The interview with Moira Quinn O’Neil, a weaver and hand tufter based in Chicago

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The interview with Moira Quinn O'Neil, a weaver and hand tufter based in Chicago

Moira Quinn O'Neil is a weaver and hand tufter based in Chicago, Illinois. Her designs explore pictorial space as a painter would, so much so that you might be tempted to move them from the floor to the wall. Through the laborious process of weaving, she merges the mysterious and the everyday. The resulting imagery is given functionality in the form of an area rug. Her catalog reflects the fluid and rhizomatic world we live in. She is not beholden to any one style nor is there a hierarchy of motif, a stylish mod design is treated with the same tenacity as the Gumby’s signature hello turned goodbye. 

I am reminded of what cultural theorist Ted Polhemus calls the “Supermarket of Style,” a term he coined to name fashion’s shift from small semiotic tribes adorned with specific signs and signifiers (mods, teddy boys, punks) to global communities where the fashion codex is untethered. In the supermarket, of style your look consists of anything you can dream up, all eras are available to mix, match and blend.

The contemporary home is perhaps even more susceptible to this supermarket aesthetic; how could it not be? The internet gives us access to everything that we could ever imagine, available to purchase immediately. O’Neil’s images often feature cinematic or literary references, but have also included deviled eggs and pickles. If her transfixing designs do not suit your flooring imaginings, you can commission her to weave your wildest dreams into reality. 

A curated selection of her rugs were recently exhibited at Tusk, a gallery and retail shop located in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood, and dedicated to showcasing objects, clothing, prints made by local artists . She earned her BFA in Fiber and Material Studies from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2012 with an emphasis in hand weaving.


Bell Jar Rug, Handmade rug, shaggy acrylic yarn, 23.5 x 39, 2019.

Amanda Joy Calobrisi: How did your passion for weaving and tufting come about? Did you move through other disciplines before you discovered weaving?

Moira Quinn O'Neil: As an only child growing up in the city, I entertained myself indoors and making things was my primary source of amusement. I did a lot of sewing and needlework (making my own dolls, sewing clothes from patterns, embroidery, latch hook rugs) and went to the School of the Art Institute with a scholarship based on my embroidery work.

All of the needlework classes were full when I was a freshman, so I took a beginners weaving course that was open. It was the first time I found a process that clicked with me, or that I could fully wrap my head around. After that first class, I intensified my focus on the medium of weaving and used it as a lens through which I worked through my obsessive thoughts.


Eggy Rug, Handmade rug, shaggy acrylic yarn, 23.5 x 39, 2019.

Amanda Joy Calobrisi: Are there particular experiences that you have had since graduating that have had an impact your studio practice?

Moira Quinn O'Neil: I can’t neglect to mention the impact that Haystack Mountain School of Craft in Maine has had on my practice. During college, I felt so much pressure to make work that was well-researched and conceptually sound. I had to know exactly why I was making something before I even got started. I didn’t realize at the time just how oppressive it was.

After taking a workshop at Haystack a couple of years ago, I tapped into a network of like-minded makers who are as obsessed with process and technique as I am. I finally felt free to experiment and make things “just because.” It really kicked off this noticeable shift in my practice. I feel more confident and I think it’s apparent in the work I’ve been producing.

Amanda Joy Calobrisi: At the Tusk exhibition, your rug work was hung on the walls. This orientation shifts picture plane, scale, space. In the last few years, I’ve noticed weaving and tufting occupying more space in the drawing and painting realm. Jessica Campbell and Christina Forrer are two examples that come to mind. Is this interesting terrain for you?

Moira Quinn O'Neil: I absolutely adore Christina Forrer and Jessica Campbell’s work and I haven’t delved deep into why they choose to hang their work on the wall. My decision to hang my rugs on the walls of Tusk was a practical one: I didn’t want hundreds of people to step on them in the event that a client wanted to purchase a piece for their home. All of my rugs are intended for use on the floor and I put a lot of time and effort into making them durable enough for everyday use, but I understand why people often prefer to hang them on the wall.


Foot Rug, Handmade rug, shaggy acrylic yarn, 23.5 x 39, 2019.

Even with the resurgence of interest in weavers like Anni Albers or Sheila Hicks, the art world still doesn’t fully respect weaving or fiber art and doesn’t view it as a legitimate art form. In the world-renowned Art Institute of Chicago, the textile galleries are relegated to the basement. By stripping fiber art of its context as a predominantly feminine art form that is utilitarian and community-based, you make it into something that has been marketable and salable for centuries: wall work (produced mostly by men). For me, weaving and tufting is engaging enough on its own.

Amanda Joy Calobrisi: Your designs seem to come from a variety of sources art history, cinema, pop culture? How does an idea originate and evolve? Is there a drawing phase before beginning a new weaving?

Moira Quinn O'Neil: Sometimes I see something in the background of a movie, hit the pause button, and take a phone picture of the screen. I work as a costume dresser for the Lyric Opera of Chicago, so I’ll see a set piece or costume that I can’t get out of my head. I also work at a vintage clothing store a couple of days a week and I am exposed to printed and woven fabric from every decade. Ideas find me from all of these sources, then I start sketching—my weavings and tufted works are inseparable from my drawing practice. I use my drawings as a template for each of my tapestries and rugs, so the loom or tufting gun serves as an extension of the hand. The finished works have a distinct hand-drawn quality as a result. Maybe that’s also why people perceive them humorously.


Hieroglyph Rug, Handmade rug, shaggy acrylic yarn, 23.5 x 39, 2019.

Amanda Joy Calobrisi: What advice would you give to young artists interested in textiles?

Moira Quinn O'Neil: Don’t try to make textiles that you think people will want to buy. When you make things that fit current trends in textiles or design, your work looks dated very quickly. Don’t worry about justifying your work’s existence within the larger context of the art world and most importantly—you don’t have to figure out how to turn every idea you have into a wall work.


Mom's Rug, Handmade rug, shaggy acrylic yarn, 23.5 x 39, 2019.

How to Order a Custom Rug

“The commission process begins with a conversation. Size, utility, aesthetic, and color scheme are factors in a collaborative design process between artist and client. An initial estimate is given based on a calculation of labor hours and material fees. Custom yarn colors are ordered with a down payment from the client. Depending on the overall size and complexity of the rug design, production typically takes between two to four weeks.”
Moira Quinn O’Neil Contact Moira with inquiries!