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June 9, 2022 / weavingschool

Weaving for Felt

This is an article for Felt Matters, the International Feltmakers Association

Weaving for Felt

Whenever I think I’ve made one of everything, felting continues to prove me wrong. Combining color and texture is painting with wool and cloth. Shaping garments and vessels by selective shrinking or utilizing differential shrinkage is sculpture.

Felting came as a natural progression in my love affair with all things fiber. Like many of us, my grandmother taught me to knit, crochet, and sew. In elementary school, we would have a day off to attend the county fair. My mother would take us directly to the petting zoo where we would pet sheep.  “This is where your blanket comes from.” I never forgot her telling us that. I couldn’t imagine how that rough smelly wool would turn into the blanket on my bed and never imagined how the properties of wool would inform many years of fascination with wool and everything it can do.

More years ago than I’d like to admit, I did a collaboration piece with an artist friend who wanted to embed rocks into felt. After months of research and experimenting with making heavy weight felt, I finally succeeded. When the project was completed, I decided to change directions and see what was the lightest weight felt I could make. That began my exploration of nuno felting. In nuno felting, scarves can be sculpted by laying wool in different directions and garments can be shaped, without darts, by shrinking some areas more than others.

Lately, my explorations with weaving for felting have played a prominent role in my ever-expanding toolbox of techniques. I love weaving yarns in non-traditional ways and then watch the fibers attach, distorting the patterns. (image 1) The differential shrinkage between the heavier woven sections and the lighter shingled sections offers great potential for shaping vessels. As a teaching artist, I created a “Weaving for Felting” class. Even though the textures and color combinations are limitless, I’m always surprised by the creativity the process engenders.

In 2019 I was awarded a three month residency at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in the mountains of Tennessee as part of their Appalachian Craft and Culture Fellowship. I’d first taken a weaving class at Arrowmont after my freshman year at the University of Tennessee, so long ago that the school, founded in 1912, was still called by its original name, the Phi Beta Pi Phi Craft Workshop. Although I admire and respect straight selvedges and traditional patterning, weaving perfect yardage had never been my strong suit, and I hadn’t thought of myself as a traditional Appalachian artist. However, the lure of a three-month residency at a beloved craft school was worth the risk of rejection. When I was actually accepted into the program, I decided to concentrate on weaving some traditional patterns then using them as the base for nuno felting. Combining weaving and felting became the starting place for my residency.  I had just taken a natural dye workshop so armed with those yarns, an antique overshot coverlet, and merino fleece in all its glorious colors, I headed off to Arrowmont to see what would develop. The naturally dyed yarns were quite heavy so the different shrinkage of each created endless opportunities to sculpt.

Arrowmont teaches a number of traditional crafts. During my stay, I was fascinated by shapes created in the clay classes using slabs of clay to hand build vessels. I challenged myself to see if I could create vessels using heavy weight felt whose properties seemed so similar to the clay slabs. (image 2) Instead of using resists, I began by laying out flat rectangles combining heavy weaving sections with lighter shingled sections of merino wool. Once everything was stabilized, I connected the ends to make the vessel. The differential shrinkage between the sections allowed me to structure the vessels. (images 3 and 4)

During the pandemic, I took many on line felting classes. Although I’d been making vessels for many years, book resists and overlapping resists offered a new opportunity to create shapes that can’t be made with a single flat resist. Class projects ranged from lightweight to heavy pieces suitable for rugs. My knowledge base expanded and confirmed that there is no bottom to felting.

On a tour to Hungary with Flóra Carlile-Kovács, I was inspired by a visit to the Zsolnay Ceramic Museum in Pecs. I couldn’t take enough pictures of the elegant and intricately shaped vessels. Armed with all my new skills, I attempted to create vessels using the many photographs as starting points. Many of the things I do are ongoing projects and I expect to continue on this path. (image 6)

Recently, I was asked to fill in at John C. Campbell Folk School for a teacher who had to cancel at the last minute. Although I’ve been making vessels for years, I’d never taught it as a weeklong class. Making my own samples to fit the teacher’s original class description, I found yet more ways to add structure to vessels. It’s been a fascinating journey. I love passing on these hard-won skills in my classes. I gain energy from the smiles and enthusiasm students generate while working on their own creations.

Images:

  1. Scarf with mirrors detail
  2. Clay bowls with felt vessels
  3. Blue Vessel Layout
  4. Blue Vessel/ photo by Robert Batey
  5. Group of Woven Felted Vessels / photo by Robert Batey
  6. Vessels inspired by Zsolnay Museum 

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