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CYO Caroline: My Life with the Fibre Arts

08 December, 2015

Today, Caroline shares more of the Ancient Arts Yarn story in a new feature, Diary of a Fibre Artist. Enjoy!

I always enjoy reading about the journeys of other people through the world of the fibre arts, learning how they first came to the fibre arts, what interests them, and the path that they follow, so today I wanted to offer you my journey!

A Cowichan style sweater knit by Barb's grandmother.
A Cowichan style sweater knit by Barb’s grandmother.

I personally feel a very intimate connection to what has been various characterized as a hobby, a craft, or an art, depending on the era and who is making the characterization. Throughout my life, the fibre arts have enjoyed various levels of respect, at times being seen as something more appropriate for children, for bored housewives, or really only for those who have retired. This is quite a departure from the past when the practicing of the fibre arts held a very important position in people’s lives thanks to the desire to fill our most basic needs for textiles and for cultural expressions. When I first started along my path at the tender age of four, some of that respect still lingered in my family, and I saw it as an honor to be allowed to learn its practice. It came as rather a shock somewhere in my teens to start hearing comments like “Oh, this isn’t practical, so it’s a waste of time” or “Oh, I can just buy that at the store, so I don’t bother.” It’s refreshing to see the fibre arts once again garnering more respect, and moving more and more to be something that is once again seen as a mainstream practice and good for a person at any age. The research that has come out over the last two years showing the benefits of repetitive and creative aspects of arts such as knitting, crochet, embroidery, weaving, etc, for both physical and mental health is something I think any person who practises these arts could have told a scientist. Still, they now have a new stamp of legitimacy that I find edifying as it allows a whole new group of people to enjoy those things that make my life worth the living.

Many people ask me how I ended up owning a yarn company when my background is business and Sociology. Well, I suspect my life trajectory has always been heading in this direction, and I just danced around it until the time was right. Ancient Arts is something I have wanted to do for many, many years: to indulge the artistic side of my being. The name itself came to me one day as I was out for a walk, taking a break from work and study, and gave me chills. It represents the connections we have to the textile arts that our ancestors practiced, and that in one way or another we have retained for over 33,000 years. What is old is new again, and continues to be so throughout history. To me the textile arts are part of what make us human, and I love the concept that the company name and logo embody.

The bison (and other handspun exotic fibre yarns) that started it all!
The bison (and other handspun exotic fibre yarns) that started it all!

The company itself arose out of my love of spinning and yarn. We laugh about it now but it was bison fibre that started the entire thing moving. I love to spin bison down but it can be very hard to find a good supply (some years I could only find 20grams!), and so when one day I was offered the chance to buy a large amount wholesale everything went black and I jumped at it and found myself walking through the door that evening with $1600 of bison down. Needing to explain this to my spouse meant I spontaneously exclaimed when he asked what I had done “I’m starting a business!” and thus Ancient Arts was born. For the first few years it consisted of mostly support spindles and exotic fibres, but then it started branching out into my first love: yarn, and that side of the business has grown to compose the majority of what we do these days.

The first incarnation of a photo box for product photography… and the NOT helpful studio cat.
The first incarnation of a photo box for product photography… and the NOT helpful studio cat.

Many people are curious as to how a yarn company starts and it is similar to any other business. It involves lots and lots and lots of work and the old saw of the self-employed working 24 hours a day 7 days a week is true! What they say about a business becoming a labour of love is true too. It takes a lot of work, but that work is so rewarding. In the beginning, we started with retail shows, and selling at fibre fairs. Retail shows can be an enormous amount of fun. They give anyone who attends the chance to interact with people who have the same interests, passions, and enthusiasm. In terms of building a business they also gave us the perfect place to introduce ourselves, to learn what people want, and to do this in a fun and exciting environment (and still do of course).

Clockwise from top left: Setup, finished booth, and Dye for Glory colorways from Sock Summit 2011 - click to enlarge.
Clockwise from top left: Setup, finished booth, and Dye for Glory colorways from Sock Summit 2011 – click to enlarge.

The company growth we have seen so far has been absolutely exciting and amazes me every day when I think about it. We began the yarn side of the business with 26 skeins of hand dyed yarn at a show in rural Alberta five years ago. It sold out and this gave me the courage to make the jump to the big time: Sock Summit! Off we went to Portland, Oregon in 2011, having no idea of hard this would really be (wow, the behind the scenes side of these big shows is quite something), and having no idea just how fun and energizing such an event could be. I was hooked after that and we have been building ever since! We’ve gone from just me, to having seven staff members as of this post, all of whom are passionate knitters, and we are contemplating adding an eighth person plus moving to a much larger location.

Our booth at this year's Knit City fiber show.
Our booth at the 2014 Knit City fiber show.

From there we started our own website and added online sales. People often wonder why we don’t sell on sites like Etsy or Artfire and there is a very good reason: these sites can be prone to undercutting, and since one of the values we hold at Ancient Arts is believing that artists should be paid a fair living wage, we felt it was better to start with our own website where we could set fair prices that represented the quality of the goods and the artistic work that goes into them.

From L-R: Our first TNNA booth in 2014; January 2015; June 2015 - click to enlarge.
From L-R: Our first TNNA booth in 2014 with Pollika; January 2015; June 2015 – click to enlarge.

We now participate in wholesale tradeshows (such as TNNA, shown above), which are just as much fun as the retail shows! They have a unique and thrilling energy to them, and allow us the chance to meet all sorts of people, and see all sorts of products, while promoting our own.

Colours come and go: left, new colours in 2012; right, new colours in 2015.

So how did we get into yarn? Well we began selling hand dyed yarn some five years ago now, and that started the process of the transformation of Ancient Arts into a yarn company proper. I have always been fascinated by colour, and starting dyeing things when I was eight years old. From pysanky Easter eggs, to batik (yes I am a child of the 70’s) to fabric, to yarn, I have dyed anything that can be dyed! I also come from a line of watercolour artists, and like them my personal favorite medium has always been watercolour. This influences me greatly as a dyer since I use the same colours and concepts I know so well from watercolour paintings. I also prefer to dye colours and colourways that reflect the subjects I love to paint. I have always drawn my inspirations from nature, and have always been drawn more to colour and its interplay than to form. Much to my surprise the older I get the more abstract art speaks to me, but I think this is that love of colour finding its purest expression for me. The lovely thing about this fibre business for me is that I have been able to take my love of colour and of dyeing have the perfect medium and place for my artistic goals. I have not looked back since.

The first Meow Collection.
The first Meow Collection.

Along the way we have been able to do something near and dear to my heart: using yarn for good. That good comes in many forms. It comes from being able to pet and play with some of the nicest yarns in the world, and from having the chance to meet the most interesting people while doing so. Most importantly it comes in being able to make charitable donations (read more about that here), in seeing how happy yarn makes people, and in joining into the sharing that people in the crafts world so naturally do. We are all so grateful to all of YOU who make this possible!

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