Artistic chaos and natural beauty come together in Rachel Ehlin-Smith’s work. Her pieces are inspired by her love of nature and outer space. Rachel’s hand dyed silk capes, woven belts, wall hangings, pillows, and rugs are weaved and dyed with intention, care, and integrity.
Her hope is to leave this planet better than she found it, and she is doing just that when following sustainable practices in every aspect of her craft. Using only resources from the earth, Rachel is producing pieces that enhance the lifecycle of both products and nature.
What brought you to your practice as a weaver/natural dyer?
Rachel Ehlin-Smith: I started weaving shortly after I had my son Skye 7 years ago. He was born premature and I was sort of a wreck his entire first year of life, trying to navigate being a new mom and constantly on edge about the way he came into the world. At the suggestion of my twin sister, I took a class at Saori in New York. When I sat down at the loom, it really was like coming home for me. It was such a rush, but also grounding. I was totally hooked and I finally had a moment where I thought “this is what I am supposed to do.” When I came back to California I started looking for other weaving studios and signed up for a summer program at the UCSD Crafts Center. It was there that I learned how to warp a loom and a few other weaving techniques.
I have been dyeing since around 1997, I took a class in Cambridge, MA and had always dabbled with dye over the years. I started to feel really guilty about using chemical dyes. Every time I poured a bucket of dye out it pained me, just thinking about dye going into the ground and drinking water, gave me an uneasy feeling. That is when I started researching and experimenting with natural dyes. I started with Indigo because of its accessibility and magical ability to provide instant gratification. Then, I moved into experimenting with kitchen staples like cabbage, turmeric, avocado, onion skin. I do a lot of eco-dyeing and used to be into transferring a perfect flower or leaf onto my fabric. Lately, I enjoy making a “watercolor” out of plants that I steam into my fabric. I have also been concentrating on using leaves that caterpillars have nibbled on, I like the imperfect nature of transferring a nibbled plant versus a perfect leaf. I really love making and modifying colors, it’s amazing what a pinch of cream of tartar can do to a vat of Cochineal or how a little bit of iron can darken a color. Natural dyeing is fascinating and I’m constantly researching and experimenting with plants, bark, and bugs. Natural dye is a challenge and it’s not something that can be rushed. I think that’s why I gravitated towards weaving and dying. It’s a slow process and it forces me to slow down and come to terms with “it’s only going to go as fast as it’s going to go.”
Why is sustainability important when applying it to your craft?
RES: I think the importance of sustainability is being self-sufficient. I know that I can take a piece of thread and make cloth. I know that I can find a plant and make color. I like knowing that when I eat an avocado I can use the pit and skin to make a beautiful champagne pink dye. Instead of throwing the pit and skin away I can use it to make something, it’s full circle. I love saving all of my fabric scraps throughout the year and weaving a rug. Just because you have a little piece of something left doesn’t mean that you can’t turn it into something useful. Sustainability also means longevity of good design and I don’t think my pieces are something that you would just throw away or not use after a week. I put a lot of thought and care into each piece.
Tell us about your creative process. How do you arrive at the final manifestation of a weaving?
RES: Oh wow…my creative process is all over the place. A lot of my ideas come to me when I’m not really doing anything. Just before I fall asleep at night something will pop into my head, or when I’m at pilates or in the shower I’ll have a lot of ideas. When I really let my mind relax and go quite an idea will pop up. Then I start obsessing about the idea. How am I going to execute it? How long do I think it will take? What materials will I use? I start talking incessantly about the idea to my friends. Sometimes people say, “don’t explain this to me because I don’t get it, just make it and then show me.” I usually make a sample of something first just to get an idea of how it will look. In my head, it always looks amazing, but that’s not always the case in real life. I am a mess when I work, I kind of thrive in a chaotic environment. I have buckets of dye everywhere, balls of yarn. I’m always misplacing my scissors. I feel like my family lives inside of my art project because I kind of spread out everywhere.
What brings you the most joy in creating your products?
RES: I love making things that other people don’t have. I love that I can walk through my home and I’ve made half of what is in it. I like seeing that my work makes other people happy. I love the challenge of coming up with an idea and then making it. I’m always trying to come up with a new idea so I’m never bored or uninspired.
What are important skills for humans on planet Earth? How do they make you hopeful?
RES: I am a very optimistic, hopeful and try to find the good in all situations. I think practicing kindness and acceptance is a skill a lot of people could benefit from. We would all be in a much happier place if that was the case. That being said, I feel like being surrounded by people who think and feel the same way I do is something that makes me feel hopeful. I think education is another skill we could all benefit from, the term “knowledge is power” is totally true. The more we educate and learn, the more we will succeed as humans. I think communication is a good skill, too not just with each other, but with the earth. We are not listening to her (Mother Earth). I always tell my son “we’re just visiting here” so pick up after yourself. You wouldn’t go into someone’s house and throw trash on the floor so why would you throw trash on the earth?
What does community mean to you and how does your work support community and culture?
RES: Community to me is friendship. I’ve made so many friends because of my work. People who understand what I’m trying to do and vice versa. I think being a craftsperson helps people come together. People want to share their stories and their ideas. Community means people coming together, looking out for one another, supporting one another. I love the community that I am part of. Not just in the neighborhood that I’ve lived in for 18 years, but the community of creative like-minded people that I’ve met via social media.
For you, what is one ‘creative solution for thriving on planet earth?
RES: Having a sense of humor.
How do you inspire our future generations? How does this positively impact and help preserve culture?
RES: I used to volunteer at my son’s school every Friday. They have a trimester of weaving in Kindergarten. I really got to know a lot of the kids in his class. One day, one of the kids asked “Miss Rachel how long is this going to take? It’s taking forever” I replied, “Well, it’s a slow craft.” He said “Ok.” Later at lunch, I overheard a few of the kids talking about “slow craft.” Since then I’ve had a lot of my son’s friends ask to come to my studio to make something. I recently hosted a Girl Scout troop at my studio, we flower dyed bandanas and they loved it. They all wear them to school and you can tell that they’re proud of what they made. If we show kids how things are made or give them the confidence to make something I think that will inspire them.