Interview with fiber artist Morgan Vessel
I met Morgan Vessel in the fall of 2015 at The Common Ground Fair in Maine when we were both volunteering at the fleece tent. Morgan was wearing a back patch and on it was an image of a house with legs. I went up to her and, thinking that it was the work of another artist, told her that I had a piece of said artists work as well. It turns out that it wasn't same designer but that uncanny resemblance formed a fast friendship between the Morgan and me.
Morgan is such an inspiring soul and I think you'll see that in this interview. She sends the most thoughtful packages and is an absolute sorceress when it comes to fiber arts. This conversation was a huge source of inspiration for me and I know you will feel the same way.
Morgan and I are collecting submissions for a new zine called Hometown Women! A portion of sales will be donated to Women of Wise, an organization that aims to empower and educate immigrant women. Learn more about how to submit and we are looking for at the bottom of this post
How did you get started with fiber? Is it a skill inherited from someone in your family or just a natural love? Or both!
Both of my parents are very resourceful and creative, and have very gracefully been handing down different skills to me throughout my life. I was always very receptive to that, always excited to learn how to do something new. I remember trying to make & sell bars of soap, and hand making costumes and building sets for plays in my basement with neighbor kids. My mom taught me basic hand sewing techniques for a school project in sixth grade, which got me hooked on hand sewing small objects. By the time I was given my first sewing machine when I was fourteen, I already had developed a really strong attachment to working with fiber. So, for a lot of high school, all I did was sew sew sew — clothes, bags, funny objects with eyes on them .. and then eventually I had learned all kinds of other ways to work with fiber, including crocheting, quilting, embroidery, etc.
I got my undergrad in art & business from Warren Wilson College, which is located near Asheville, North Carolina, a region that is very centered around craft. I worked at a fiber arts studio there, in a dreamy red brick house that looked out at mountains and a grassy pasture. There, I learned how to weave and do natural dying, & experienced what it means to work together and use those skills to build community.
Fiber is so forgivable and flexible, while also strong and utilitarian. I am drawn to the commonality of fiber in our lives, and how we grow so attached to the bits of paper and fabric we use every day. I think fiber is a material deeply rooted in memory and our own personal history, and I like creating objects that carry this sentimentality. Making backpacks or clothes that people can hold so close to them every day is what I love. I think fiber is a material that connects people, that allows us to create magic with others, while you’re harvesting plants to dye fabric with, or while you sit around a table quilting together. There is a real sense of community with fiber work.
You travel a lot, is there any certain place you find yourself at your most productive? What is your favorite type of environment to create in?
Having such big/specific equipment that I need to use (like a sewing machine and weaving loom) does limit what kind of spaces I can work in, but it is always fun to see how I can make it work, especially when I am moving around & traveling a lot. I’ve had to set up my weaving loom in crowded living rooms with weird shag carpeting, or bedrooms that are so small I have to use the bed as my seat. It’s always a little funny, and I enjoy the feeling of bringing this big, archaic seeming machine into spaces where it seems sort of out of place — and then using it to do something magic!
I always thought that my productivity depended on place, but I’ve realized recently that it’s really just dependent on my mental space. Which I guess is pretty obvious, but at the same time, it’s still something I’ve had to figure out through trial and error. This past fall, I moved into my own bedroom — the first one I’ve had in six years! So it’s been really nice to have a room I don’t have to share with someone, where I can have all of my sewing & art things set up all the time. That’s definitely allowed me to be more productive, but I also know that if my mental health is thriving and I’m really into what I’m making, then I can make any space work for me — even if that means working in a dining room and having to carry things up and down stairs. But if I’m feeling down in the dumps, then even the best of spaces won’t help me be productive. Still, my favorite environment to create in is one with a large amount of space where I can lay out fabric & where all tools I need are already set up, particularly an environment where other friends are also working along side of me. I think that’s one of the most important things to me actually, having other motivated people around who I can bounce ideas off really helps to sustain my energy and keep me going. Working alone feels great, but working with other people is even more satisfying to me!
What is your daily work routine like?
Still figuring this one out — I’m a lot slower to get going in the morning than I’d like to be. I wake up early, but often end up making a big breakfast, cleaning, writing, carousing the internet, etc. And then by the time I sit down to work, I don’t have as much time left as I want before I have to head out to do something else. I’ve been trying to get better at that — ideally wake up, eat a easy breakfast, then just start working. Because if I let myself, then I’ll always find so many other things I can distract myself with doing. So I’ve been practicing being more intentional with my time & waking up and just doing what I set out to do. I work a lot of nights at a restaurant, so I feel the need to really use my day time as best as I can.
While I think that the act of working with fiber is a form of self care, what other practices do your incorporate into your weekly or daily routine?
I’m a big fan of baths! Sometimes they are hard to do, if I’m in an emotionally low place. But when I’m feeling fine & want some self care, I’ll set up a nice bath with different inspirations — an all yellow bath, a bath for good skin — or just hang in the bath and watch the X Files or the Twilight Zone. I also think allowing myself to be spontaneous if I have the urge / letting myself change my mind about doing things I feel obligated to do / breaking my own rules, are all forms of self care. I also just like getting myself some ice cream, reading books & zines, eating egg in the hole, playing pinball / bowling / roller skating, jumping on my bed, taking walks, writing letters to friends, making myself clothes. Those are all practices I’ll try to incorporate if I need a little self care. Or mostly, those are just things I love to do, which seems about the same to me!
You call yourself a House Fanatic, which I can totally relate to. What is it about houses that you love so much?
Ooooh this is hard because I just love them in so many different ways! I am very interested in architecture, so I love houses from the standpoint — seeing and comparing different styles of building, noticing the small details in design and layout. And with that, the expression people can have when decorating their own homes. I am interested in history and story, which houses carry in so many ways. I like thinking of houses as living beings that have their own experiences — absorbing energies, memories, feelings — and reflecting those physically. You can see history in houses, and also use houses to tell your own personal story. I can relate to that a lot because all of my family is from / still lives in the same small town in Illinois. So my family is very attached to the physical representation of home and also the telling of stories about who lived in what house and when. In a way, I was taught to honor houses as a way to feel connected to the people who lived in them. Houses allow some sort of map to be created, allow a story to be told & allow us to see change — a physical proof of existence.
What are you watching, reading or listening to right now? Anyone who's work or social media platform inspires you?
Recently, I’ve been reading Haruki Murakami books and The Golden Compass Series, listening to a lot of Risk! and Love + Radio podcasts, playing the albums Half Moon Bay by joyride! and Always Room by Diners on repeat (also always listening to All of Something by SPORTS), & watching a lot of the X Files and the Twilight Zone. Honestly, my friends are what inspire me the most! I do follow a lot of really rad instagram accounts, but seeing and hearing about what my best pals are doing is what makes me feel the best. None of us really live in the same place anymore, so it’s inspiring & reassuring to see the work my friends are making — so much amazing fiber work, printmaking, ceramics, blacksmithing, animation, herbal medicine, so so much of it — and to know that they are all still working so hard and keeping the dream alive!
—- onion skin natural dye recipe —-
Yellow onion skins create a range of golden colors — mostly in tones of yellow and orange, but usually very bright and earthy. I’m pretty relaxed with how I go about natural dying. It’s so easy and fun, and in my opinion, not as finicky as it might seem. I like to experiment with dyes, and to use what I have around / see how it turns out. This recipe is for an onion skin dye, but can easily be applied to other dye plants as well. It’s sort of just a master recipe. This is the recipe I use, but it’s flexible in terms of what you have to use & is open to your intuition. If this is your first time doing natural dying, using onion skins is fun for a couple reasons — it’s probably easy for you to collect / save them, and it’s something you probably encounter a lot, so it’s cool to see onion skins being used in a different way. But if you feel comfortable experimenting with some other plants, you can use this same recipe and make adjustments based on your results (just be mindful about where you are getting the plants from).
Part #1 — Mordanting the material
You need : - a big pot ( enough for your material and water ), not to be used for cooking afterwards — copper, brass, and iron pots will influence your results
- whatever material you want to dye (I like to buy white cotton sheets from a thrift store or packs of white cotton underwear, but you can use whatever undyed cotton material)
- three ounces of alum for each pound of material (you can find that here)
Mordants are chemicals used to get the color from the plant material to adhere better to the fabric you are dying and to increase lightfastness. There are a variety of mordants — tannin & cream of tartar, iron, tin, blue vitriol — but I prefer alum (potassium aluminum sulfate) because it is cheap, easy to get, doesn’t affect color, and is not super harsh.
Pre-rinse (and if you want, wash) your fabric. Add a little bit of hot water to the bottom of your pot & stir in the alum until it is dissolved. You should use three ounces of alum for every pound of fabric, but if you are unsure of the weight, just do what feels right to you — if you use too much or too little alum, it’s okay. Place the material in the pot now and fill with water until the water level is right above your fabric, giving it enough space to move around a bit. Stir the pot and put it on a burner, on high heat until it comes to a boil. Once it comes to a boil, turn down the heat and let it simmer for at least an hour. Every so often, use a wooden spoon to stir the material and release air bubbles. After simmering, turn off heat and let the pot and material cool a bit.
Part #2 — Dying the material
You need: - as many onion skins as you can collect, find, or get from a grocery store — yellow only — at least half a plastic bag worth, but the more, the better
In the same, or a different, large pot, place your onion skins inside and cover with water (if you are using the same pot, find a place or container to keep your pre-mordanted fabric, unrinsed but rung out). Bring the skins & water to a boil, and boil for 30 minutes, or until it appears most of the color has come out of the skins. Then, get as many of the skins out of the pot as you can, using a spoon or strainer. Add your pre-mordanted material (rung out) to the onion dye water in the pot, and add more water until the fabric is covered. Bring back to a boil, then turn down and let simmer for at least an hour, or until your fabric is a color that you like. Every so often, use a wooden spoon to stir the material and release air bubbles. At that point, turn off the burner and let your material cool a bit before you take it out. Leaving it in as it cools allows for the color to brighten. Then rinse with color water until it comes out clear / wash / dry. I’ve achieved really bright oranges before — colors similar to turmeric — but you can also aim for lighter shade of orange / yellow. If you want, you can also keep simmering for a longer amount of time, or turn off the pot and let the material sit in the dye water over night. The longer you leave it in, the stronger the color will before. It’s all up to you, and this is where it gets fun with experimenting and using your intuition. But once your material is the color you desire, you can cool it & wash it and then use it once it’s dry!
It’s fun to use this material to then make clothes, a quilt, bags, pillows, or anything else you would use cotton fabric for!
Morgan and I are currently looking for submissions for a new zine called Hometown Women!
WHAT WE ARE LOOKING FOR : recipes, stories, essays, pictures and poetry about a woman from the place you consider home. Be it a person from long ago or your grandmother who immigrated, we would love to hear your stories. Once the zine is printed and ready to be sold, a portion of it will be donated to WOMEN OF WISE which is an organization that aims to empower immigrant women and girls through education and social justice.
Please note that we are looking for submissions about people from ALL backgrounds, ethnicities, education level & orientation. It's important to us every story gets told if it calls to you. This person can be living or dead, famous or not, it's up to you. Also, male bodied folk, we want to hear stories from you too!
Email me firstname.lastname@example.org or Morgan email@example.com with any questions.