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Featured Artist: Riin Gill of Happy Fuzzy Yarn

by EBlack on July 26, 2012

Publisher’s Notes:  Happy Fuzzy Yarn — doesn’t that make you feel good just reading those words?  I’m guessing it does.  I know it does for me.  And, this week’s featured artist is the fiber-ista who creates Happy Fuzzy Yarn.  Welcome to Spin Artiste, Riin Gill!

Spin Artiste (SA): From looking at your work and reading your blog it is clear you love yarn! You even say your yarn is for people who “are obsessed with yarn.” What began your yarn and fiber art obsession?

Riin Gill (RG): When I was around 5, someone gave me a cross stitch kit for my birthday or Christmas or something. It had the design printed on the canvas, kittens, I think, and embroidery floss, and an embroidery hoop. I never did finish it because I wasn’t happy with the way the embroidery floss didn’t completely cover the printing, and my stitches weren’t perfect (yes, I was a perfectionist when I was 5!), but I fell in love with all the colors of the embroidery floss (it had a really pretty turquoise — I still remember that) and just the physical act of working with it.

My mom did a lot of sewing, and would occasionally pull out a crochet project (that she hadn’t worked on in a few years, so she couldn’t remember how the pattern went. I don’t think she ever did finish that poncho!), so there was always fabric and yarn available around the house. I made clothes for my dolls, and she taught me how to sew a skirt for myself when I was 10. The next year I picked out fabric and a pattern to make myself a shirt, and she said to wait till she was home to help me. I got tired of waiting for her to be home so I finally went ahead and did it myself. I laid out the pattern pieces according to the instructions, cut them out, sewed them all together according to the instructions, and it turned out perfectly. She realized I really didn’t need her help, so after that I just made all kinds of stuff.

All through junior high and high school I sewed, crocheted, quilted, did needlepoint, a little bit of weaving…but I really wanted to learn how to knit. The only knitter I knew was my grandma who was drunk all the time, so I decided I would rather teach myself from a book.

So I taught myself from a book, a process that took two years. It wasn’t a very well written book, but I didn’t know that until afterward. Fortunately I am nothing if not stubborn! Once I finally figured out how to cast on, knit, purl, rib (I was really confused about when to move the yarn from the front to the back and vice versa!), increase, decrease, and bind off, I figured I knew everything I needed to know to make my first project, so I made a sweater out of Vogue Knitting. Not being around other knitters gave me the advantage of not knowing I was “supposed to” start with a scarf or a washcloth or something equally simple. I was fearless.

I was also poor, of course, being a college student at the time. I sought out the cheapest decent wool yarn I could find, and if it was ugly colors, I overdyed it.

A few years after college, I had a bit more money, but still not a lot, so I signed up for a Spinning and Natural Dyeing class with Beth and David Pennington, thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice to spin my own yarn? It would be so much cheaper?” Whenever I tell this story, I can tell who’s a spinner, because at this point the spinners burst out laughing, and the non-spinners don’t. I didn’t foresee all the money I would soon be spending on a spinning wheel, drum carder, etc., etc., but I also never dreamed about the yarn I could make that I couldn’t afford to buy in a million years.

(SA): Wow!  So many parts of your story that made me nod my head and giggle.  How did attending spinning and dyeing classes years back influence your work?

(RG): I learned how to spin! I wasn’t sure I would get it at first. We used a different wheel every week, and for a long time it just wasn’t working for me. Then one week it just clicked! That was so momentous! Like everything was just right with the universe! That’s when I knew I HAD to get a spinning wheel. If I didn’t, I would die. “Spinner” had become part of my identity forevermore.

I don’t do natural dyeing much anymore, but I took an acid dyeing class a few years later with Pat Bullen, and that was the first time I had used acid dyes. Wow. The colors! The possibilities! Thank you, Pat!

(SA):   I admire your perserverance through all of those wheels — I don’t know if I would have made it.  You mentioned a year ago you were working a day job and had to find whatever time you could to work on your art. Now, with no other distractions, how would you describe your life now as a full time fiber artist?

(RG): I get more sleep now, which means I get fewer migraines. I do more shows. Too many actually. I’m tired all the time, so I’m planning to cut back on the number of shows I do, and do more wholesale. Overall, I’m so much happier.

I don’t have a typical day. Some days I dye 40 skeins of millspun yarn. Other days I wash fleeces and card art batts. Other days I spin and watch dvds from the library all day. I love my job!

(SA): You do vend at a lot of shows and that is such hard work.  What was the transition like moving from making yarn recreationally to selling yarn?

(RG): Kind of funny actually. For years I’d had people asking me if I sold my yarn and I always said no. I had seen the prices on handspun yarn at guild sales, and it’s sad how many women just do not value their time at all. I wasn’t going to sell my handspun at those low prices.

Then at the beginning of 2006, I was sitting at my underpaid day job, pondering what I could do to make some extra money. I didn’t want to get a second job. And then it hit me — people had been asking me for years if I sold my yarn…maybe I should start selling my yarn, but at a realistic price. It was one of those smack the forehead moments!

So I started Happy Fuzzy Yarn — http://happyfuzzyyarn.com. At first I just sold online, and at first my website was so ugly. So I gradually learned a lot about good web design and marketing.

I had to figure out pricing, and figure out where to buy supplies wholesale, and how to do things more efficiently than I had been. Over the years I’ve invested in more efficient equipment, like my Crazy Monkey skeinwinder that lets me wind three skeins at a time (not so important for handspun, but for my millspun yarn that comes on cones and has to be wound into skeins before I dye it, wow, what a difference!)

Learning to sell yarn is much more than just making really awesome yarn, though that’s a critical element. I had to learn how to run a business. I had to learn how to be an entrepreneur, which to an introvert and a creative person, doesn’t come so naturally. Sure, I would love to just spin and dye all the time and not have to deal with selling or marketing or photography or any of the rest of it. And in an ideal world I could just mail the bank some yarn each month to pay my mortgage.

But the bank wants money. So I need to get people to give me money for my yarn.

I’ve had retail jobs in the past, and they were torture for me, because I really didn’t believe the customer would be better off if they bought the product. But with my yarn, I’m in love with my yarn! I really believe my yarn is awesome! So when someone comes into my booth and their jaw drops, and they have a totally blissed out look on their face, I don’t have to work very hard to convince them to buy my yarn. They want to buy it.

I just have to make it irresistible.

(SA): And, you do!  On your blog you shared that you are constantly finding new methods to conduct your art. How has your work evolved over the years? And, are there any recent developments you can share?

(RG): I used to dye yarn and combed top using the cold pour method, but I decided I didn’t like using all that plastic, plus it made my back and arms ache, and I couldn’t do anything else while I was dyeing. A few years ago I switched to a modified hot pour method. I put the yarn, water, and acid in turkey roasters, add the dye on top, and let it seep down through the yarn, and after it’s had a while to seep down, then I turn the heat on. Lately I’ve modified that more. Now I don’t add the acid or turn the heat on until the dye has had a chance to seep down. I like the results better, it’s much easier on my body, and I can go do other things while stuff is happening in the dyepots.

On the spinning front, I have totally fallen in love with Navajo plying! I used to spin on a Reeves castle wheel, and I could never Navajo ply very well on it — I had to treadle fairly fast to keep the wheel going. About a year ago I got a Louet S10, and I love it! It occurred to me just a month ago that I should give Navajo plying another chance, and I’m so glad I did. I think I’ll be doing a lot of it!

(SA):  And, what’s your studio like?

(RG):  Chaos. Too small. Oh my, there really is a lot packed in there.

My entire basement is my studio, but it’s a small house, so it’s a small basement. When I bought this house, I was specifically looking for a basement with good lighting to use as a studio, and when I moved here from a one bedroom apartment, the basement seemed so big!

Now it’s full of all my wool, including 20-some fleeces waiting for me to wash them, bags full of dyed locks, bags and bins full of roving and combed top, alpaca, llama, angora, silk, mohair, firestar, thrift store silk skirts and blouses waiting to be torn into strips and carded into art batts (one customer returned one of my batts with the silk fabric scraps, saying “that can’t be spun.” So I spun it), shelves full of yarn, my drum carder, a couple of work tables, a knitting machine, skein winder, washing machine, spin dryer, clothes lines, turkey roasters for dyeing, all my dyes, two dehumidifiers, a couple of fans, shelves full of yarn and fiber waiting to be dyed, club yarn and club fiber that haven’t “aged” yet (when people sign up for my clubs they get colorways that won’t be available to non-clubmembers for 3 months, so I dye a bunch, mail out the club shipments, then hold onto the rest for 3 months before selling it), all my shipping supplies…

My spinning wheels and looms are in the living room. There’s no room for them in my studio.

(SA): Tell us more about your equipment.

(RG): I still have my Reeves castle wheel, but I haven’t touched it since I got my Louet S10. I love my Louet! I’ve got a Louet classic carder, a Crazy Monkey triple skein winder, and I dye in Nesco turkey roasters with stainless steel cookwells (Don’t use enamel or “nonstick” cookwells for dyeing. The coating peels off if you cook acid in them all the time. Ask me how I know!). I just got a spin dryer to get rid of excess water so stuff dries faster, and it rocks! I do my weaving on a Kromski 24″ rigid heddle loom and a 6.5′ triangle loom that my boyfriend built for me (Thanks, Rob!).

I’m planning to get a cradle picker next!

(SA):  Nice set up!  When you are giving classes in fiber art what would you say is the most valuable lesson you like to teach your students?

(RG): Don’t be afraid! Experiment! Especially when dyeing. If it comes out an ugly color, you can overdye it!

(SA): You seem to be so grateful for your costumers and those who have supported you. Who would you say is one person who has been a true advocate and well-wisher for you?

(RG):  My boyfriend, Rob, has been so supportive, always encouraging me to dream big and telling everyone how talented I am! Plus he does all my driving and heavy lifting, and there’s no way I could do shows without him.

(SA): From dyeing to knitting; what is your favorite part of turning fiber into yarn, and why?

(RG): It’s probably a toss up between dyeing and spinning. I absolutely love dyeing; I am addicted to color! I love combining colors and having them mix and split and remix and give me resulting colors that weren’t in the colors I started with! It’s chemistry, but it’s like magic. Alchemy!

And spinning is so relaxing, so soothing, so calming, it’s one of the very few things I can do when I have a migraine. It’s that soothing. And of course, it’s so satisfying! I end up with yarn that is so absolutely gorgeous, I have to kiss it!

(SA):  What is a fiber goal you have for future?

(RG): I want to use a lot more local wool. I live in Washtenaw County, which is the highest wool-producing county in Michigan. I already use a lot of local wool in my art batts and in my handspun. But most of the millspun yarn and combed top that I dye is imported from the UK or South America. It’s lovely, and my customers love it, but…there are a LOT of sheep just a short drive from my door. Border Leicester, Bluefaced Leicester, Romney, Corriedale… I want to have some of it made into combed top, and some of it spun into a 3-ply fingering weight yarn.

I need to raise the funds first though (it’s a 100 pound minimum to get the best price on the yarn processing), so I decided to do an Indiegogo campaign — http://indiegogo.com/happyfuzzyyarn. Basically it’s a way for people to pre-order. I did a survey of my customers, and a wool/alpaca blend was the most popular choice, followed closely by a wool/silk blend. I’d like to do both, but it will depend on how much money I raise.

Another goal I have is to actually knit some of the awesome yarns I’ve been spinning! I hardly have time to knit anymore, though I do have a sweater in progress that’s purple and soft and fuzzy and luscious. And I spun some absolutely gorgeous multicolored Navajo-plied yarn that was quite adamant about being mine. So that will be my next sweater.

I keep saying I’m going to schedule a day off every week to knit or weave or what have you, and instead I only seem to take a day off when I’m too exhausted to do anything except sleep all day. I haven’t quite gotten the time management thing down yet (I joke that I only have two settings: workaholic and total slacker).

(SA): What do you never leave home without?

(RG): I always have my iphone in one pocket and keys in another pocket, and I take my backpack everywhere, which contains my wallet, sunglasses, inhaler, migraine meds, cough drops, water, kleenex, an umbrella, shopping bags, a bus schedule, my spinning guild name tag, and my knitting, which is usually a sock project. Can you tell I like to be prepared?

(SA):  I’m with you for the on the go sock project!!!  What is sitting at a stoplight in morning traffic without a little knitting to keep you company?  Thanks so much, Riin for letting us peak into your happy fuzzy fiber world!

Readers, one of you is going to be LUCKY…cause Riin is doing a giveaway with us for an art batt.  So, how about leaving us a comment letting us know which colors you’d like in the batt?  Winner will be drawn at random after 5 pm on this coming Sunday evening.  Best of luck to all!  Arlene