Emily in the Carla pant in gingham with the Floral camisole.
Herself on Emily
This May I had the pleasure of working with Emily on our Spring/Summer photo shoot.
Emily works out of her home studio in Portland, Maine to make her knitwear that embodies timeless
silhouettes out of lace inspired by wild botanicals.
I had a chance to chat with her last month about her path as an artist and what keeps her creative
practice in motion.
What led you to the medium of knits?
Even in my early memories I was very sensitive to beauty. My mom is an artist and worked as a professional mural painter. She provided love, encouragement, and an example for a creative life not only through her painting but through her cooking, caring for her home, garden, and dress. I feel as if I can't share my story without including her influence. As a teenager I adored painting the figure, portraits, and clothing as a way to express oneself. During my freshman year of college (art school), attracted to the colors and luscious materials, I stumbled into a textiles classroom. To be able to touch and create three dimensionally was so appealing. I signed up for an Introduction to Machine Knitting course that winter and declared Textiles as my major in the spring. I adore how textiles explore the senses of sight and touch in a way that I never achieved in painting. I studied weaving, printmaking, and knitwear design but particularly fell in love with knitted structures for the ability to go back and forth exploring them by hand with knitting needles, and machine. The variety of tools to create knitted fabric is particularly accessible, a manual knitting machine is about the size of a keyboard allowing one to knit with delicate materials. After graduating I split my time working for a fine artist, knitting sculptural garments in her studio in Brooklyn and a knit accessories designer in Manhattan. My knitwear education developed when I took a job working for a yarn company designing knitwear patterns. After three busy years of learning, growing, and creating, I was offered an opportunity to teach knitwear design at the Maine College of Art. I was missing an emphasis on concept and celebration of creativity that understandably business does not always provide. I took this offer as a sign to give my own textile practice a chance and moved to Portland, Maine to teach. Five to six years later I am still teaching at the Maine College of Art, developing my studio practice, and teaching as adjunct faculty at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Emily in the Bridget pants in black denim with the imortelle blouse.
Can you tell us a bit about your process of design and production
I find that my mind is very stimulated so I keep my design process rather simple, using one or two references as my guide. I allow myself a few shells or flowers at a time to determine ideas in structure, color, and material. When I was in college My mom gifted me a book on the history of swimwear that I treasure as references to silhouettes. I often always circle back to ask myself if what I am doing feels honest and not overworked.
I fell in love with a technique known as stranded colorwork, traditionally used with two fine threads of wool to create very colorful, very warm, patterned fabrics. Instead of using this technique to play with pattern and color I put my emphasis on pattern and material, working with a cotton that is heavier than a silk to create sheer florals emerging from a web of raw silk.
Your process is a slow and contemplative one, what are practices or habits that balance this?
When I am not alone in my studio I crave being near others and outside, preferably in the ocean. I have been a lifelong swimmer, (hence my treasured history of swimwear book) and recently found a love for yoga, both slow repetitive/meditative practices that I can do quietly with others. Over the last three years I have been learning lessons in sailing with a beautiful boat, captain, and crew and discovered the secret to swimming in the ocean year round. Surfing! Sailing and surfing are incredible ways to explore wind and the ocean and like textiles I feel as if I could spend a lifetime learning something new. Each day myself, the ocean, and the wind provide different conditions.
Surfing has provided so many lessons. I laugh at myself when I say it all out loud because it does sound a bit cliche, but goodness it is true. I find I am able to sit through discomfort and find ease in the ocean in ways that are much harder for me on land. Through sailing and surfing I am watching the patterns on the water, anticipating how I will respond, and as my anxious mind relaxes I become much more present. I have no words for what it feels like to glide along a wave. I am still such a beginner, but I am okay with that : ) I enjoy practices where one can be a student for a lifetime.
Emily in the June dress in Pine and the Shell pant.
You grew up in Maine and have returned as an adult, can you tell us what drew you back and maybe give visitors to Portland one not to miss experience?
Maine is such a special place to call home.
If you are visiting Portland I would sit and enjoy a cup of coffee and a breakfast treat on the Eastern Prom, take a leisurely walk down to the Maine State Pier and buy yourself a ferry ticket to explore Casco Bay. Pack a picnic, hop off on one of the islands, go for a swim, and enjoy a sunkissed ride back home at the end of the day.
You can find Emily's beautiful work on her website Emily Nora O'Neil (emilynoraoneil.com).