the amazing people and artists I’ve met as a result of spinning has been such a blessing. Right away I met fellow spinners online and then when I moved back to NC in ’08 I found myself surrounded by spinners and shepherdesses.
While looking for batts on Etsy I came across a listing for a beautiful batt, After Dinner Mints, from a NC seller. Purchasing that batt and the conversation that started led to a friendship with Esther Rodgers, aka Jazzturtle Creations
. A few years later I met Laura Young of Dew Dance Farm and her amazing flock of well-loved animals with gorgeous fleeces. Each of these ladies has shared their fiber and spinning knowledge as well as their friendship with me – blessings in more ways than I can adequately describe. And, best of all, I keep meeting the most interesting people as a result of this creative journey. At the end of the day what really matters are the people in your life. As silly as it may sound, that wheel opened up my world in a way I never saw coming but am thankful for every day.
SA: You use such a variety of spinning methods for your yarns. How do you decide what style you will use each time you sit down to spin?
RJ: Well, I think that goes back to my kids and their very different styles and personalities – it shows in the yarns I spin, the colors I dye and the pieces I knit or weave. Some days it’s Maddie’s fun bright world of manga and video games, the next it might be inspiration from a trip to a thrift shop with Jordan or seeing a photo she’s taken, and other days a spark will be set off by cleaning out Bailey’s pockets and seeing what he found beautiful or worthy of collecting. I suppose it would simplify things to pick a style and stick with it but then that just wouldn’t be me.
AS: You have really mastered taking every aspect of the world around you and making it an extraordinary piece of art. What can you tell us about your studio space?
RJ: Right now it’s a hot mess, a really hot mess! We moved back to Oak Park this past summer into a much smaller space so I’ve taken over nearly every room in the house. I used to think I wanted a house with a studio space, now I’ve decided I want a studio with a living space and maybe some room for sheep!
The items that are for sale are tagged, organized by color and style in tubs but the rest of the basement looks a lot like what I’d imagine my brain to look like in a cartoon.
SA: I know you opened your Etsy shop during a difficult time in your life. How has the shop and fiber art as a whole brought you healing?
RJ: Last year was a roller coaster that I don’t want to get back on again, ever. But life guarantees little other than difficult times. It’s how you react to these events that will define your present and your future. I decided I was going to define that part of my life rather than it defining me. Sounds like a simple cliche, I know, but it’s true.
SA: So glad to hear that fiber art has brought you so much healing. I hope your work continues to be a remedy for you.
The idea of buying and selling locally is really catching on, within the fiber world. What inspired you to make that a priority in your art and business practices?
RJ: It started from the whole “buy local” idea in the foods we buy.
If I was making such an effort to eat locally grown produce, why wouldn’t I do the same with other areas of my life. And fiber is my next highest item behind food when it comes to consumption. Other than a couple of items that can’t be sourced from the US, I buy my fibers from US farms and try to find growers as close to my home as possible.
SA: It sounds like buying local is not your only fiber philosophy. It is also great to hear that you use environmentally friendly products and alternative water conservation methods to process your fiber. Can you tell us about your “green” process?
RJ: “Green” can be a hot button topic and I don’t claim to be an expert but one simple thing I started doing early on was to use the final rinse water of one fleece as the first soak of a raw fleece. It’s a great way to break down the “yuck” before the washing begins. Also, collecting rainwater in tubs or rain barrels is another simple way to conserve water. During the hot, sunny summer days, I solar dye.
Over the past few years it has become much easier to find cleaning products that aren’t harmful to the environment and recently I’ve been working with a local soap maker to come up with a wool wash and a fiber conditioner. Other than dyes, I really don’t want to work with chemicals or products that I’m not comfortable having on my skin.
Reusing packing materials as often as possible when I ship helps reduce my “footprint”. And the yarn shop where I work keeps a collection basket going for me so I can reuse all the bits and pieces of leftover yarn.
SA: You mentioned that you have a good relationship with the farmers you get your fibers from. Can you tell us about the farms and why you found it to be important to know your sources?
RJ: The “buy local” philosophy is what started this but there are other benefits too. I’m a huge animal lover and getting to see the animals and the farms they live on is such a treat.
I found there were even more benefits like getting first pick of the fleeces and getting to know some really amazing people who share their knowledge of the animals. And I’ve even been able to help out on shearing days at a couple of farms! I know I sound like a total fiber geek.
SA: I’m sure the farmers are happy to know their animals’ fibers are being handled with such care, and are becoming beautiful masterpieces. How would you describe yourself as a fiber artist? Would you say you are a free-form artist, or a more structured, disciplined, creator?
RJ: Oh, goodness. I’d love to tell you I have this amazing organized approach but I can’t. And I’m sure it would be helpful for stocking my shop if I could spin 10 of this, 5 of that, etc but in reality I wait on inspiration or for the fiber to talk.
Spinning from roving is more straight forward and planned out. But usually a fleece will speak to me because of its color or texture and other times I sit down to spin a certain yarn and it wants to be completely different than I had planned. As with most things in life, you’ve just got to go with it.
SA: I got lucky one day when you were having a sale and snagged a beautiful pink triangle shawl you wove with your handspun yarn. Have you ever created a piece that you couldn’t bring yourself to sell? (what was it and why?)
RJ: Almost. This past fall I core spun yarn from a mixture of special friends’ animals and wove it into a shawl on my triangle loom. I loved this piece, really loved it! It was a combination of the undyed fibers (my favorite at the moment), the friends who I would think of as I moved from one lock to the next and the sweet animals that grew the fiber. But in the end it became an experiment in letting go and it paid off.
Not only did it sell, the sweet lady who bought it for her daughter sent me the kindest message about how she felt this connection and how she just knew it had been made with love. I hadn’t told her anything other than it was made with fiber from dear friends but she could feel it so much that she took the time to send me a handwritten thank you note. I’m hoping this will be a lesson that will stick with me; being able to let go is important.
SA: Last but not least, what was your New Year’s resolution for 2013?
RJ: To fully unpack, clean and organize that studio space in the basement. It would be great to not refer to it as the hot mess any more. I’ve tackled a bit here and there but if anyone wants to volunteer to come help they are more than welcome!
Renee, thanks so much for taking the time to share with us your wonderful fiber life! Readers, I hope you enjoyed learning more about Renee and Renee has a couple of special surprises for you. Check out the beautiful yarn and batt she’s made for a giveaway.
Seaside Cottage Yarn: 60 yards, 5.2 ounces. Romney, Angelina, Bamboo Rayon, Kid Mohair, Shetland, Silk Chiffon Strips, Teeswater, Corriedale, Banana Silk. Retail Value $45
Crystal Coast Batt: 3.8 ounces Angelina, Silk, Merino, Camel, Wenslydale, Kid Mohair, Shetland, Banana Silk, CVM, Cotton Chenille, Silk Chiffon Strips, Soy Silk, Romney. Retail Value $30
So, the burning question in your mind might be, “how do I get those?!?!?” Well, you are going to have to help me out a little…I’m working on the roster of artists that are on my wish list to feature and would like to add some more names. If you leave a comment with one suggestion of someone that has not yet been featured, you get an entry. Two suggestions, gets you two entries. I’m going to select two winners at random, but I’m not going to withdraw the first winner’s name, so there’s a chance of winning both! Additional entries for sharing on Facebook, Twitter, etc. and or “liking” Carolina Fiber Company on Facebook. Just leave a comment that you did. Get your comments posted before next Thursday, 2/21/13, 12:00 PM EST to be included in the drawing. Best of luck to all! These are fabulous products.