Not ready to say goodbye to your favorite worn and ragged T-shirt? How about giving it a new life as a monkey or a whale instead? Libby Chenault transforms once loved shirts and sweaters into a menagerie of stuffed animals, hats, key rings and more through her studio art business, Moth & Squirrel.
Within her studio at Make.Shift, Libby works with special clothing items found at Goodwill and Ragfinery as well as items donated to her from friends and the community. She starts with larger projects by cutting out necessary fabric for hats and works out smaller pattern pieces as the scraps themselves become smaller. Inspired by color and texture, with a fond appreciation for donated cashmere, Libby crafts and line embroiders each item of her own design with the use of her simple sewing machine.
Working with recycled materials is a passion and practice that started for Libby at a young age. “I would say I got started as a kid in elementary school, and my mom’s actually not much of a sewer at all, but she taught me how to sew on a button and she let me cut things up,” Libby explains. “So we didn’t really have a lot of go-to-the-fabric-store-and-buy-new-fabric experiences, but I could cut up old things.”
In college, Libby explored the nature of storytelling, an additional component that accompanies her art. “I went to Fairhaven College, and so I made my own degree and it was called personal identity through storytelling and a sense of place,” Libby shares. “One of the things I love about working with recycled fabric and the fiber arts in general is that so often they do have stories involved with them, whether it’s ‘Oh we took my wedding dress and turned it into this quilt,’ or ‘this was fabric from my grandma,’ or even just you know ‘this is my favorite thing and I want to save it. How do I make something new out of it?’”
Libby learned to sew at a time when Home Economics was taught in high school. Nowadays, sewing skills are less common for individuals and, as a result, Libby has had the opportunity to teach her skills through several venues. At Ragfinery, Libby taught several techniques including hand embroidery, printmaking and applique at a five-day kids’ camp where children ages 7–13 were able to try out techniques for themselves.
Libby also spent some time at Western Washington University this past year during Sweater Days, which focused on sustainability, heating costs, recycling, and keeping heating bills down. “As part of their program for that, I taught some mending classes up there. There were students who had brilliant young minds, but they had never sewn a button before. But then some of those skills just don’t get passed on as much and so that was so cool to have a student come in and say, ‘Oh here’s my favorite dress and it has this hole in it and what can we do?’ And not only helping her fix it, but learn how to do it so they have that confidence that they can take care of themselves and make and do and problem solve.”
For Libby, her career as an artist began to come together after she graduated from college. “I had graduated from college and I did some of my first dolls out of recycled materials. I sold some down in Seattle gave others to friends,” she explains. “At that time I was also doing bookmaking, so I would make journals. I had some friends who had a hemp clothing business at the farmers market at the time and so I would get some of their scraps and turn it into book cloth for my journals. Then I started making flowers out of some of my friends’ really lovely hemp silk blend, and so I would get little scraps from that and started making hair flowers. And everything has sort of grown from there.”
Around 2005, Libby and her husband started prioritizing art by renting their first studio and participating in the Downtown Art Walk. Now Libby and her husband, Steeb Russell — a painter of colorful “paint-toons,” share a studio in Make.Shift. Art Walk has long been a family event for Libby and her husband, with their son joining them in attendance since he was just one month old. Libby shares that her son, now 6 years old, even has zines that he sells during Art Walk. Having a family involved in art provides Libby with a sense of comradery. “Our work influences each other a lot, not necessarily that our style is the same, just we have a lot of love for similar subject matter as far as taking animals and making them our own or using colors in certain ways.”
Libby has also been a part of the Bellingham Farmers Market for the last 10 seasons, bringing her creations in vintage suitcases. Here, unnamed stuffed animals, pieced together with fabric from across all corners of the community, wait patiently to travel into the hands of a new owner — each ready for their own storytelling identity to begin.
Have a piece of clothing you would like transformed into something new? Or maybe you would like to donate an unwanted cashmere sweater? Contact Libby through her email at: email@example.com.