Moira Quinn: Confidence of Hand

Published March 26, 2020

Notre x Nike Air Max Day 2020 01

Two of the key releases for Air Max Day 2020 revolve around one pattern: duck camo. A derivative of the original American military camouflage developed in 1942, duck camo was adapted by outdoor brands in the 1960s. In 2013, the pattern appeared with infrared accents on an Air Max 90 designed in collaboration with Japanese sneaker boutique Atmos. Now, the pairing has returned, on a tweaked version of the Air Max 90 and the brand-new Air Max 2090 silhouette.

When we saw these sneakers, we were reminded of the work of rug-maker Moira Quinn. Born and raised in Chicago, Quinn hand-crafts evocative, idiosyncratic rugs from her home studio. Her work folds in patterns drawn from sources as disparate as the carpet in her mother’s 1980s home and the intricate garments she encounters as a costume dresser for the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

To celebrate Air Max Day, we commissioned Moira to create two original rugs inspired by the duck camo/infrared combo from this year’s releases, and we’re giving you a chance to win a package including a rug and a pair of either this year’s Air Max 90 or Air Max 2090—all while supporting a worthy local cause. With bars and restaurants across the city shut down indefinitely due to COVID-19, hospitality staff have found themselves temporarily jobless. In order to support them through this lean time, Chicago Hospitality United is collecting donations that will be distributed to employees of over 100 local bars and restaurants.

To participate, simply click this link and donate a minimum of $5 to CHU any time between now and this Saturday at 5PM. On Saturday evening, we will select two winners and ship them one of Moira’s rugs and a pair of sneakers in their size.

And while you're waiting for contest results, we worked with Augmented Reality Co. to create a digital version of the rug for you to play with. Click through to place Moira's rug in your own environment. 

Click the link, make your donation, then read the conversation we had with Moira over the phone last weekend, while she was in the process of crafting these rugs. Photographs by Evan Jenkins.

Adam Wray
Moira Quinn

How did you originally find your way to weaving and rug-making?

I've always been interested in handcrafts, mostly needlecraft. I’ve been sewing and embroidering ever since I was a little kid. When I started my undergrad at the Art Institute, all of the needlework classes were full because I think at that time embroidery was starting to become more of a hot Pinterest thing. So, I took a weaving class that was open, and I just absolutely fell in love with the whole process. I completely dedicated the rest of my time at school to weaving.

I'd been weaving for about 10 years, and about two years ago, the American domestic wool market completely collapsed because of climate change. The drought that started in the American West 10 years ago finally hit the wool market, and there just wasn't enough production to spin wool into yarn. And then, because of our president, we couldn't import any wool because tariffs were so high.

Notre x Nike Air Max Day 2020 02

I had no idea about that—I’m kind of blown away.

Yeah. Everyone knew it was going to happen, and they didn't prepare for it. They just kept selling yarn the way that they had been for decades, as needed, to clients who wanted to buy as much as possible. And then it just hit a wall where all of my suppliers wouldn't return my calls or emails. At first there was no wool, and then there was wool available, but it was 40 percent more expensive. So, I purchased a tufting gun, because you can put anything through it—synthetic, acrylic, cotton, whatever, and it works. I just knew that I had to learn something new so that I could keep working in my studio. I found the process to be so much different than weaving that it sort of invigorated how I think about my work, because I could make images so much more rapidly. With weaving, I had to labor over an image for weeks, sometimes months. To be able to translate something in my head within a matter of hours kind of turned my whole world upside down. I started making a lot of work. I only got the tufting gun about a year-and-a-half-ago and I've made nearly a hundred rugs since then.

How many would you have done in the same period, pre-tufting gun?

I would say I would make maybe five or six rugs in a year.

Notre x Nike Air Max Day 2020 03

"Art is essentially useless. There's no point to it at all, so you might as well just make what you want."

That's an exponential jump! Could you explain the difference between the way you work with the tufting gun versus how you would have been weaving beforehand?

There are a couple of ways to make a woven rug, but the most common way is on a floor loom. There are yarns going through the loom called the warp yarns, and on top them are the weft yarns—the yarns that run across those warp yarn. You don't see any of the warp yarns behind the weft yarns—they're completely covered up. So, you're basically working with small areas of yarn that interact with the yarns that are going through the loom. It’s a binary system where there are raised yarns and lowered yarns. It's very simple when you see it, it's hard to talk about. It's kind of abstract.

Notre x Nike Air Max Day 2020 05

How does the tufting gun work?

The tufting gun I refer to as sort of a contraption—it's not a very high tech machine. It's sort of in between a tattoo gun and a jackhammer. It has a blunt needle, then a hollow needle on the front end of it, and a little foot that walks forward. Inside the hollow needle there’s a little pronged piece of metal. The machine walks forward, and the little pronged piece of metal is pushing yarn through the hollow needle so that it's making a little loop through a space on a piece of white canvas. You stretch a piece of canvas over a frame, and the little needle punctures the spaces between the threads of the canvas. The gun has a mind of its own—it resists any attempt to control it. It's so much more frustrating than weaving in a number of ways. The only advantage is that it's quicker.

It sounds like an interesting, troublesome collaborator, like it has its own inputs into the work that you're not entirely in control of.

Yeah, I would say so. Sometimes those things are happy accidents. Most of the time it's pretty frustrating. While I was making this piece for Notre, the foot on the gun broke off. And I had to get on the horn with the guy who sells them in Philadelphia, take apart the gun— I was like, "I can't believe this is happening to me right now."

Notre x Nike Air Max Day 2020 03

You'll be well positioned to repair it next time it happens.

Right, right. And, you know, these things only recently emerged on the domestic crafts market. I would say about a year and a half ago, when I first realized that a person like me could just buy one. Up until then, it was all in industry use only, people in India and China making industrial tufted rugs for Ikea and Crate and Barrel. So, when I got it, there was no YouTube video on how to make it work the way you want it to. There's still very little information on how to really get good at it. But, thankfully, I've had plenty of time in my studio to figure out what it likes and what it doesn't like.

"I took a weaving class that was open, and I just absolutely fell in love with the whole process. I completely dedicated the rest of my time at school to weaving."

Since you left SAIC, have there been any really formative experiences you've had that have changed the way you work, or changed your approach to your craft?

Yeah, I'm a total evangelist for Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine. I talk about this place all the time. I have no plans to go to graduate school, so I've decided to use residencies as a way to focus my work in a way that grad school might otherwise, especially within a community, not just a self-imposed, solo residency. Haystack is a remote craft school that's been around since the 1950s—it's completely isolated on an island off the coast of Maine. It's based on the Bauhaus, and Black Mountain College, which was the Bauhaus School of Crafts in North Carolina. It's a small community of people that get together to take workshops and have craft-based residencies.

Notre x Nike Air Max Day 2020 06

You use their fabulous studios and have someone cook wonderful, nutritious meals for you while you focus on making things. They have a lot of scholarships. It's a community that focuses on technique, and how you make things, how you achieve your ideas, how you actually execute your ideas from your head to a physical product without really focusing on why. And that really shocked me, because SAIC is such a critical school. I'm really thankful for everything I learned, how to think about my work and a lot of reading, and discussion, and critique-based learning, but it was so life-altering for me to go to Haystack and just be around people who were only concerned with how you made something, and not really having to have a well-thought out plan to discuss and defend why you made something that you made. I think it really restored my confidence beyond the objects that I make. I think I just felt a little defensive during my time in undergrad, and I felt that melt away. I've been trying to go back there every other year since my first one.

Notre x Nike Air Max Day 2020 07

That sounds like an amazing experience and an amazing place. You were just saying that you felt a bit of a defensive during your undergrad. I feel even the language of academia leads people to adopt that sort of posture—they call it a thesis defense.

Absolutely. I mean, I think it stifles the teaching staff, and obviously the students that are learning to only think that way. I don't think there's anything wrong with it, it just didn't really work for me. I found it a little bit boring. Everyone made the exact same type of work because they were afraid to defend something that might be different or pointless. And you know, art is essentially useless. There's no point to it at all, so you might as well just make what you want.

Notre x Nike Air Max Day 2020 08