Story by Heather Shields | Nov 02, 2015
Photography by Anthony Jinson

Inspired by nature, textile artist Gail Barnickol enjoys the hunt and challenge of her craft and of always learning something new.

Stepping downstairs into the home basement studio of Wardsville artist Gail Barnickol is much like entering into a Grimm’s fairytale cottage somewhere deep into the woods. There are trays of softly colored wools she’s hand dyed from flowers in her garden, skeins of yarn she’s spun, projects in mid-weave on the loom and a spinning wheel with half spun wool. Evidence of her handiwork includes pillows and purses with needle felting designs, Christmas stockings ready for hanging and various brooches and mixed-medium bags
with woven straps.

ArtistAll of this artistry, including wooden tools beautifully handcrafted by her woodworker husband, Lynn, the fleece she obtains and the outdoor landscaping she does as a resource for handmade plant dyes, evolved from her quest to “upcycle” old sweaters eight years ago. “I came across some beautiful cashmere sweaters,” Barnickol says. “Cashmere and wool garments can be expensive, and I thought why throw away this great resource? They were organic, and I was drawn to the colors and the entire textile experience. I liked
to play with them,” she says.

ArtistCollageIn order to preserve those fabrics too good to waste, Barnickol began making hat and mitten sets and purses. From there, she opened an Etsy store and went to a few art shows in St. Louis where she sold her work.

As demonstrated throughout her home and studio, the outdoors has always been a draw for Barnickol, especially through gardening, so she was easily inspired to add birds to her works and began needle felting them on purses, hats and such and also creates them as three-dimensional versions for Christmas ornaments. “Needle felting is when wool fibers are shaped using a special barbed needle,” Barnickol explains. “I originally started needle felting pincushions from the wool as a sensory experience. The textures and colors were so pleasing to work with.”

It was this love for wool and the felting process that prompted Barnickol to learn to spin her own wool. “After felting, I soon wanted some art yarns to decorate the pin cushions and other projects, so I started spinning. I love to spin. It’s very much a meditative activity.”

ArtistVERTCollageEach new skill she conquers only piques Barnickol’s curiosity to learn more. As Michelangelo once said, “I am still learning,” and this philosophy is followed passionately by Barnickol, who is currently taking weaving classes from a master artisan in Columbia. In addition, she attends wool and sheep festivals and conferences all over the United States, a number of which are in Missouri, with one of her favorite retreats in Jefferson City. She often attends those activities with Lynn, who in addition to making her tools, also crafts wooden bowls to house pincushions and buttons for purses. “We enjoy going to fiber shows together where we can really complement each other’s work,” she says.

According to Barnickol, the hunt for fun and inspiring fibers is part of the excitement. “I don’t always have a plan in mind, but a piece I find will stimulate my creativity. I have a large supply of resources and a way of finding elements that work well together. That planning phase is lots of fun.”

Commissions are frequently a major part of artists’ work and or Barnickol, it’s no exception. Her projects, however, often have a sentimental bent. A client, who had recently lost her mother, brought in a sweater that her mother wore often. Barnickol made a purse from the sweater, so the woman would have a comforting reminder. Someone else brought her an antique bowl that she used to make a pincushion.

Barnickol’s journey as an artisan was realized after retirement from teaching home economics and later from kindergarten enrichment. Not only does she enjoy the process and satisfaction of learning new things, but her background in teaching lends itself nicely to sharing her passion with others. Currently, Barnickol teaches classes in her studio and also at the Art House in Fulton. During her classes, she instructs students to create needle felt pincushions, a brooch or a three-dimensional bird. “For more advanced projects, we sometimes make scarves and hat and mitten sets,” she adds.