Artist Interview: Jackie Ottino Graf

Jackie lives her life with purpose.  With three children and a husband depending on her every day, she has found a way to blend family, friends, work and play…and make it look easy.  The over-riding palate of her life is natural colors…and she creates a glowing world of colors that blend and modify over time and yet remain timeless.  Jackie says it best: “The thrill and challenge of dyeing is creating a palate that is both original and classic.”  Many of us dye with plant materials and are perfectly happy with the colors we achieve…but could never replicated them if we needed to.  Jackie is a scientist with an artist’s heart.  Her colors follow the natural variations of plant materials but her job as dye coordinator for Swans Island Blankets demands that she produce commercial quantities of colorways on demand.  We’re lucky to learn from her hard-earned experience.  Want to take a class with her and learn the science of dying with natural roots and leaves?  There are two chances this year: Natural Dye Intensive Reds with Madder Root 1:30-5:30 on Friday and Natural Dye Intensive: The Blues, Sunday from 9:00-1:00

Swan's Island Yarn Collection...color's by Jackie Ottino Park

Swan’s Island Yarn Collection…color’s by Jackie Ottino Park

How do you develop your own style?  

I think your own style is at the same time ingrained and honed. Personally, I made lots of different yarns before I started getting into a groove of spinning yarns that seemed to steadily look more and more alike. Now I think they are recognizable as “my style”, but I didn’t cognitively fabricate them. They evolved under my fingertips. Color too, I think I have colorways that I am drawn too and are perhaps my color style.

If a good friend were to describe your style, what would he or she say?

I think a good friend might describe my style as fresh, innovative, fun… In my dyeing work I’m driven to pull bold and fantastic colors from nature, I’m very scientific about it. In my spinning and knitting work, I’m apt to put unusual colors together, in a more organic way.

What is your background?

What is my background? Um, well, specific to fibers, I learned to knit in home ec class in ninth grade. It felt like going home, like I was born to do it. No one in my household could knit, thus no supplies, so I practiced my new skill with pencils and crappy yarn. From then on I knit my way through high school and college and midwifery school. I’m one of those people that can focus better on what I’m supposed to be doing if my hands are knitting. Then I felt like I needed to get a little deeper and learn to spin. I took a lesson or two from an amazing woman in an off the grid cabin on a mountain in Maine. I bought my first wheel from Uncle Henry’s and met the woman on a hot summer day in Lincolnville Beach to make the transaction. It was $85, and 1996. I bought a greasy fleece from a farmer friend and made mediocre yarn for years. After my third child was born I was considering going back to work as a midwife, when someone showed me an ad in the paper that Swans Island was looking for a natural dyer for their newly founded knitting yarn line. I went for my interview and was hired on the spot. I helped build a commercial dyespace and now support a color line of 30 or so shades made exclusively from natural dyes. I love everything about my job at Swans Island. But my alter ego spinner needed to be fed too, so I took some of my beautifully naturally dyed fleece, dusted off the drum carder and sat down to learn to spin for real. I studied fibers, wool types, fiber counts, microns, twist per inch, grist, handle, navajo ply, corespinning, tailspinning, coils, and made some pretty cool yarns. I think I know more about fibers and yarn than your average joe. And probably dyeing too.

Influenced by the Sea

Influenced by the Sea

How does your early work differ from what you are doing now?

Well, my early work was perhaps less funded than my current fibers and yarns, so while stylistically similar, my stuff now is way nicer. The better the fibers, the better the yarn. Obviously.

What project has given you the most satisfaction and why?

Before I had kids I had a weird job tending to a horse for some well to do people. When I wasn’t tending the horse, which took like, 2 hours a day, I spun and spun and spun. I took an amazing silver fleece and made it into a sweater for my would be husband. But in recent history, I have made some stunning shawls with my handspun yarn that I’ve really loved. I’m also really proud of the 2 color lines of yarn at Swans Island that bloomed under my efforts.

Hat by Jackie Ottino Graf

Hat by Jackie Ottino Graf

Tell us about your studio and how you work.

My studio has several areas. My fiber area is a small room on the ground floor of my house. It’s where I keep my picker and carders, and all my dyed fibers to be carded. My wheels are usually in the living room, or porch in the summer or near the woodstove in the winter. My dyespace is in the garage and consists of a utility sink, stove and commercial salad spinner which I use to extract excess water from wool or yarn. I like to dye outside when I can, so I create an outdoor space with propane burners. I do my spinning at night after everyone has gone to bed, and the rest I squeeze in between the millions of other demands on my time. There is wool everywhere.

Where do you imagine your work in five years?

I really have a vision of opening a fiber mill…in five years? I don’t know. I’m pretty satisfied with my fiber involvement as it is right now. Who knows!

Long, lustrous fleece clean and waiting for the dye pot

Long, lustrous fleece clean and waiting for the dye pot

At a party, how do you introduce yourself in response to the inevitable question: “so what do you do?”

Oh, this is a good one. I usually say, I work for a yarn company. Or, I’m a professional natural dyer. Or, I’m a fiber artist. Or, a fiber arts teacher.

What is your dream project?

I wish I had a commercial fiber mill and could make huge amazing batts and innovative beautiful yarns. (I actually really do want this, if you have some money, call me)

What wouldn’t you do without?

I had to think about this one a little. At first I was going to say wheel, but actually it’s the carder. Even though I loathe spindles. I don’t really enjoy spinning commercial commodity fibers. I love raw wool, I love the smell of it, I love washing it, dyeing it and carding it. I love the difference between a Cormo fleece and a Lincoln fleece, or a Romney and a Border Leicester. And I love spinning it. Ok, I need the wheel too.

What kind of creative patterns, routines or rituals do you have?

Cowl by Jackie Ottino Graf

Cowl by Jackie Ottino Graf

I’m typically inspired by some color combination in nature, and then set out to replicate it in both color and texture. Iris, or Peacock, or Tide Pool. Tiger Lily, Beachstone, Fairy Garden. Shiny fibers, coarse fibers, naturally colored fibers etc. etc. blend together to capture the essence of what is already there. I don’t know if I have creative patterns per see. I’m very ADD about the creative process, and really about life in general (sorry if that offends anyone, I don’t have a real diagnosis but you know what I mean.) I’m insanely overbooked at any given time, so my tasks shift endlessly from one thing to another, and back around.

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