The following story was written by Megan Price. The story featured in Yarnologie issue 05 – Spring 2019. Megan writes columns for Yarnologie. She is an artist and illustrator.
Yarnologie is a quarterly digital magazine own by Sarah Price who is also the editor of this amazing magazine. The magazine is an Australian made and owned magazine for knitters, weavers, people who crochet and yarn lovers as such.
Yarnologie is now going to print. How awesome is that!
Ulla’s friend, Maria, calls her ‘Ulla the Doula” (A Doula is a birth companion who helps and supports women giving birth) citing that Ulla is a Doula because she gives birth to creative entities.
The connective rhythm between Ulla’s work as a textile artist, and her journey through fifty different countries and cultures is apparent as she weaves, spins, knits and paints her experiences into tangible pieces of wonder.
In 1988, Ulla and her partner Peder left Denmark, the home of her birth, for a new life in Australia. What followed was an unexpected adventure into the realms of creativity and a life of travel.
When the pair landed in Australia, they set about exploring the vast continent before choosing where they would settle. Starting in Sydney, they travelled the East Coast and eventually made their way to Western Australia.
Initially, they had planned to buy a business in hospitality, Ulla says. But by the time their trip around Australia had brought them to WA, the original plan was a distant memory. Both she and Peder had a serious case of Wanderlust.
It was in Geraldton, WA, that Ulla spotted a spinning wheel that inspired her to start her own business as a spinner, a throwback to her days as a young designer in Denmark. In 1979, she had attended a sustainable energy school where she completed a six-week spinning course and a weekend course in natural dyeing. Hooked on the idea that she could design her own yarns, Ulla created weird and wonderful threads, knitting and weaving beads, feathers and driftwood into her designs. “I supplemented my income while I was studying by selling my handspun yarns and knitted jumpers. This was in 1984, pre-internet so I put flyers up around my neighborhood, told friends and colleagues and brought my products for show and tell at tea parties. I did well as people back then appreciated handmade, quality craft.”
This earlier experience coupled with her love for spinning, a tradition Ulla would eventually discover she had inherited from her late Grandmother, led her to invest in her very own spinning wheel and wool when she and Peder arrived in Perth.
After working in their van and tent for a while the pair shifted to a small unit in Fremantle, to have a rest from the road and concentrate on spinning full-time. Soon after Peder was inspired to give spinning a go, and within three months he had mastered the craft and a second wheel was purchased.
In an era before Etsy and online shopping, Ulla made frequent visits to the shops and galleries in her area, to see what quality of work they were offering. While her creative pursuits were free-spirited, her decisions into how she would sell her craft were made with careful consideration. “I didn’t want to sell my work to a gallery or shop that was selling knick-knacks or junk,” Ulla says. “I found two outlets – the Perth store that I had purchased my wheel and supplies from originally, and a designer knitter studio in Fremantle. I introduced myself and my work to the owners, and hey bingo, it worked! A week later I delivered my first yarns and we agreed on a commission deal.”
Both outlets proved to be good selling avenues for years. After nine months in Fremantle, the pair once again got itchy feet and decided it was time to complete their round trip of Australia. They found themselves in Wiseman’s Ferry, just near Sydney and rented another unit which became Ulla’s studio. From here Ulla found new outlets for her work, and they joined the Spinners and Weavers Guild in Sydney. By this time, Ulla found she needed an additional hobby that would give her a break from spinning and in 1989, a friend inspired her to try silk painting.
After twelve months in Wiseman’s Ferry, it was once again time to hit the road, and after that Ulla and Peder were in a state of transience for quite some time. They found a seasonal rhythm to their lifestyle, enjoying the mild winters of Far North Queensland, and the cool forests of Tasmania in summer.
In Mareeba North QLD, Ulla spent productive winters silk painting and spinning from a little rented caravan situated in Granite Gorge. The weather in the dry tropics was ideal for her painting enterprise, and her work was influenced by the beautiful Atherton Tablelands nearby. During this time, Ulla added more outlets to her business, including the Tolga Woodworks Gallery which sold her work for over twenty-two years.
When asked about the difference between the way she sold her work pre-internet and the way artists have to sell their work today, Ulla found this puzzling. “To me, that is a difficult question as I have retired and never did sell my work online,” she says. “However, I am happy I had the opportunity of face-to-face interaction with all my outlets over the years and most of the correspondence was via snail mail or sometimes a phone call from the public phone box. When my work sold on commission, I received a check in the mail, and selling up-front was sorted out on the spot. I think I had a better understanding of the outlets and situation because of the in-person contact. It was very personal, and direct. Some of the gallery owners would give me constructive feedback and lots of them were willing to try new ideas in their gallery once they saw my work.”
Ulla paints a rather romantic picture of their Tasmanian summers, living and working in the beautiful forests, with one tent for the bedroom and a second for storing their spinning wheel, loom and wool. Their lifestyle was one with nature, going to bed with the sun and rising with the birdsong. “It was wonderful to follow Mother Earth’s rhythm,” Ulla says. “It was a great lifestyle, sitting out in the forest being inspired by nature and swimming in pristine rivers to cool you down, before beginning the next round of spinning. If I needed to use my sewing machine, we would book a powered site at a caravan park. With all my fabric and mending organized, I would then sew for two days, nonstop. Then it was back to the wildlife and the bush.”
Along their travels between Tasmania and the Far North, Ulla and Peder discovered more galleries to sell their work, as well as new suppliers. “We found some beautiful lustre wool fleeces in Tasmania,” Ulla recalls. “I would look for farmers in the local papers and visit agricultural shows to talk to whoever knew something about spinning and fibres. We would visit the farmers and check out the animals – goats, sheep, Angora rabbits and alpacas. We had an absolute ball and met so many wonderful like-minded people, some of which we are still in contact with now.”
They also invested in a small electrical spinning wheel, which Ulla used for plying her silk, alpaca, Angora rabbit, mohair cotton and ramie. “The electrical spinning wheel was fitted with a plug for the cigarette lighter in the car, and so I did my plying when we travelled to do our shopping. I even had it strapped in a seat belt, just in case Peder should hit the brakes suddenly.”
Ulla refers to herself as a “gypsy” and “The Happy Wanderer.” She has a strong connection with Iceland as it is one of many of her forefathers favourite ‘holiday destinations.’ Her forefathers being ‘the great and notorious Vikings’ who left Denmark in favour of rowing their longboats further north, some of them never returning home. They settled on Iceland near the Arctic Circle, surrounded by a ‘fierce sea’. “The Vikings knew of advanced sailing and navigational skills. Their longboats took them across the globe. No wonder I like to travel, it is in my DNA!” Ulla says. “Crafting on the road has been fabulous. I could never make a typical income from my craft, but it was a great supplement and such an experience. Travelling and being fibre-creative at the same time! I loved being creative on a relaxed level, even though it took up a lot of time.”
Nature is Ulla’s greatest inspiration, though her work is also heavily influenced by her culturally- rich travel experiences. “Everywhere I go, I see different ways of doing craft. Different climates, cultures, architecture, landscapes – even a different use of colours,” she says. “ Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam are full of vibrant colours. In South America, where we travelled, there were very earthy colours and the Samish people had a completely different style. There are huge differences between style, patterns, colours and fashion, depending on where you are and I find this very inspiring.” The exposure Ulla has had to many different cultures has left a deep impression on how she creates. “Colours are very important and have a deep influence on our lives. Every day, you choose colours when you look at your wardrobe. Have you ever thought “Oh no! I can’t wear orange today, where is my blue dress? And you feel comfortable. But the next day you want to wear cream or green. I think we choose colours in our wardrobe based on how we feel, what we think the day will bring and what we need to be ready for.”
Given so much of her energy for life, and her connection to her creative spirit is derived from the natural world around her, Ulla has always sought to respect the environment and its beauty throughout her creative journey. She often uses recycled materials in her work, to eliminate the
negative impact our throwaway society has on the environment. A skill she learned from her grandmother, who lived through two world wars when recycling what precious resources you had was very much a way of life.
Born in Denmark in 1958, Ulla grew up in an environment full of ‘supreme handicrafts’ and excellent craftsmanship. Her Grandmother and Mother inspired her to be creative. “My grandmother was a master of embroidery and crochet with fine yarn,” Ulla says. While she was still a young girl, her grandmother taught her to do cross-stitch. “She had boxes of ribbon, beads, feathers and embroidery yarns which I often roamed through, with my imagination taking off on a voyage of discovery to Alice in Wonderland. My Mother, who was a very talented dressmaker, taught me to knit at age seven. When I embarked on craft subjects at school as an untamed nine-year-old girl, I was quite capable of creating masterpieces in no time. I always got the seal of approval on craft projects which pleased my mother tremendously. In her dreams, she was going to send me off to the very best school of art in Denmark.”
Unfortunately for her Mother, Ulla had other ideas. Her colourful childhood was an unlikely mix of creativity, paper dolls, and fighting with the local street gang. From an early age, Ulla needed to be different. “When I was old enough, my mother taught me how to hand stitch garments and a new world unfolded in front of the sewing machine. I was dressmaking as a rebellious teenager and having a lot of fun. I had a need to express myself and stand out as different. To my mother’s horror, it was not traditional clothing I produced by unique one-off and never-seen-again items!”
In her late teens, while her friends were still roaming the streets, Ulla discovered a passion for roaming the local op-shops. At that time in Denmark, the op-shops were more like antique stores and described by Ulla as an Aladdin’s Cave that ignited her imagination and creative senses. “There were old dresses embellished with gemstones, piles of ancient Chinese coins, embroidery yarn and sewing cotton. Carved ivory stolen from majestic elephants, stuffed animals by the millions and magic carpets you could sit on to fly off to exotic places. You name it, Aladdin had it!”
Ulla still roams op shops, seeking out new treasures to incorporate into her work. “If I can recycle, I do, I hate to waste stuff. It’s important to make use of every piece of scrap yarn or other materials. I recycle tea bags and use the bags in my travel journals or scrapbooks. The tea itself, when finished drinking, I use for natural dyes. I recycle paper shopping bags, plastic bottle tops, garden hose, lolly wrappers, string – you name it, I just hate waste.”
One of Ulla’s favourite creations, the Olga Brolga Wrap, was the result of one of her many op shop expeditions. Rummaging in an antique store, she came across a jumper that took her back to her childhood. “My Mother was fantastic with a pair of knitting needles and she knitted me one jumper after another. She had no idea I couldn’t use or wear all of these beautiful jumpers but she kept on knitting. She loved the Norwegian style, perhaps because her mother was from Norway. She made me one of the very old traditional designs and I loved it. I wore it until it was threadbare, and kept mending it with all sorts of yarn from my grandmother’s sewing kit, until one day, my mother took it off me and gave me yet another gorgeous jumper.” Ulla also recalls an unfortunate incident with the trunk that her mother stored her winter jumpers in. “When winter approached, the lid of the trunk was lifted, and the fumes from the jumpers was naphthalene. It made my stomach twist, my lungs scream for fresh air and I was sick on all of the jumpers, which then, of course, had to be washed.”
Many years later, standing in the antique store, the memory flew back into Ulla’s mind as she lifted a beautiful Laura Ashley jumper from the bottom of a trunk, which was remarkably similar to the Norwegian designs her mother had knitted her as a child. “My imagination was running like a mad horse at the Derby race and I had a design in mind within minutes. I grabbed the jumper and took it to the counter quick smart before anyone could claim my discovery. I was over the rainbow with joy! The first thing I did was wash out the naphthalene smell, then out came my scissors. To make sure the jumper couldn’t unravel, I stitched each piece on the sewing machine. I was in heaven! The jumper then underwent a magical change, and a new masterpiece was born called the Olga Brolga wrap,” Ulla says. “When you drape Olga Brolga around you, you feel like a sophisticated performer floating above the meadows and open plains gracefully sipping nectar from one flower to the next, feeling energetic, full of beans and cheerful.”
When you look at Ulla’s work, it’s clear to see that she infuses herself into every little thing she creates and the results are unique and amazing pieces of art of the mind. The connection between her childhood, global lifestyle and her relationship to the natural world are apparent as she weaves her life story into each piece she creates.
I ask Ulla about her secret to creating with such connection and individuality. Her response is simple yet it echoes the sentiments of artists and creatives alike, “You have to be willing to learn new thinking, techniques and practices. Trust your inner self and go with the flow. To the land of no rules where everything is right, and there is no wrong, where old boundaries have evaporated into thin air. Other people’s opinions interfere with your creativity, therefore you have to be fearless and don’t worry about what anyone else has to say. That is a good reason for avoiding social media, as it is so full of other people’s opinions. I don’t need it. You are the designer of your project and life, trust you have the answer to all your questions, don’t doubt your capabilities and don’t fear because you are a unique being. Forget about perfectionism as it will kill any creative thinking.”
Now that she has retired from making and selling her work full time, Ulla has been able to adopt a slower pace of creating. “I still love making things for Peder, my family and friends. It is a more relaxed exercise now that I am not doing it to earn money. My ideas still come to me at 100km per hour but the difference is, I can take all the time I want to make a beanie or placemat. With no money involved, who cares if it takes ten days!”
Curiosity is a great part of Ulla’s journey and her belief that nothing is impossible keeps her creativity bubbling over. Her greatest pleasure is passing her knowledge on to other people who are willing to learn new thinking and techniques. This passion is channelled in her work as a demonstrator, teaching at workshops and through exhibitions.
Ulla and Peder are now settled in Mareeba, North QLD but they continue to head off on exciting adventures across the world whenever the travel bug strikes. Ulla’s relationship with the outside world continues to have a large impact on her creative inspiration and even the fibres she prefers to work with. “I have always been impressed with spider webs, as I think spiders are the greatest spinners and weavers in the world. At the moment I have a pet trap door spider by the name of Rudi but he is neither a spinner or a weaver. I have always preferred to work with natural fibres, as they keep you warm on a cool day, and cool on a hot day. My favourite fibre is mulberry silk. It carries the history of China and the Silk Road, which I travelled once when I was a princess. Mulberry silk is a very long fibre and easy to spin. It has a very special shine that makes me happy.”
“I can’t pick just one craft as my favourite, as my craft changes according to my mood. If I feel a bit low, I love silk painting using very bright, vibrant colours as this picks me up and makes me happy. If I feel very creative, I embark on travel journals and knitting shawls. If I just want to be on my own and left to my thoughts, I will weave and think big thoughts. If I can’t concentrate, I tend to pull out the sewing machine or spinning wheel, as spinning is pure meditation. When my thoughts are all over the place, I prefer to knit and if I am desperate, I love to crochet. If I am very upset or sad I go for a walk in nature and talk to the nature spirits.”
Ulla’s work tells stories, and people often wonder where her ideas come from. “I saw an old colourful jumper in an op-shop and it spoke to me – ‘please take me and change me! My sleeves can be leg warmers and my middle body can be useful too.’ – I took it back to camp and pulled it apart. I threaded the top part of the sleeves with elastic and within 10 minutes I had new leg warmers. It took me a few days to come up with an idea for the jumper body. I finally decided to turn it into a wrap. I found some handspun silk and some pink and purple wool in my stash and got hooked on crocheting. Every afternoon, I did some serious crocheting and extended the jumper body by crocheting around the edge. I had no pattern to follow as I never follow patterns or manuals. It’s too boring and time-consuming. I followed the flow of the energy of how the project wanted to unfold. It is all about inspiration and I let the project needle talk and take me to unknown meadows where the fairies play flutes made out of reeds. The project was a growing business and I called it “The Crocodile Wrap.” I added to the wrap several times as friends gave me leftover yarns that fitted the colour scheme. I was inspired by the prayer flags you see all over South East Asia, so I added flags on one side of the wrap. When I put it flat on the ground, from a birds-eye view there was no doubt I had created a crocodile. I am very pleased with the result, it is cosy, colourful and a one-off creation. It attracts a lot of attention and people look at it with their mouth agape. I can hear their thoughts tick-tock and they wonder how my brain is working – but it does! Welcome to the world of wild creations!”
Have a look at Megan’s beautiful website www.thedarlingfig.com.au
You can contact Yarnologie at yarnologie<at>gmail.com