Stalled at a career crossroad, a vision told Jacqui Fink she must KNIT – and it had to be BIG – so the LAWYER became an extreme KNITTER.
Jacqui Fink left her career as a lawyer to become an “extreme knitter” – and her work is in high demand
I didn’t WANT to make PEOPLE uncomfortable, but I ABSOLUTELY think it was a VISION.
I always really admired people who had this incredible passion for something, and I just didn’t understand why I couldn’t connect with anything,” says Jacqui Fink. “It really troubled me.” The Sydney-based fibre artist and ‘extreme knitter’, known for her enormous (really enormous) blankets, started her career as a lawyer, but realised it wasn’t for her. The next seven years were spent working “very diligently but completely without passion” in her husband’s string of fashion stores. While she felt good knowing she was contributing to the “family unit”, she felt lost. Then her mum was diagnosed with a terminal lung disease called idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis – and Jacqui was given the inspiration to change her direction.
One day over a cup of tea in the kitchen, Jacqui’s mum revealed her only regret was feeling she had never fulfilled her potential. “It was like a knife through my heart,” says Jacqui. “I was so sad for her, but I thought, ‘I’m never saying that to my children on my deathbed. I’ve got to start taking responsibility for my enjoyment of life.’”
Though she had no idea what she wanted to do, something inside was saying, “Be creative. Use your hands.” Around this time, Jacqui met a group of creative women at her son’s school. They all ran their own businesses and she would grill them at every opportunity. “I couldn’t get my head around [my next step],” she says. “I was trying to come up with this idea, but how do you get from A to B?”
It’s a question many people have asked themselves when on the cusp of a life-changing transformation. You know there’s something else out there for you, but what is it exactly, and how do you cross the bridge to get there?
In Jacqui’s case, an unforgettable piece of advice from one of the mothers gave her the answer. “She said, ‘You just do something every day. It doesn’t matter how small it is. Do something every day to move your idea forward, and before you know it, your business will be in front of you.’”
Her idea came in the form of a vision. “At first I called it a dream,” she says. “I didn’t want to make people feel uncomfortable, but I absolutely think now it was a vision. It was a big, loud, booming voice that said to me, ‘You have to knit – and it needs to be big.’”
Her mother had taught her how to knit as a child, but Jacqui knew regular needles and yarn wouldn’t cut it. Instead, she had her dad make “some really crazy-big needles” that were 50mm in diameter and 110cm long, while she searched for the right material. It took her eight months to find her first bag of woollen tops. “I opened it up and realised, ‘Oh my god, this is it,’” she says.
On Halloween, 2009, Jacqui’s mum was transferred to palliative care. While Jacqui was in Queensland saying her goodbyes, her husband was walking with their five-year-old son, who found a dandelion and made a wish. They later discovered he’d wished for “Nana to get new lungs”. Hours later, the family received a call from a transplant team. Incredibly, a match had been found, and Jacqui’s mum’s life was saved. >
This moment inspired the business name, Little Dandelion. It also gave her the “heightened state of gratitude” to push ahead with her newfound purpose, and overcome the start-up hurdles in front of her.
“[The wool I found] was light and fluffy, but as delicate as fairy floss,” she recalls. “You can just gently tug on it and it will completely fall apart.” So she spent the next two years finding a way to make the fibre into a functional material, by felting it to achieve a consistent result and heightened strength.
Once she had amassed 10 blankets, Jacqui’s neighbour Karen McCartney, former editor of Inside Out magazine, arranged for them to be professionally photographed. The images appeared in Vogue Living magazine.
Unfortunately, with the heightened publicity around her work came copycats offering cheaper alternatives.
“Those impacted on my business greatly,” says Jacqui. But rather than wallowing, Jacqui pivoted, developing her own ‘extreme knitting yarn’ with a mill based in New Zealand (“I realised knitters don’t want to buy another knitter’s knitting, they want to do their own thing”), and transitioning from blankets and throws to large-scale art installations – her true passion.
Since then, her work has been hung in the Dubai Opera centre and Sofitel hotel in Darling Harbour. Jacqui also produces creations for many customers in America, and private residences in Australia. On her website, fans of big knits can also purchase Jacqui’s own range of ‘extreme knitting yarn’ and industrial needles to mastermind their own creations.
The sheer size of her work means it’s physically draining. The Dubai piece was 5.2 metres wide by more than six metres long, and weighed over 200kg. It had to be specially crated and took five removalists to get it into the truck. “The logistics are pretty intense,” she laughs.
While Jacqui admits her chiropractor tells her she’s wearing out her body by doing her work, she’s not deterred. “I love that physical challenge. When I’m up against a deadline, I’ll have days on end of straight making. That’s when I’m in my happy place.”
In addition to coping with her mum’s life-threatening illness, Jacqui was also fighting her own battles with anxiety
When I’m up AGAINST a DEADLINE, I will have days on end of straight MAKING. That’s when I’m in my HAPPY place.
and depression. She had three children “in quite close succession”, and developed postnatal depression and high anxiety with each one.
These days, Jacqui says that Little Dandelion has become her mental health plan. “It’s my meditation. I cannot sit still, I’ve realised, and [this] is such a constructive way for me to calm myself down and be quiet. I’m completely free from depression these days and I can completely manage my anxiety.”
She admits there are times when she gets overwhelmed, but far from being lost, Jacqui knows what she’s found. “I see people replicating my work. It would be dishonest of me to say that hasn’t knocked me about a bit. But that’s been a growing-up process, too. Letting go and realising there’s space for everybody. I know what contribution I’ve made to that space and no one can ever take that away from me.”
Thinking back to her mum’s initial confession over a cup of tea, Jacqui’s clear about what compels her. “I want to leave a legacy for my children,” she says. “I’m driven by showing them that, if you’re ever at a tight point in your life, you already possess everything you need to be able to turn nothing into something incredible.”
Jacqui with one of her creations.