Featured Artist: Melisa Morrison of Alba Ranch
Publisher’s Notes: Melisa Morrison of Alba Ranch is one of the fine fiber artists that I have yet to meet in person but through the magic of the internet have been fortunate to meet electronically. If you are not already acquainted with Melisa, you will learn that she has lived a very interesting and adventurous life as well as become a passionate fiber artist.
Spin Artiste (SA): You have lived a number of different places, but where are you from originally ?
Melisa Morrison (MM): I am originally from Michigan and my husband, Charlie, is from Scotland.
SA: One of the places to visit on my bucket list is Peru. I know that you lived there in 1985 – What took you there? How did that experience shape you as a fiber artist?
MM: I went to Peru under a program in College that was for Cross Cultural Communications and would have been my minor. It was a year program through Baptist Mid Missions. I stayed for 6 months and saw a whole lot of fiber in that time. I didn’t know that I was a fiber artist at that time. Had I known then what I know now, I would have come home with loads more fiber things as most of what I came home with ended up given as gifts. I did get several stunning blankets from the Cuzco Market and still have those to this day. It was my first introduction to llamas and alpacas and more than likely started me on my journey to natural fibers vs. synthetics. I saw things for sale in the markets and ever since just do not like cheap made synthetic stuff.
SA: Another fantastic part of your journey, to me, is that you learned to spin and weave while living in Scotland after you were married to your husband, Charlie. How did that come about?
MM: I ran into a lady in the woods while we were out walking our dogs. For months, I knew her as “Murphy’s Mom” as I could not remember her name. I started to see her in town and at stores. Somewhere in there I think she invited me to a local fiber group called Common Threads and I went. I saw my first spinners there with wheels and at that time all I knew how to do from a fiber stand point was crochet simple square or rectangle shapes and to BUY fiber.. I was taught how to make pot holders at a young age and just increased that to make scarves, shawls, blankets ect. Deb, Murphy’s mom, had taken a spinning class from Dora Osborne and introduced me at the meeting. I took private lessons from Dora. She taught me to spin on a drop spindle first, then progress to wheels and all about carding and fiber separation, hand washing, and processing from raw fleece.
Dora also introduced me to another spinner that wove rugs on a traditional peg loom. It is such a simple way of weaving with your warps not under tension that I was able to learn how to do that as well. I did not learn how to weave on a rigid heddle loom or do the wearables that I do now until Christmas 2008 when my husband put together my new Ashford loom. I taught myself how to weave on my rigid heddle. I had bought the loom because I needed something to do with all my hand spun yarns and was getting tired of crochet or just making rugs at that time.
The Wearable Arts and Fashion has only really started to take off this last year as I have learned how to put various shapes together. I do not knit and I do not sew. I did just splash out and buy a serger and keep telling myself that it is NOT a sewing machine. I plan on getting past this sewing mind block so I can create more tailored sweater coats and skirts from my hand spun yarns and hand woven panels. Without the serger, I crochet the seams together which is great as the crochet disappears into the seams or can stand out as a feature in a contrast yarn. I kept finding that my shapes were more boxy than I wanted. So enters the new stage of serging and fashion more to my liking.
SA: What is it about working with fiber that inspires you?
MM: Texture and color…but mostly “the hand”. I do enjoy that it is natural and have become quite the fiber snob. I prefer roll around naked in it soft textures..so it is all about the texture and bling.
SA: Tell us about Alba Ranch — how large is it? What types of animals? How many?
MM: Alba Ranch is 54.96 acres of very vertical land. Charlie always jokes that if you ironed it out flat, it would be more like 80 acres. Our lowest point of elevation is 7200 ft, our barns and home are at 7500 ft and the top of our mountain is at 8200 ft. We have 1000 ft of elevation just on our own property. In the UK, 1000 ft is classed as a mountain. We live at about 1.5 miles above sea level. We found our land for sale on the internet, much like how we met on the internet so following that with a fiber store on the internet…just makes sense to us.
I currently have chickens, French Angora Rabbits, Alpacas (both Suri and Hucaya), cats, Border Collies and Great Pyr and Anatolian Livestock Guardian dogs. I expect that I will be getting llamas here shortly and selling the alpacas. Up until about 3 years ago, I also had dairy goats, angora goats, cashmere goats, Merino Sheep, Lincoln Long Wool Sheep, Teeswater Sheep, Wensleydale Sheep, Dorper Meat Sheep, Llamas, Ducks, Geese and several breeds of meat rabbits. I got tired. I wanted to do fiber. The animals left. I keep just a few head of hoof stock these days and my bunnies for fiber.
The last dairy goats just left in December 2011. It seems odd these last week or so without dairy goats as I have had dairy goats here ever since we came to Colorado. I milked the goats by hand and made my own cheese but my hands have weakened with all the ranch work, all the massage and holistic work I do, and fiber work. Something had to give or I was fast approaching not being able to do anything. I chose my fiber over the actual animal raising as it is really hard to have time to do both extremely well. I adore animals, but I love to create even more so Fiber Arts won!
SA: Yay for Fiber Arts! Before we move off the subject of the ranch, one thing I’m always interested are the animal practices producers select — tell us about yours.
MM: I like to raise my animals as naturally as possible and do many holistic things with their care including essential oils. Yes, I have even been known to do essential oil inhalations on a chicken with respiratory problems for weeks. Chicken was not too keen but it did help her breathing. I do use medicine, wormers and vaccinations when they are warranted and needed. I am a firm believer in NOT over vaccinating or worming just because some label says to do it. Reality is, if you really LOOK at your animals and know them and spend time with them, you will see signs of distress, parasites etc. and it can be addressed more forcefully at that time. If you feed them as naturally and holistically as possible without all the added chemicals and GMO crap, they will have a stronger immune system naturally and not need most extra care. We put that same practice into our own health and care and into my babies, the dogs.
SA: Beyond raising animals, you are also a homesteader. What drew you and Charlie to seek that life? What were your impressions of this lifestyle before taking the plunge and were they accurate?
MM: ummmm… this was not a planned excursion. We fell into it. We didn’t have any impressions as we didn’t really plan this. I think it developed because of my desire to do things more naturally and holistically and that means more back to the land as everything else these days is just so choked full of chemicals. Part of that was just a desire to be more holistic but part of that was driven because of my health deteriorating. My best friend, Dr. Bj Ferrell, is a holistic doctor. We worked together in the holistic business the first few years I was here in Colorado. At the same time I was also handling all the ranch, animals, fiber and trying to build and deal with crooked contractors. My health started to go downhill about 3 years ago. Now that we know I am severely magnesium deficient, we are taking means to fix that. It will be an on-going battle for me for the rest of my life.
I have noticed that I am more centered, grounded, happy, content and at peace when I am creating. I think that it is a very similar therapeutic effect on me as my music has been most of my life. I have played the piano and sang since a child. With our house still not built, my piano is in storage and I have not had it for 6 years. I miss my music and my yarns and fiber creations are an extension of that creative process just like my oil painting is. I have not painted in about 15 years because now I paint dye on my yarns. I create visual music in my fiber art, with color, texture and emotions all wound together. Each one of my creative outlets has always been that way. Even the manner that I cook in is very texturized, visual as well as appealing to the sense of smell and taste. Most folks that want a homesteading lifestyle are city slickers that come out to the woods and have this romanticized idea of what it is. That is so not reality and most leave in less than 2 years. I have had older mountain men tell me that are very proud of me and never thought I would last. They all figured I would be gone in a year or two, at the best that I might still be here but all the animals gone. They obviously did not know me or how darn stubborn I am! I am NOT the same girl that came out here in 2004 and bought this land with her husband. I have always had country roots, but they are much deeper now. I have tried many things on the ranch and changed many things because they just did not work.
I know that although I can grow my own meat, butcher and skin the critters that I do not WANT to do it and it is not really viable from a money stand point as our land is not useable enough to support a lot of hoof stock. We have to bring in our hay all the time and can’t grow our own hay, so at the end of it all, we can’t be 100% self-sufficient. There are various levels of sufficiency and planning that can be done. We have learned to work with our land, not against it. I chose to buy my meat from local producers rather than raise it myself. I can milk my goats but for now, decided I didn’t want to do that. I rarely drink milk so it was rather silly. We do raise our own eggs and my two favourite luxury fibers. And I love to garden. Gardening at this altitude is NOT even in the same ball park as gardening in Scotland. There are certain things that grow well here. I can grow berries, greens, lettuces, herbs, some flowers, and plenty of root crops. Many other things just will not grow without large spaces, more water or a longer growing season. Those items I buy from the farmers market from other folks that live at lower altitudes and can excel at growing that. I buy local. When we build our house, we were going to do a 1000 sq ft home as our HOA requires that. After years of planning, we have decided to splash out on a 1250 sq ft home. That extra 250 sq ft will be my weaving and fiber room!!! Our home will be passive solar with south facing windows and slanted glass so I can have a 3 ft deep by 24 ft long indoor garden area right in my kitchen. I am so excited for that. I won’t even have to go outside to get my veggies and herbs!! I love growing things and watching them flower and fruit. It really excites me. I am a lazy gardener though. I like to put things in and have them come back year after year rather than grow things from seeds and scratch every year. I want my garden to be more self-sufficient as well. Me and the plants, we have a system. We heat with wood, cook on a wood stove but have propane back up, and many times dry my fleece by the fire as well.
SA: Your patience and commitment to your lifestyle are commendable. Even though you are still in the process of getting the house built, I know you have made space for your equipment and a studio space. Let’s hear about what you have and how you are set up.
MM: I have mostly Ashford equipment. I like that it is made from wood and not MDF or plywood stuff. I am a wood snob as well as a fiber snob. My father in law is a wood turner and he made me a 3 and 6 ft peg loom, lazy kate and a few other tools. I have a 32 in and 24 in Ashford Rigid heddle looms, Inkle loom, frame loom, handmade Navajo loom, another small loom that almost looks like it belongs in a doll house and a bow loom that I made myself. I have the original 2 ft peg loom that I bought in the UK in 2004.
I think currently I have 11 looms and none of them are floor looms or multiple harness looms. I want something portable that I can move around myself. My husband is gone offshore frequently and I have to do everything on my own so it has to be something I can use and move on my own. Our cabin is currently only 12×18 so I have to have space in there as well.
Add in lots of dogs, bags of fiber and 2 spinning wheels with assorted drop spindles and you can see why it has to be portable. I like that portability so much that I do not know if I will ever get a floor loom even when I have my weaving room. Right now, I hang any of the looms I am not using up on the walls to get them out of the way and keep them safe. I have an Ashford Country spinner and a Majacraft Little Gem 1. I spun exclusively on the Country spinner for years and have only started using the Majacraft in the last year. I was going to sell it but had a friend encourage me to try it again after years of not using it. My worst fears were realized …. I liked the dratted thing so it stayed! I almost bought the Ashford Traveller but settled on the Majacraft even though I did not like how it looked visually. I was flying back and forth between MI and Scotland at that time and the Majacraft Little Gem comes apart and goes into a padded bag that will fit in an overhead bin locker or in your suitcase. It was even more portable than a Traveller so it won.
I am NOT an Ashford distributor but do believe in the family’s philosophy and how they make lovely high quality products that are simple, can be flat packed, come with excellent instructions for putting together as well as how to use. All this they do, and they keep the price down in a reasonable amount that more folks can afford so you can have more folks doing fiber. Many other companies are coming out with similar equipment that has one or two things on it that may be or may not be all that cool but they double the price. I recently spoke with Danielle Loomer on Facebook. She had one of those more expensive rigid heddles but did not have a clue what direct warping was. I learned that direct warping method with a little booklet that had excellent instructions and color photos and came with my Ashford rigid heddle. Thankfully I love to share and talk fiber so I found a few you tube videos and on line blogs to send to Danielle and at last chat, she has fallen in love with warping and her loom all over again. Way cool!!!
SA: With so much on your hands with the farm and your business, if you had a day with nothing on your chores list, how would you spend it?
MM: Watching sappy movies on Lifetime and spinning my head off!!
SA: What is it about the Lifetime movies that goes so well with spinning! Dyeing, carding, spinning, weaving….which one is nearest and dearest to your heart?
MM: Spinning and specially the plying part have always been my thing, but now that I am getting into dyeing, that is right
up there with the spinning and plying. Those three are tied for first fun!! Charlie calls me the “mad scientist dyer cackling over her vat of dye in the corner!” Weaving I do enjoy; however, I hate warping and they go hand in hand. Crochet I like to do on occasion and carding up until about the last month I have always very much not liked doing. I am now only carding to blend batts, different fibers, and colors. I am not using the carder to try to card fleece and get the VM out. That type of carding I despise. Using my carder to create art batts with color and texture is something I enjoy but NOT as much as the top 3 tied for Fiber Fun First. Washing and skirting fleece is on the bottom of the pile. HATE IT!!
SA: I concur with you on the washing and skirting chores so back to the fun stuff: From reading about you, I know you are inspired by color, texture, nature, and my favorite, the unusual. Show and tell us how that manifests in your work.
MM: I have to have color exploding all over. If I don’t have color exploding, than I have to have texture exploding. I am in my passion and heaven if I use color and texture both all over the place in weird and unusual ways that you may never have thought of. My 4 Seasons wall hangings, has locks tied into the warps all around the edges to give it a texture and to “frame” the wall hangings all made from fiber. I have always liked to create art that a blind person can feel and enjoy as well as a seeing person. I did texturized oil paintings that would take a year to dry as I painted so thick and with so much texture. One such painting was actually named “Visual Music”.
SA: One last question: What has been the best meal you ever ate?
MM: The “last one” as it is always the best one!!
SA: True! And, thanks so much, Melisa!! Readers for more about Melisa, Alba Ranch and to see what she’s got for sale, check out Melisa’s website. Also, Melisa has a two cool contests going on right now and there’s still time to join in the fun. First up is her Valentine’s Day Splendor Contest. Click here to cast your vote by February 13th and the winner will be announced on February 14th. And, if you go over to the Alba Ranch Facebook page, Melisa is giving away 2 oz of Charcoal Bamboo top randomly to folks that respond to the status update and get their number. Drawing will be tomorrow, Feb 10th at 8pm MST. It is in celebration that Melisa hit 100 sales in the shop last night! Yay, Melisa!! In other news, Melisa wrote me a note today that she just picked out the foundation llamas for their new llama herd. She’s had llamas before but haven’t for a few years. She’s looking forward to having them again…maybe she will send in some pics for us to see (wink, wink, Melisa).