Interview: Alanna Wilcox

Several years ago, Alanna Wilcox contacted me to ask if she could use my fiber for a book she was writing. Of course, I said yes! That book has finally come out, A New Spin On Color, and it's incredible; I haven't seen anyone go as thoroughly and as methodically into spinning differently dyed fiber and how to spin the differently dyed fiber to get what you want. From her website:

"Have you ever tried spinning painted top or rovings only to be disappointed with the color outcomes in your yarns or finished projects? Alanna Wilcox will clearly and artfully walk you through understanding color theory making it less intimidating for both novice and expert spinners alike. Never before has a book presented the same dyed top worked up into 20+ different approaches accompanied by easy to follow directions so you can see how the techniques look in both a skein and a knitted swatch."

I spoke to Alanna recently about her fiber arts journey and how it all began. In fact, I got so much awesome information that I think I'll need to do a second post to cover all of it! I asked her how she got into spinning to begin with, especially since she said she had started with wanting to spin her cat's fur! 

"I took an English class in college and the professor had brought in an American crazy quilt and I was just floored by all of the embroidery stitches. It made me want to make my own crazy quilts, so I started to go hunting in different shops and would buy yarns and threads wherever I went.  Wherever I traveled instead of bringing a souvenir shot glass home or something like that, I would get threads and different things to put on the quilt, and would incorporate all of these things that were going on in my life into the quilt.

"I have a cat and he has super soft fur so I thought hey, I wonder if there's a way I could turn his fur into an embroidery thread, because if shops have fuzzy mohair yarn, maybe I can have a fuzzy embroidery thread made from my cat's fur. I was taking a dyeing class at a local museum and I knew that the instructor was pretty knowledgeable in weaving and the fiber arts, and so I asked her, "Do you know if there's a way to get my cat’s fur off of him and turn it into a yarn that I can embroider with?"

The instructor pointed her the way of the Rochester weaver's guild, which had a learning center called The Weaving and Fiber Arts Center. They taught spinning classes there, so that's where she took her first drop spindle class, telling the instructor about her wish to spin her cat's fur.

"I was like, ‘Hey, I want to spin my cat's fur into yarn, is that possible?’, and they said, 'Whoa, start with wool first and work your way up to that.' I did try to drop spindle with his fur by brushing him, which is probably the best way to get cat fur, but since I was so excited to get more off of him faster I took him-- he is a seal point lynx rag doll -- to a dog groomer and said, 'Shave him!'.  He was happy afterwards because it was hot in the summer but while getting buzzed he was making this grumpy face like, 'really, is this what's needed to make yarn from my fur?'

In 2007, Alanna started the OHS Spinning Certificate Program, completing it in 2014, earning a Spinning Certificate with Distinction. I asked her what prompted her to take on that project.

"After learning how to use the drop spindle I went to my local spinning guild meetings, and there was a spinner there, Carolyn Rivello, she’s actually teaching at Rhinebeck this fall. She was so excited about spinning yarn, and she was also enrolled in the spinning certificate program. She would come to the guild meetings and she would bring these binders and in the binders would be her homework assignments from the program.

"I really didn't know much about spinning prior to this curiosity of wanting to turn my cat's fur into yarn, but I always loved thread and embroidery and sewing and fabric and knitting, and just, you know, things that were textile based. So the fact that not only could I go and take these classes at this center that was near me, but that one could actually go and study this with instructors, was a pretty intense exciting thing. Carolyn would share her homework assignments and experiences with the guild and it made me want to sign up. I did a little more research into the program, and basically every three years they start a level one course.  

"It's a six year course that you go to over the summer for nine days and you receive instruction from anywhere from four to five instructors on a range of topics and each year you learn new information and it covers everything from picking the wool, grading it, everything about different sheep, micron counts and all that. Wool spinning, natural dyeing, acid dyeing, dyeing with indigo, combing versus's intense, right? And then you have a year just dedicated to exotic fiber so then they go into all the exotics like angora, alpaca, all of that soft expensive fiber and then a different year it's all cellulose fibers and another year it's synthetics, like acrylic and bamboo. It's really the full gamut of everything-- you try different wheels, like you try a flyer led wheel, a bobbin led wheel, a kick wheel-- it's crazy intensive, and it was just so exciting to me that there was a way that you could really learn from people that were masters. So I got super excited and said okay, this is what I really want to do, but it's a very big time investment because, like I said, you go away for the nine days and then you come home and every year you have I would say between two to three hundred hours worth of homework assignments. I love spinning and that was awesome, but then there was writing up what you did and the documentation—there were so many things aside from the actual act of spinning that went into it, that it becomes work and so you know there are people that start off, and I think in my group there were about forty people that started, and then the graduating class had maybe twenty people left. And that's just the six years, right, and life has challenges, it'll just throw things your way, so, you know, some people just after year three were like forget this, this is too much for me. The people in the program were super cool with me though because I had my son along the way and that presented its own challenges.

 "I had my son during the program but before that though I had also lost a child and so I had to take a year off because it was a complicated pregnancy, but they were super cool and let me continue because it's consecutive so you can't just do year one and then year four, you have to do it consecutively so they let me come back and finish it. And then after the six years, it gets even harder, kind of like if spinning had something similar to the American Ninja Warrior show. So it's similar to where you do everything for the six years and then it's like okay, you've just made it past the tryouts. And then if you're really crazy there's the master spinner certificate. It's basically self-directed so you pick your topic and you have anywhere from like three to four years to complete it and submit it and then it gets graded by a panel of judges anonymously. I didn’t know who the judges were which for me was very difficult because I'm a question asker so while there were guidelines the process was difficult because I like to have feedback throughout a project not just at the end but I did it and I just completed it this year. My study was accepted by the jurors and so the book that I wrote  “A New Spin On Color”, is based on my thesis or what's called the in-depth study, so basically the whole thing to be a Master Spinner from start to finish took me ten years.

Photography by Jessica LK Photography. 

Photography by Jessica LK Photography. 

The book, A New Spin on Color, is really a masterpiece. How it came about:

"So when you go through this program the one thing they constantly are hammering and trying to drive home with you is the intention and spinning for an end use. They want you to constantly think about what is it you're spinning for. I know a lot of people love to spin for fun, which is great and that's pretty much how most people get started but for me I got so frustrated that I would make yarns and they were beautiful, and I would go to use them and I wasn't really a knitter in the sense that I would work from patterns. I would just kind of make things up as I went and so I didn't understand how my hand spun yarns might fall apart if they didn’t have enough twist in them so I would make these beautiful expensive Merino yarns and then I would knit them and then they would be pilling, I would be so frustrated because I spent so much time on analyzing the color but my spinning choices influenced how the yarn behaved and in the end it wouldn't work out.

"One year I went to Rhinebeck in New York, and I saw this gorgeous dyed fiber. The color is called Cattywampus, and that's one of the colors in the book and that's why I talk about this scarf sampler in the book, because as I said I love the colors in this dyed fiber, but I never like to wear the colors that I like to work with as an artist. I like to wear neutrals, grays and blacks, I don't like bright rainbows but I saw this fiber, and it appealed to me, and so I said okay, I'm not going to wear this, so what the heck can I do with this? I said to myself, you know what, I've been taking all these different workshops, and learning all these different things, I'm going to sit down and I'm going try to think of every single way that I can think of or that I've read about to spin and I'm going to try to do that with the same painted top and I'm going to see what color outcomes can be produced with that exploration. I was so intrigued that maybe one modification in plying, or just a different directionality of how I'm holding those fibers going on the bobbin could alter the way the colors appeared in the yarns. I could really see the colors change so much, but because I was kind of sacrificing this painted top to experimentation, I also tried different knitting stitches and this just really got me so excited and every time I shared the project with friends or other spinners, they were also excited about it too. I later got the idea of teaching it so I developed a workshop out of it and I started teaching it and the workshop would always be sold out and so it became this awesome experience to share this approach to working with color. 


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"So in the final year of the spinning course you had an option to design a workshop and I'm said “Hey, I've got this great workshop so let me use it! Perfect!” So I started plugging all my approaches into my final homework assignment and it was well received by the instructors. When it came time to present an idea for my Master certificate I said, you know what, I've done twelve or so ways and the guidelines or the criteria for the Masters is that you have to have 20 samples that are both handspun skeins and swatches. So I sat down in earnest and really tried to think how many ways can I do this, and the more I thought about it, the more ideas I had. I was coming up with like 30 to 40 different ways that you can approach the same painted top and get these different color outcomes. I tried to narrow them down into ones that maybe most people use or go to. In the book I refer to approaching a painted top with the specific directionality, so if it's painted from one end to another blue, red, yellow, green, I'm saying that if the blue end is A and the green end is C and if we're going to take that directionality into consideration, what can we do with that? How can we sequence the wool to get different outcomes?

"So I was able to turn that into my thesis, but having it already been a successful workshop and having it as my scarf sampler, I already had so many samples and so I thought that this would be a really great book that when I'm done I can share with people that maybe aren't able to come to my workshops or as a way of kind of getting my foot in the door to teach other workshops. "

Me: "I love how you're showing how to approach differently dyed tops because they're all going to be so different; for instance, the way I dye my fiber is totally different than, say Hello Yarn."

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"I took a workshop with Lynn Vogel and she's an amazing artist, with the Twisted Sisters Sock book and Sweater book. I remember holding her book and being so inspired because it had the dyeing component, the spinning component, and the knitting component. I thought this is somebody that was really thinking about how each step of the process is going to have an influence on the final product. I was just so inspired by her and with the colors in there; it just was very an inspirational book for me.  I took a workshop with her one year at Rhinebeck, and seeing the pieces she brought in, they were also very inspirational, and so literally right after taking the workshop with her I walked over to a friend of mine that was selling fiber and I bought different dyed tops that became the gold - purple gradation sweater in the book and I spun that and I made it. 

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"The more that I was spinning I realized that the fiber I was using most frequently was dyed top, the same as the fiber for the scarf sampler, but for the other things I tended to spin more solid colors, and that's actually when I realized I want to try to see what happens when I go with a more speckle dyed fiber which is when I bought your fiber and I made that green sweater.

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"I guess that when someone starts spinning they might tend to start with solids and not really speckled fiber; I think most people will spin natural colored fiber, if they're a shepherd or if they get raw fiber or they'll get a solid color fiber easily prepared just to start with afraid they might ruin “the pretty ones”, so it was kind of a natural progression for me. Then I moved on to the multi colored tops and I wanted to see how the speckles went but in using those different styles of dyed fiber I was noticing, obviously, that the yarns those fibers were producing also created different looking fabric. Simultaneously in that six year time period of going for the spinning certificate I remember I purchased some speckle dyed yarn because of it’s pretty colors but really I'm a spinner who knits, rather than a knitter who spins, and so I bought this speckled yarn and I'm like, ‘Oh this is awesome!’ and then when I went to knit it I was so disappointed with the way that the colors pooled. Then I said to myself ‘Okay, now I know that it's not just me as a spinner that gets disappointed with my yarns but that if I don't think about how the color is applied to the yarn then I'm going to get unhappy looking yarn and fabric.’ And again, simultaneously I also I took a weaving class and I picked colors that I loved but then when it was on the loom after spending so much time dressing the loom and learning how to measure the warp, learning all the vocabulary words of weaving, all of that stuff, and I get the first two inches in to the weaving and I thought to myself ‘I don't like the way this looks at all’. So in knitting and crocheting and weaving and trying all these different methods I realized this: the way that you plan for a project shouldn't be in the beginning with the fiber; you need to really think about what you want your end product to be and work backwards from that. One of the reasons I love Ravelry is that you can go on there and you can search and see all the different finished projects and patterns and the different yarns that people choose to make them, and I started to notice that I didn't like yarn that had short specks of color on it. I could see how the projects I liked were more of a solid nature.

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"So that's when I made that peacock shawl in the book and I had a dyer specifically dye fiber for me so that when I went to spin it I knew the colors were going to be in the spots I wanted them to be in, in the final shawl. So if you start with knowing in your mind the way you want your product to end then the process for me kind of becomes more liberating because now I know that when I'm done I'm going to enjoy it a lot more than if I take the random approach. 

"I want to share my ideas with people, but you know, you have brilliant minds out there and brilliant books about dyeing and color and spinning, but I'm a teacher-- my day job is being a teacher, and so one of the things that appeals to me is teaching people about color theory and color and when I read about color theory in most fiber books they tend to break it down into the scientific terms like secondary, tertiary, complementary, analogous and all that jargon and I think for the person that's just curious about color and wants to use it, well those terms may not matter in helping them know how to use them, they don't resonate, but that's not really teaching them how to develop an eye for color, it's teaching them the science of why something has worked. 

"I kind of liken it to cooking. I can have a recipe and tell you, if you follow this recipe you're going to have a great cookie, but I'm not telling you, this is what butter does to the cookie or this is what flour does to the cookie and if you add more in or add less this is what it's going to do. And not only do you have to take the cookie into consideration, but you have to take into consideration the plate that the cookies are served on and the choices that accompany the cookie, are you going to drink milk with it? Or hot chocolate?  So I think that's where the creativity of the artist comes into play.

"Teaching someone how to be an artist can be difficult you know and not even just an artist necessarily but how to teach people how to be creative, and as an art teacher I often get told two things. I often hear “Oh teaching art must be so easy because it's an elective; everyone wants to take it” and that's not always the case. I mean sometimes I have people that come into my class and they just hate art; they don't want to do anything; their self-esteem about making art is way down, but really I think the trick to being a great artist is to encounter failure, and then keep going. Then the second thing I hear is “I can’t ______”. Fill in the blank with draw, paint, etc. So I tell my students a lot of times, look, if you think you can't do something you're not going to do it and that applies to spinning, dyeing whatever. Whatever it is that you say you can’t do, you're basically giving yourself permission to fail. But if you say to yourself you'll try, even if in the end you think it’s a failure, you'll still be amazed at what you can accomplish."If you are a spinner, this book is a must-have. As I said in the intro, I've never seen such a marvelously thorough and original book on spinning from dyed top before; it should be a staple of all spinner's reference libraries. 

Thank you Alanna, for so graciously giving me some of your time! 

Visit Alanna's website here
Alanna also regularly teaches workshops; to find out about upcoming workshops, go here