By Kathy Chouteau
A Richmond-based textile artist is taking a sustainable approach to textile arts from her live/work space in Artisan Cove. Martha Egan, whose artistry centers on dyeing yarns, may have taken a circuitous route to pursuing her passion, but is centered on leaving as little impact as possible on Mother Earth.
A native of Tewksbury, Mass., Egan has been dyeing yarn for about three years. Her interest in the textile art was initially sparked while working at Dharma Trading Co. in San Rafael, where she said she “got really interested in dyeing fiber.” At Dharma Trading, where Egan was a longtime customer before becoming an employee, she said she “fell in love with natural dyes, indigo and learning all about the different dye processes.”
She started taking workshops and eventually launched a yarn dyeing business under her own name. In her artistic process, Egan—who purchases her yarn—uses low immersion dyeing “because we live in California and we’re in a drought, so I am very conscious of water usage.” Although her interest in the art was initially via a natural dyeing process, she quickly learned that natural dyes fade easily and use a lot of water. Instead, she now uses acid dyes “which become part of the fiber and are non-toxic;” Egan said these dyes are safer for the planet, use less water and are colorfast.
“For most of the colors I can reuse the water that I dyed the wool in for another round of dyeing because it’s so clean,” said Egan. Overall, the coloring process takes her about 24 hours from start to finish. “It’s a really magical process,” she added.
Currently, Egan exclusively sells her work at Avenue Yarns on Solano Ave. in Albany. This includes her “Pouffe” labeled yarn, which is made from an alpaca and silk blend that is soft “like a kitten’s belly,” according to store co-owner Rebekah Porter via Egan. Those stopping by the store may spot a sweater or two knitted by Egan to showcase her dyed yarns. She said she knitted about “20 sweaters during COVID.”
When it comes to dyeing and selling yarn, Egan said it’s very important to follow certain trends in patterns—i.e., people are always looking for yarn needed for popular designers’ projects. “So that is part of what guides the type of yarn I’ll be dyeing,” she said, noting that she’ll be focusing on organic merino wool next.
“For me, dyes are like paints; it’s all about working with color. It’s more fun for me than designing clothes or painting a picture,” she said.
And what’s it like when Egan sees someone wearing something using the yarn she has dyed? “Well, I love it,” she said. “That’s probably the best feeling that a creative person can have is seeing someone else using and enjoying what they’ve made.”
And while Egan may appear to be a relative newcomer to textile arts, she has a long family history in the art form, and even owned a clothing store in San Francisco for a while. “I was destined for it,” said Egan, highlighting her family’s extensive background in textiles. “My mother’s side of the family were French Canadian mill workers,” she said. “It’s really fascinating because when I think back on it there is a genetic component, because my grandfather was a silk weaver, my grandmother was a velvet cutter [and] my great aunt Josephine was a spinner.”
Aside from her interest in textiles, Egan has long pursued her interest in ceramics as well. A onetime sculpture major at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts, she migrated west to Venice Beach and reignited her interest in ceramics by taking classes. Eventually that pursuit grew into a small business in Santa Monica.
Egan experienced a gap in her ceramics work after relocating to the Bay Area and starting her clothing business. Then, life threw her a curveball when the Richmond artist was diagnosed with stage four thyroid cancer—with only a two percent chance of survival. With help she credits to UCSF, she survived, only to see herself helping her husband through his own health issues.
After her husband’s passing, Egan signed up for ceramics classes at the Richmond Art Center to revisit her interest and to “get back involved in community.” As her interest in the textile arts has developed, a parallel evolution has been happening for her in ceramics. Her interest in that art form focuses on functional pottery and sculpture, and lately, she has been hand-building her work rather than throwing on the ceramics wheel due to a pinched nerve.
Up next for the Richmond artist? Egan is in the idea stage for a large project that will require multiple pieces and will mix both ceramics and textiles. “I want to be able to do some sculptures that user fiber and clay,” she said, noting that it will relate to “our relationship with the Earth and clothing protection.”