I have a very clear memory of making my very first piece of felt. During my Art Foundation Course at Dyfed College of Art (probably called something more grand now, as is the current trend) I went on a natural dyeing course at a remote small-holding in the Carmarthenshire countryside. It was a beautiful day – one of those soft West Wales days where everything feels as though it’s breathing. We had spent the morning in the calf-cot boiling up vats of deliciously smelly fleece and seen what alchemy can happen when you start to play with vegetable matter and wool. I still delight in yellow lichen from rooftops (collecting it can be a bit hairy) creating a fabulous purple dye. How?
We were taken into the house which epitomised my idea of a dream home. There were many sheep and goat skins flung over the backs of chairs and on the floor; the walls were lined with images of sheep and felted pictures, woven items from all around the world were strewn around and the home welcomed us all.
My first fleece was, lets call it a “learning experience”. We were given washing up bowls, fleece, hot water and soap flakes. The fleece was layered up in the bowl, soap was sprinkled over the top and then the boiling water was poured over. This was pre-risk-assessment days and we tentatively plunged our hands into the bowls to pummel and essentially abuse this poor piece of fleece. None of us were scalded as we were well aware of what boiling water can do to hands – I really do think that if we continue to wrap the younger generation (I do sound old) in cotton wool, they won’t have any idea of common sense as the skill won’t have been exercised. Let them climb on things and discover gravity, let them plunge their hands in boiling water and see what happens (obviously, let them know what the outcome can be first but let them make choices).
Back to my felt. Oh, what a sorry sight it was when it came out! We were told to do about 8 layers of fleece (I normally do about 3 these days) and it ended up about 3/4″ thick, lumpy and hideous and I loved it so much that I only threw it out about 4 years ago when the moths had started to have a nibble.
Techniques have changed a little and we have a much less physical way of doing things, with the added benefit of bubble wrap thrown into the mix. I was very happy when doing the HNC in Fine Art Textiles back in 2000 to be shown this simpler way and will be demonstrating it on video soon.
Back to today. Having completed two dry-felted and 3D pieces there was a clear urge to get my hands back into some soapy fleece. I have seen a piece of felt which had holes felted into it and I was curious to try it. Of course I was going to do it my way so layered my fleece as normal over a sheet of bubble wrap, spreading the fleece as thinly as I could and then worked holes through the layers. I wetted the fleece with a soap solution, then poured over boiling water. The fleece was carefully patted down to ensure that everything was thoroughly wet and any trapped air was released. The bubble wrap was rolled up with the fleece inside and secured with a couple of elastic bands. The rolled up bundle was then rolled back and forth on a towel for about 5 minutes when the contents were checked and the holes enlarged slightly.
After re-rolling for a further 5 minutes the piece was carefully lifted from the bubble wrap and rotated through 90 degrees and re-rolled. This ensures that any shrinkage is complete top to bottom and side to side. I was amazed at how much it had shrunk by. Measurements need to be taken for future felts so I can gauge shrinkage better.
I was gaily telling myself to be less concerned about how it looked (less than inspiring on first glance) when I noticed the patterns that the coloured fleece had made over the white. It was where the fleece was thinner and you could see the individual strands – they had remembered their original shape and had the most delightful curls and crimps.
Something made me put it up to the window – I think I wanted to see the garden framed through one of the small holes – and WOW! I was completely blown away by the patterns, colours and contrasts which suddenly revealed themselves. This small act of playfulness revealed a new world to me and took me back to the elements I was investigating for the HNC – the effect of light on textiles and combining the two in installations.
I love the effect so much that I shall be doing more and finding a way of incorporating either its own light source or of using natural light somehow.
The adventure continues!