On a loom and a prayer

Tuesday December 18, 2012

Quilts, rugs, curtains. Sweaters, mittens, hats. Bags, bowls, vases. Cowls, shawls, socks.

Take a spin through Racheal Alexander Scott's house in Westminster, and you'll spot all these items, and more.

Some are felted. Some are woven. Some are knit. Some are sewn.

Some Racheal made when she was a teenager growing up just two blocks from the Maryland Institute of Art in Baltimore. Her best friend's mother was a professional weaver and offered to show Racheal the craft, and she took to it as naturally as a spider weaves a web.

"I fell in love with it," she says, sitting at a long white table in her cozy office/studio. Paper stars dangle from the dormer window ceiling. A half-full bag of yarn slumps patiently in a corner. Bins and boxes, tidy in this quiet moment, line the walls. On the table is a quilt-in-progress constructed using an old technique called English paper piecing.

Her hands busy removing the diamonds of stiff paper that helped her hand sew perfectly even seams, Racheal tosses up a quick laugh.

"This is my mortgage quilt. By the time the mortgage is paid off, I should have it finished! So I've got about six more years."

Quick as a robin she gathers up the quilt and sets it aside. "Anyway, I really got weaving in a way I didn't get other fiber arts, like making clothes. I have no depth perception, so clothing patterns were like, no way, that's not going to happen. But weaving was a big yes."

Soon enough she was showing her woven goods at shows. Her aptitude for art meant that even in high school she was able to follow her interests, and she took courses in color theory that affected her deeply.

"I was in heaven!" she says. "Then, when I was 18, I flummoxed everybody by announcing that I didn't want to go to college. I really, really wanted to weave."

Many parents would blanch at the thought of their child making a way in the world on a loom and a prayer. But Racheal's mother and father gave their full support.

It helped that her mother was a quilter and her father a woodworker. Making beautiful crafts was in the family line, but more than that, it was clear that Racheal's talent, temperament and drive were equally matched.

She attended the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina, and after that studied at the Baltimore Museum of Art. From there, she was given the opportunity to travel to Mexico to learn tapestry weaving.

"I worked like a crazy woman to get the money together for that trip," she remembers. "I worked in an art gallery and I cleaned house and I baby sat. I was all of 19 years old."

She traveled and learned and became not only a fiber artist and a lifelong student of color, but a burgeoning historian, too, as her interests took her back to traditional techniques. When she began seriously exploring quilting, it made perfect sense that she was drawn to antique patterns and fabrics.

By and by, young Racheal and her husband, whom she met while living in Boston, moved to the Brattleboro area for her husband's work. Her livelihood as an artist receded slightly while she took care of their three children.

"I didn't push to commercialize my work then, but I didn't stop making it. I couldn't. I don't think I could live any other way," she says matter-of-factly.

So Racheal wove and knit and sewed and filled their low-ceilinged, twisty, turn-y house with fiber and color.

She laughs as she walks downstairs from the office to the cool yet cozy living room. At the turn in the short flight of stairs, a little sign reads, "Gandalf, watch your head."

"This is a Hobbit House," she says. "When we first bought it I flippantly said it was in the post-Depression chicken coop style. Then we found out the original structure, what's now the bedroom, was actually a chicken coop!"

Racheal is now most definitely a working artist. ("Do artists retire?" she asks wryly. "Nope.") She is a member of the Walpole Artisan Gallery and regularly blogs about her work at rachealalexanderscott.blogspot.com. She is usually working on three or four -- or six or eight -- projects at once, from small scarves to the big historically inspired quilts.

Recently, she created a special quilt in honor of Westminster's history.

"I found an antique pattern at the last Vermont quilt show. See, long ago women would build a quilt around a piece of fabric that had some political meaning. A candidate's portrait, maybe. They had few other ways to share political opinions -- they couldn't vote! These quilts were one way to express their views."

Racheal stops by one of the many wall-hangings dotting the house "It's really amazing, actually. Women's lives are in these quilts. Men's lives, too, those who worked with fiber. But you see personalities, customs, habit. Women wanted to make life better. They wanted to make their homes more beautiful. That doesn't change. You see the shared rush to use whatever the new fabrics and patterns were, the same way we do now. You see that very little about human nature changes, when you study these old quilts."

For the Westminster quilt, Rachel found an image of the original court house, which played an important role in the early days of the Revolutionary war. She transferred the image to fabric and built a quilt around the picture.

"That's a very good example of one thing I do," she says. "I use a new technique in a way that creates an antique-looking piece. The fabrics that I use are often antique reproductions, and that helps, too."

She moves quickly now, pointing out new pieces, old pieces, quilts and bags created out of challenges from her beloved quilting group. Outside is a sculpture encircling a small fountain, woven by Racheal and her husband out of branches trimmed from their curly willow tree.

"It's all fiber," she says gaily. "The yarn, the fabric, the tree. And none of it lasts. Fiber is one of the quickest materials to fade and fray. But it's not about lasting forever. It's about taking what you find in front of you and turning it into something beautiful."

Back inside, she settles in a living room chair and pulls out two small knitting projects, both cowl-type coverings.

One is delicate and wispy. The other is chunky, like jolly bunches of felted pebbles.

"Can you believe this?" Racheal runs her fingers down the soft wool. "This is for a friend going through chemotherapy. You'd want something that makes you feel like clouds when you wear it."

She picks up the other wool and laughs. "And this, this crazy stuff!"

Both skeins, different as they are, come from Racheal's latest artistic curiosity. She has become, as she puts it, the recipient of bad ju-ju yarn.

"Listen, we've all been there. We're in the yarn store and there's this wool, it calls to us, we are smitten. Fiber calls to us, calls to our senses. Then we get home and it's like, what in the world and I going to do with this?" She laughs again.

"Then it sits around in the closet until it's like a ghost haunting you. You just want to get rid of it. So I've been taking this bad ju-ju yarn and seeing what I can turn it into," she says. "It's tremendously fun, turning a negative into a positive. And there's a lot of yucky yarn out there!"

Racheal picks up the rock-like wool again. As she knits, the gray flows to green and down into blue, and the stones become a river to wrap around your skin, and like magic, like art, for this moment all that bad ju-ju is gone.


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