In her studio in San Diego, Rachel Ehlin-Smith creates dreamy home and fashion designs, using only natural materials and dyes.
Sourcing from her southern California surroundings, Rachel Ehlin-Smith weaves unexpected materials like bougainvillea petals and pampas grass into one-of-a-kind works of art. In an interview, the dedicated fiber artist and owner of Mr Blue Skye studio shared how she fell in love with the craft and made it beautifully her own.
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I love seeing people working in their studios. It’s one of my favorite things about Instagram. A little sneak peak into someone’s life, work and creative process. Trying to squeeze in a little weaving time today before I take Skye and my nephew to the zoo. This rug is coming out so pretty. I’m not sure if I’ll try to make two that are similar (keep one for me 😬and sell the other) #rugweaving #zerowaste #doen
When did you start working with fiber art, and how did you develop your skills?
I took a dyeing class when I was around 19 or 20 years old in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and then kind of dabbled with dyeing fabric over the years. One night I was in a Japanese restaurant, and the Noren curtain that hung between the kitchen and the restaurant was dyed in the most interesting way. I was so curious about it that later I started googling Japanese dyeing techniques, and that’s when I discovered shibori.
After a lot of research, I started playing around with different dyes and binding patterns. For years I used only cold-water-fiber-reactive dyes, but around four years ago I really started experimenting with natural dyes, and I predominantly use only natural dyes now.
I started weaving almost eight years ago, after my son was born. My sister suggested I take an afternoon weaving class at Saori in New York. I remember sitting at the loom while the instructor showed me how to throw the shuttle. I was hooked after that class. I felt grounded and really a connection to something that I had never felt before.
When I got back to San Diego, I started to research more weaving classes and signed up for a summer program at the UCSD Crafts Center. I took various weaving classes between San Diego, Los Angeles, and New York at different schools, and after a few years I was able to get my first loom.
It was only natural that after some time I would merge the two practices together, so I dye a lot of my work either before or after I’m weaving (depending on what I’m working on).
Your rugs incorporating flower petals are beautiful. What inspired you to make the first one, and what were the obstacles and surprises of that process?
I was walking home from Balboa Park one day with my son and his cousin, and all of a sudden I just had a vision in my head of weaving with flower petals. I had some peonies that were on their last leg at home that I thought might work. So when we got home, I broke up all the petals and wove a small sampler, and it worked and it looked beautiful.
Bougainvillea seemed like the most logical flower petal to weave bigger pieces with. It’s hardy, dries well, and is very easy to come by living in San Diego. So I set out over the course of a few days gathering garbage bags full of petals. I use a flower-preserving spray with a UV protector to help maintain the rugs, and I back the rug with a piece of wood so it just hovers away from the wall. Honestly, weaving with flower petals isn’t that much different than weaving with yarn. I also use a piece of thread to hold the flowers in place as I change the shed.
I think the biggest obstacle is separating all the little bits of litter from the petals. I forage most of my petals from the side of the road, where a lot of cars park. So while I collect petals, I also have a separate bag for collecting litter. Sometimes as I’m weaving with the petals, a little bug might wiggle out, so now I’ve really started to go through the petals before I weave to make sure there aren’t any insects.
What are some of your favorite pieces of fiber art you’ve created, and why?
I think the flower rugs might be my favorite pieces. They really are so different than anything that I’ve seen in the fiber world. From a distance, it looks like a normal rag rug, but when you get close to it you can really see the detail of the petals. I like interpreting everyday things, but with unexpected materials. I also really love my flower whips. I weave dead flowers into horse tail and they really are magical-looking.
What are the greatest challenges and rewards of your creative life?
I think one of the biggest challenges in my creative life is finding the right balance between work and parenting. My studio is at home, and I can easily get distracted with the all-consuming urge to be making. I’ve really had to put a time limit on when I work, which can be difficult because it’s hard for me to stop and walk away. When my son comes home from school, it’s all about him until he goes to bed. I try my best to make dinner every night, read books, chaperone school trips, and plan fun things to do on the weekends. It can be very easy for me to retreat to my studio and lose myself in there, but I try to be present as a parent because, really, that’s way more important than making art.
Another challenge for me is the business side of running Mr Blue Skye. Invoicing, taxes, communication, following up on late payments from clients, etc. All of the aspects of running the business are difficult for me. I really have to dedicate my time to doing that. I set a timer on my phone and make myself sit down and take care of it.
The most rewarding thing for me is seeing how people react to my work. It makes me so happy that people really enjoy and appreciate what I do.
Aside from making beautiful fiber art, what are your everyday inspirations?
Obviously nature is my biggest inspiration. I love cooking. I just watched Salt Fat Acid Heat and was so inspired watching them make pasta that I made homemade pasta for the first time in my life. And it was so much fun and delicious. I’m inspired by big and little things: a flower petal on the ground, a dead bird, the sunset, the desert. Travel is huge for me. I travel a lot and try to get out into nature as much as I can. I’m always collecting little bits and pieces that I find and bringing them home. Usually I pin something on my wall and I look at it for a while: just soaking it in and figuring out what would be my way of interpreting it in my own way.