Owen Sea Luckey doesn’t mind moth holes in sweaters. Frayed sleeves don’t bother her one bit. In fact, the Branford-based textile artist collects gently-used knitted garments. Piles of them.
From moth-eaten woolens emerges a butterfly – a felted, one-of-a-kind sweater embellished with antique buttons, wool scraps cut into floral shapes, bits of silk velvet and hand-knitted tendrils (she calls wool “dreadlocks”) that softly frame the neckline. Flouncy ruffles encircle wrists, fuzzy gloves are fingerless (popular with the texting set) and wide collars are decorated with a flirty “fringe” made of ribbons.
Luckey’s unique, hand-knit pieces are on view at the gallery at the Willoughby Wallace Library as part of the “Art 4 the body + 4 the soul” exhibit presented by The Branford Artists Cooperative, of which she is a founding member. The exhibit, which includes member artist Rita Brieger, a painter, runs through Jan. 25.
“I’m very interested in creating something feminine and flattering, whimsical,” the artist says.
Many of her handmade pieces, “wearables,” are made of angora, mohair and cashmere and specialty dyed yarns she buys direct from Japan. The wool looks furred in some, a result from felting, a process she does in her washing machine that “forces the fibers to bloom.” The finished garments have a rich appearance, far from ragtag - despite their unusual provenance - with their exquisite detail and workmanship.
Her pieces are not only decorative, but functional.
You don’t have to own a smart phone to wear her fingerless gloves: “It means you can wear nice rings, have your nails done, and go digging in your purse and still be fashionable and warm,” the artist explains.
The wide collars, which she sells separately from the sweaters are a “very cool spin on the classic Fair Isle” sweaters and are reminiscent of the Elizabethan ruffs fashionable in Queen Elizabeth’s court during the Renaissance.
Some of Luckey’s clients wear the collars as an accessory, almost like a necklace, to adorn a simple dress, blouse or a very basic sweater, she says. Some collect them in several colors to coordinate with other outfits.
“They are also very warm and can replace the need for a scarf,” Luckey adds.
And, you won’t find these in an L.L. Bean catalogue. As many as three sweaters may make up one article of clothing that is newly imagined and painstakingly pieced together. It may drape gracefully from the body. A hat-scarf combination, while warm and utilitarian, has tendrils of yarn that prettily frame the face and seem to float on the breeze. These have a romantic appeal, not a secondhand Rose look.
“I get into the feminine touches, the antique buttons.” Where does she get her embellishments?
“I have stashes of stuff,” she says.
Oh, and don’t forget the olors – soft, dusky earth tones or pastels with bright punches of fuschia, orange and more. Then there are the patterns – a traditional Fair Isle sweater gets a new life as pockets on one of Luckey’s creations.
But what about the moths?
She cuts out the offending hole or tosses the worn parts of these sweaters that she first de-constructs, then re-constructs them.
When Luckey finds a sweater that is worth remaking, she says, “The sweater will speak to me.” Often she is inspired about what to do with the cast-off as soon as she sees it. And its condition also helps her decide what to do with the piece.
“Does it have a hole somewhere?” she asks herself.
In the show, Luckey features a sweater coat, made from three sweaters, that is so long, that is looks like it might “drag onto the ground.”
Luckey says with a chuckle, “It would be fine if it did in my world – like a train on a wedding dress.”
Other sweaters and scarves have a knitted lace effect and intentional holes and purposely dropped stitches. She creates the “lace” by “combining fibers that are different gauges – meaning using a heavier gauge yarn then alternating to a finer yarn” while not changing needle size to compensate, she describes.
Traditional knitters have told her, “You’re not doing what you’re supposed to do.”
Luckey admits she is far from “by the book” and thinks to herself while making a piece: “What if I just didn’t do that.” Her approach is about “being comfortable with an unknown outcome.”
Luckey got her start working as a textile artist for Malden Mills in Massachusetts during the 1980s, in their Polar Tech division long before fleece became the rage. From that job, where the RISD graduate was involved in mass producing clothing, Luckey gained an appreciation for creating garments one at a time, many custom-made for clients.
“I really appreciate and love making intimate and one-of-a-kind wearables for women,” she says.
When she is not making custom creations, she does work as a freelance textile artist and most recently as a designer for the Kucukcalik mill in Turkey, which supplies fabric to JC Penney.
Luckey calls herself a “hunter gatherer” of sweaters (she’s stockpiled some 75 at her studio at the Branford Artists Cooperative on Montowese Ave. in Branford) and she happily accepts hand-outs.
Friends give her their worn but beloved sweaters made of luxury fibers that they hate to throw out: “I have people - they don’t want to give that gorgeous cashmere sweater to the Goodwill.” Luckey also is a regular shopper at Savers in Orange, a thrift shop she describes as an “upscale Goodwill” store that is “very clean and organized.”
“It’s like going to a T.J. Maxx,” she says. She is such a regular that “they’re not surprised to see me.”
Luckey compares her production rate to that of the “slow food movement.”
“This is sort of the slow art movement – it has an organic process.” This involves collecting the materials – new and used (to recycle) - and hand-knitting the items and finally finishing them.
Once made, she says, “they have a time and a place and a person” that the piece is just right for. When a customer falls in love with an item they find in her studio or at the Creative Arts Workshop in New Haven where she sells her work, she’ll tell them, “You’re supposed to have that.”
Luckey, a mother of two girls, Ella, 8 1/2 and Lucy 5 1/2, finds time to knit evenings at home in front of the TV.
It’s almost meditative for her: “My hand knitting is my yoga at the end of the day.
For more information visit owensealuckey.com