By Jenna Tico, with photography by Alycia Lang
In an age of memoirs-turned-movies, it is not uncommon to hear about being in “the right place at the right time.” However, for Robin Chapin Pilatti—artisan and businesswoman behind “Fleece to Garment”—one thing is clear: her introduction to the world of fiber has been more than a happy coincidence. When she sat down to spin for the first time and “got the bug,” she embarked upon an adventure that she compares to the flow of a river, moving with the current instead of pushing upstream. “The fiber thing has been weird,” Robin explains, eyes lighting up as she recalls her process. “I feel like I stepped into this other dimension where I’m supposed to be, but had no idea I was supposed to be there… if I had known the details, I probably would have tried to make it something that it isn’t.” And after seeing what “it” is, feeling the stories woven into each strand of fiber that Robin transforms, one cannot help but agree: if there is such a thing as the right place, Robin was certainly in it. Moreover, she continues to be every day that she sits down to work in a world that she deems “endless with possibilities”—simply because she decides it is so, and simply because she is there.
Within minutes of chatting with Robin, the late summer heat beading on both of our foreheads, it became evident that her role in fiber arts stands apart from any other element of her life. After what feels like multiple lifetimes packed into one, as a basket weaver and knitter, mother and wife, operating room nurse and part-time mustang rescuer, Robin considers her four years in fiber to be the first time she’s comfortable calling herself an artist. “It’s like all the pieces of my life have primed me for what I’m doing right now,” she smiles, describing what keeps her engaged. Her introduction to fiber came from a radio show called Trading Time, when she felt compelled to claim the twenty fleeces being offered…though she’d never so much as touched one herself. Not long afterward, she met a friend who taught her to spin, foreshadowing the serendipity that has come to define her work ever since.
This lighthearted approach reveals itself in her catalog as well: or rather, her lack thereof. Though she often gets requests, Robin prefers to let the fiber dictate what it “wants to be”: and presently, sells everything from skeins to wet-felted booties to chunks of raw fiber. In fact, acting as a fiber merchant—offering her product at $5/ounce, hand-washed with love—is one of her most promising roles to date. “I’m in the opposite of a rut,” she laughs, relaying the heirloom varieties that she receives from local shepherdesses, crediting Laurel Banks, Janet Heppler, Peggy Agnew, and many more for helping her deepen her craft. Robin learned about fiber by working with whatever was essentially dropped on her doorstep, instilling an attitude that comes in handy whenever a project needs re-imagining midway through; for example, with her contribution to Fibershed’s “Grow Your Jeans” fashion show this fall. When she ran out of cashmere and indigo-dyed Lincoln, what could have been a problem became an opportunity to experiment with white merino and Angora rabbit: reinforcing the inventiveness at the heart of her work. For example, though she has always been drawn to coarser fibers like Churro—spinning it into delightfully lumpy yarn that, for some old-school craftswomen, is both “fascinating” and slightly “concerning”—she often mixes in Alpaca to soften it up. “It’s the same way I cook,” she says, smiling. “I’m flying by the seat of my pants with this whole thing.”
Having been a teacher all her life, and recently facilitating a class of thirty at the Northern California Women’s Herbal Symposium last fall, Robin is passionate about the educational aspect to her work. “When it comes to kids, I just give them the supplies,” she says, describing her now-customary Farmer’s Market spinning sessions. By sharing her love for fiber with children who stop to watch, Robin hopes to inspire them to make their own garments and to interact with their surroundings in a new way. And not only children: coming together to spin has reconnected her with the importance of having a close-knit community of women. “There’s something empowering about sharing with women this old knowledge of taking something from the land, taking something from nature, and with your own hands turning it into something useful or artistic. Just creating beauty.” And beauty, as she points out, is in the eye of each beholder…male, female, or child. “Women will be interested in the finished garments or the yarn, kids like the raw material, and the men like the machinery.
“There’s a little bit of something for everyone.”
And while she is comfortable in the teacher role, Robin is equally—if not more—excited to be a student. As a relative “youngster” in the world of spinning, she has gathered much of her knowledge from the local community; the California Wool and Fiber Festival (every September in Boonville, California); Katharine Jolda, a felt artisan from Oakland who has taught several Fibershed-sponsored felting classes at Bodega Pastures; and of course, by washing fibers in her bathtub. When Robin described wet felting with Katharine, gesturing enthusiastically with her hands as she relays the “altered state” of wool converting from raw fiber into putty—“Suddenly I was finger painting!”—one thing was obvious: her excitement for her work comes from its mystery. Every time she is given new material and a new way to treat it—whether by hand, drum carder, or the seven-foot-loom that doubles as art in her living room—Robin feels she is taking a leap of faith: working the fiber into whatever shape it wants to be, much in the way that we spin the stories of our lives… reimagining raw experience into something tangible, beautiful, and ultimately healing.
The transformative nature of this work was more apparent than ever when, four years ago, Robin’s first husband passed away; and as his closest family and friends gathered around to share stories during the last twenty-four hours of his life, Robin sat at her wheel—spinning every memory into a yarn that eventually became a masterpiece of a shawl. Much later, a young woman came up and touched the shawl as it stood on display; and without a word, began crying. “She just knew,” Robin remembered, emotion rising through her voice. It is that kind of connection that motivates her sit down to spin, knowing that through the act of transmutation—often embracing discarded fleeces, and working on equipment made entirely of upcycled or recycled parts—we are transformed as well. And of course, the beautiful byproduct that comes off the wheel doesn’t hurt. “I love showing kids that you can take what was garbage, and with your own two hands and old equipment and no electricity, you can literally clothe yourself from head to toe.”
As we head into the cooler months, Robin expects business to stay consistent; and ultimately, hopes to make fiber her full-time job. She will continue to collaborate with Valley Ford Mill and Pacific Textile Arts in Fort Bragg, where she occasionally teaches weaving, and is looking forward to solidifying her connection with Fibershed during October’s Grow Your Jeans event, and November’s Wool Symposium. More than anything, Robin is excited to continue riding the wave: in contrast to her more “methodical” past, she explains that fiber “is like playing music and improvising… not reading the sheet music. When I just let go, it just happens, and it works.” If that means weaving a shawl from discarded chunks of fleece, excellent. If it means handing out raw fiber to children, watching as they balance it in their palms, electrified with potential—even better. “There’s a newness to it all the time,” Robin smiles, instinctively spinning her hair through her fingers as she speaks. “If we all did exactly the same thing, it’d be really boring.”
Meet Robin Chapin Pilatti of Fleece to Garment at Fibershed’s Grow Your Jeans event in Bolinas on October 3, 2015. Robin will be demonstrating spinning and selling her goods at this community celebration & benefit for Fibershed’s programs that support regenerative agriculture and land-based regional economics. Tickets are available here.
Robin will also be at the 2015 Fibershed Wool & Fine Fiber Symposium on November 7th in Point Reyes Station, where she will be selling her goods and speaking on the collaborative nature of her work. Tickets are available here.