Working with fibers

Monine Stebbins weaves her artistic skills into the very fiber of her clothing

Monine Stebbins isn’t quite comfortable with being labeled as an artist, but her beautifully-designed clothing has attracted the attention of many who see it. Here, she wears an almost-complete wool jacket made partly from recycled sweaters.

Joy Massey
Monine Stebbins isn’t quite comfortable with being labeled as an artist, but her beautifully-designed clothing has attracted the attention of many who see it. Here, she wears an almost-complete wool jacket made partly from recycled sweaters.

Growing up in the Depression, fiber artist Monine Stebbins used to dream of having beautiful clothes. “In a family of six girls, we didn't get new clothes very often,” she recalls. While that may have been her motivation, her inspiration comes from the unique materials she came to work with over the years.

Stebbins uses boiled wool, shibori, two-sided silk brocade, beading, and a technique called needle felting to create her one-of-a-kind designs.

And she lights up when showing her work. “I make these for family and friends, and for myself,” she says, showing an array of dresses, vests, jackets, pillows, wall hangings and liturgical stoles. “I love to do it, but I don't want to feel like I have to do it. I do it for the joy. I just don't want to do it for money.”

Whenever Stebbins wears her designs in public, she often gets asked about them. Her original creations are not for sale, but she does teach classes on the process from time to time so admirers can learn the technique themselves.

Learning for herself

Stebbins first began making clothes when she moved to Corvallis from McMinnville in 1982, and discovered Linda's (Stinson) Sewing Center. It was there that she learned how to make a classic jacket from boiled wool.

Although some fabric stores carry boiled wool, it’s very infrequent, can be expensive and the color choices are limited. Boiled wool is a process that shrinks and condenses wool, giving it a soft, rich texture similar to felt. Stebbins says clothing made from boiled wool is very comfortable due to its soft, pliable texture.

She often searches thrift stores for 100-percent wool sweaters, then she shrinks them down in a double-cycle run in a washing machine using very hot water and plenty of soap. A spin in a hot dryer finishes the process, resulting in ready-to-cut-and-sew pieces.

She loves finding a wide variety of colors and patterns to work with. For pattern ideas, Stebbins browses through sewing and fashion magazines to find styles she likes, and then makes them her own. The process from start to finish is fairly complex, as she initially works with a design drawn on tracing paper.

This is where Stebbins’ talent shines. Her compositions often are based on a stained glass effect of intersecting lines and images of birds, flowers, animals and trees. She has a fondness for Gingko leaves, a favorite shape she often features. Many of the vests she has made for her grandchildren were collaborations, based on the children's own drawings of favorite birds and animals.

Some of her designs also include a technique called needle felting, where the piece is attached just through the process of poking a barbed needle through to weave the fibers into the underlying wool. As an artist, Stebbins is intrigued by unusual fabrics and rarely- seen techniques.

Another rare fabric she uses is shibori, a laboriously intricate tie-dyed silk or cotton that ranges from $30 to $300 a yard. In Japan, kimonos made from shibori can cost $10,000 or more. Stebbins incorporates it into some of her designs, sewing small pieces into cotton or silk jackets, adding interest and style as decorative accents, or around pockets, or lapels.

“I really love making the liturgical stoles too, which I've given as gifts to the ministers and choir director at the First Congregational Church,” Stebbins says. “I've made about 30 stoles and several large wall hangings. One year they asked me to make a Christmas banner with angels, shepherds and wise men.” The finished banner, beautifully depicting the nativity scene, is displayed at both the First Congregational and the local LDS Church during the holiday season.

There are also four large Advent wall hangings she has made with the appropriate liturgical colors and the corresponding themes of hope, peace, love and joy.

“The largest wall hanging I've made was for the Chintimini Music Festival, held each year in June,” Stebbins says. It measures about 8 feet by 10 feet and hangs on the back of the stage. It was based on a small silkscreen print done by local artist James Howland, called “Moonset at Dawn,” depicting the moon going down over Mary's Peak.

sShe first sketches the design on tracing paper and then attaches the wool in interlocking pieces like a puzzle. “That's the fun part,” she says, “seeing it come to life. I don't really think of myself as an artist. I just love doing it.”

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