How to create wool art

In recent years the use of felted wool to create pictures has become increasingly popular and I’m finding the interest in wool art workshops has grown. Basic packs of primary coloured merino are often the first type of supplies which people pick up in a craft shop but these rarely lend themselves to creation of a pleasing final picture as more colours are required. There is also a tendency to jump straight in to the ‘drawing’ part of the project without any planning and the result can be disappointing.

Needle felting (or dry felting as it’s often called) is a fairly simple technique to learn as it just involves the simple up and down piercing of the surface fibre on to a backing sheet (pre felt, wool fabric or other textile). A foam base beneath your work receives the tip of the needle preventing it snapping.

Having taught many workshops in making felted landscapes I’ve realised that the skill lies in planning your composition and colour blending to achieve interesting tones. Essential tools include a foam base, a single needle 38 gauge as an all purpose needle and a 40 for finer detail. Gather fibre in as many differing shades as possible to create a useful palette of wool ‘paint’.

The first step really has to be the selection of your subject matter. A suitable landscape for a simple picture would involve interesting variations in colour such as bands of differing vegetation, a variable sky and some simple features such as a few trees. A photograph is good as it makes you begin to abstract and simplify features. A painting or sketch may already have simplified some of the landscape. For a more close-up subject such as a flower study a sketch can be more useful as you have already broken down some of the colour areas.

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The first step of ‘painting’ the picture is to lay down a thick layer of fibres to sketch out the areas of background. This should contain interesting areas of colour but no details. I do not like using merino for needle felting flat areas and find that shorter and coarser fibres in the form of a batt are much nicer to use. Merino is betters suited to wet felting and you can always make a wet pre felt of the background colours at this stage.

Once the backing material is covered with a thick layer of fibre I needle roughly across the whole area. A multi-needle tool can be useful here. To blend colours you may use a pair of carding brushes (an alternative is to use 2 small wire pet grooming brushes) or simply pull tufts of wool of differing colours between your fingers to ‘finger-blend’ the fibres.

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When this layer is roughly attached you can start applying details such as trees and shrubs and smaller areas of colour such as fences and paths. In the case of a flower study you would start to position petals. Gradually build up these features and start to work them in with dense but shallow needle action, using the finer needle for finer detail.

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How much detail you add and how structured you make the detail is your choice as you will develop your own ‘drawing’ style as you would with any other painting medium. There is also the option to wet felt your background slightly before you add detail although this flattens the surface and you can lose some details. You decide on the effect you prefer.

The picture will also lend itself to further embellishment with machine or hand embroidery and fabric collage and can be a starting point for a whole host of experimental textile work. Other fibres such as silk can be introduced and added texture can come from different types of curly fleece. There are no boundaries!

Here is another example of a picture I made. The fine white birch trunks and gate were added at the very end.

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There are no wrong or rights about working with wool and you will find your own ‘painting’ style. Just remember to plan your composition carefully and have a good bank of coloured fibre ready.

You may like to see more images of my wool work here.

Happy felting!

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An Estonian loom with a long story

This is going to be quite a long story which is still ongoing, but I really wanted to share it as it is quite special.

In February this year I received an email through my website from a lady who was trying to track down a rather unusual weaving loom with links to the Estonian refugee community. Briefly, the post-war refugee community in England fell broadly into  three cities – Bradford, Leicester and London. Within these communities there was a desire to keep national traditions of music, dance and national costume alive. These people had been forced from their homeland against their will and although they were grateful to be living in the safety of the UK, in their hearts they were forever Estonians who had not left their homeland through choice. History played out stories for each family which would fill thousands of pages but for now I’m going to talk about the importance a little loom in keeping alive the weaving of the belts which are worn with our costumes. If you wish to see more about these traditional costumes there are plenty of images on the website of the Estonian national museum.

The Estonians had a tradition of making their own national costumes to wear on special occasions and for taking part in choirs and dancing. However finding the correct textiles was not easy. The intricately embroidered blouses could be made according to patterns found in historical pattern books. I personally have been inspired by these designs to create my series of cat designs. Many hours were spent embroidering on white linen or cotton to produce these. The woven woollen striped skirt fabrics could occasionally be sourced from stores or weavers were specially commissioned. However the long woven belts were harder to find. Again, some could be sourced through family contacts who were able to send from Estonia but on the whole they were hard to come by. These belts would be woven on a narrow loom and followed very precise designs which related to particular regions of the country. Historically they were wrapped many times round a woman’s waist to create a sturdy band to support her back while carrying out the various chores involved in country life.

In Leicester, probably in the 1950s, a certain inventive gentleman called Ernst Silla (a member of the Estonian refugee community)  had decided to make his own loom with which to weave these belts. I knew him when I was a child because his daughter (now in her late 80s) was a friend of my mother’s. He was a natural engineer who could build anything out of anything. I recall him making a fishpond pump for my father out of an old tumble-drier motor!

So, recently a researcher at the Estonian national folk museum had heard about this loom and was trying to track it down to see if it still existed. A very enthusiastic Estonian lady called Maiu (who also arrived in Britain at then end of the war with the community of displaced Estonians, now living in Ross on Wye) was the one to contact me through my website and take on the mission of the loom mystery. A life-long spinner, weaver and sheep-owner whose passion for the subject is driving her to bring the story to a happy end. Through various leaps and jumps and a distinctly woolly network I was able to link the researcher to the daughter of the inventor and hence his granddaughter. First of all the loom-maker’s daughter recalled that the loom had been donated to the Wigston Framework Knitters’ Museum in Leicester, presumably at a time of home down-sizing. Sadly, it was no longer there but was traced to the Abbey Pumping Station Museum (also in Leicester) where it was in storage. Maiu was not prepared to allow it to rot there, unloved and unwanted and arranged to travel to Leicester to collect it.

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The loom made by Ernst Silla

In July I received another note from Maiu with the exciting news that she now had in her posession the loom in question and she sent me photos to see if I had any idea how it could be restored and used. She felt that the secrets of its workings had vanished with its maker. Faced with an array of bicycle parts and other recycled pices of wood and metal I honestly had no idea where to begin. My knowledge of weaving is very basic and this loom didn’t look like any modern loom I had seen. The machine looks like it has been frozen in time, a decaying piece of belt still held in the loom.

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Fast forward to October and I was excited to receive an email from the granddaughter of the loom-maker. Maiu had been in touch with Ingrid who was absolutely delighted that this loom still exists and has recently been to meet Maiu and see the loom her grandfather had made. Ingrid had lived in Canada for many years but is now back in the UK and had often wondered what became of the loom. She had also studied textile long ago and is now on task to restore and repair the heirloom loom herself.

We are now wondering if anyone in the old Estonian community still has any of these special belts, possibly tucked away with faded national costumes which haven’t been touched in decades. These would have been woven between the 1950s to the late 70s I think.

I’m not sure how this story will end but admire the tenacity which Maiu has shown in researching the story and her determination to find the right resting place for this grand old machine with a magical story.

Wouldn’t it be lovely to bring some of the old belts ‘home’ to their loom to bring the story full circle!

 

A very old yarn from Estonia

A few months ago I was helping my parents sort out their house of 47 years in order to downsize. At the very end of the process my father mentioned there might still be a ‘few things in the loft’ so I ventured up the step ladder to explore these uppermost reaches of my much loved family home.

As a child I was never allowed to follow Dad up the steps as it was a ‘dangerous place’ full of prickly fibreglass and unseen dangers whilst stepping across the rafters. Now, as a pretty mature adult, I found I was still wary of this dusty and dark area and left my husband to do the serious exploring. Several boxes full of old school books and various ‘treasures’ which had been assigned to the loft were passed down to me through the hatch as I wheezed and sneezed with each box that came down. Most of these ‘treasures’ were not worth keeping but several black bags full of yarn made their way down to me. As I opened them up I recognised loads of remnants from childhood garments and was pleasantly surprised to find that the moths had only had the smallest nibbles so they have been put aside for future projects.

One bag of yarn which came down was particularly fascinating. There were three large, tightly wound hanks of a very greasy white wool. I asked my mother where these could have come from and she recollected that these yarns were most probably sent to her from Estonia during the 1960s and 70s. During this time my parents were sending parcels of gifts to their relatives who were still living in Estonia during the period of Soviet occupation. These parcels would include things such as coffee, underwear, socks and many more items which were in short supply behind the iron curtain. In return our relatives would send us handmade items and locally farmed wool, often from their own sheep. For whatever reason Mum had never got round to unwinding the hanks and they had been long forgotten. For me they represented a wonderfully exciting piece of woolly history.

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Vintage Estonian wool

This weekend I finally got around to unravelling one large hank of over 200g. As I wound the greasy grey wool into several small balls the smell of stale lanolin combined with the smell of the loft seemed to fill my nostrils. Tiny pieces of ancient dry grass fell out onto my lap as I worked. After an hour of winding I finally had several small grubby balls of yarn. Just a couple of thin patches showed where moths had nibbled but the rest was all good. Next I wrapped each ball around the niddy noddy which I use for winding wool when I spin by hand. Finally I took all of the little hanks down to the kitchen. A few hot soaks released a lot of grease and grime and then they were ready to dye.

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Dying yarn is always exciting. I follow the unofficial method of totally random colour mixing which means I can never duplicate a colour blend but it is very exciting sprinkling in a bit of this and a bit of that from my dye powders. A quick stir and into the microwave they went in turn! By the end of the evening a had a wonderful group of coloured hanks laid out to dry overnight. This morning I twisted them all up into little bundles and here is the end result.

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Hand dyed vintage Estonian yarn

 

Wool which was grown in Estonia about 45 years ago is now clean, colourful. soft and ready to knit. A really special yarn through which I can touch a slice of my family history.

Why do I run a small handmade business?

As the busiest time of year for those of us in this line of work is upon us, I’ve been driven to think again about why I do this and why the public often view craft fairs  as something akin to a car boot sale.

I set up my little ‘shop for the day’ with care each weekend. The table layout varies each time depending on the spot I have been allocated and the size of table.

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Sitting at a craft market meeting the public I find myself answering questions about aspects of my work, often until I’m hoarse and my face is tired of smiling. When people first stop at my stall I try to guess whether they are the type who wishes to engage or someone who wants to be left to their own devices. The engagers are often the easiest as conversation can roll and tumble from general chat to the specifics of how I weave, spin and make felt. The quiet ones are tricky and much harder to read.

As they handle a scarf and peek at the price tag, I gently explain that each scarf takes a total of about 20 hours of work. This involves washing raw fleece, dyeing, carding, spinning and weaving which leaves me with around £2 an hour for the item ( I leave them to make this calculation themselves). Knitted items work out even worse with about 40 hours spent on a  shawl knitted from handspun yarns – a statistic which shoppers are always surprised by.  I don’t feel that £40 -£60 is a very high price to pay for something totally unique which has been made with love and care from sustainable local sources. In the high street stores there are mass produced scarves for similar prices but noone questions these in the same way they question pricing at a craft fair. It seems to me that when people enter a craft fair or market, they automatically assume they will find bargains and seem to forget they are dealing with very small businesses run by individuals with a passion for their product. I have had customers haggle over the price of items – would they do this in a high street chain?

As makers there is constantly a feeling of having to justify our prices. Yet how do you explain that each item has taken hours of planning, designing, sourcing colours, sourcing materials? That is where the value of a handmade item really lies but it’s impossible to explain in a couple of sentences. I like to think that some hint of this process shines through in a finished scarf, handbag or small felted item.

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It’s wonderful when someone stops at your stall and you can see them drinking in the colours, textures and designs. It makes me very happy that I can share my love of wool and maybe even introduce someone else to a new hobby which will enhance their life in some small way. Reviving a heritage skill such as spinning also gives a sense of purpose and sharing it with visitors,old and young, to my stall is always fun.

Those conversations are the ones which remind me why I continue to do this work and still get pleasure from it. When someone zooms in on a handmade piece and instantly falls in love with it, then I feel good about parting with something in which I have invested a small part of myself in some strange way.  When someone is reminded of days long gone when they watched their grandmother spinning then I’m happy that I took them on that little journey into their youth.

And so I continue along the same woolly path I have trodden for about 7 years now……..

 

Launching Sheep

Over the last few months I have spent many hours looking at the shapes of different breeds of sheep. Working with wool made me want to design a series of images to celebrate this diversity so I got out my paint brushes and started drawing. Some breeds lent themselves really well to being spiced up with a little colour and pattern but other were less easy to work around. I ended up selecting 6 British breeds which gave a good variety of shapes for me to work with. I had never looked quite so closely at the different silhouettes of these woolly wonders and continue to be fascinated by their variety.

Once again for the design element I turned to my favourite source, Estonian embroidery and national costume. I had recently acquired another source book of these wonderful motifs based on flower and leaves and leapt right in choosing shapes I loved. A little manipulation and adaptation was required to make the designs appropriate for decorating sheep but eventually  I ended up with 6 rather funky looking sheep.

 

The breeds include Jacob, Shetland, blue faced Leicester, Welsh mountain badger face, Herdwick and Scottish blackface. Today my first order of  sheep coasters arrived in a big delivery and I’m absolutely delighted with them. Cards are also available.

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So today I considered to be the official launch day for my new sheep!

The Good Life

Yesterday was a relatively busy day for me as a wool artist. Ususally the days tick along with woolly activities interspersed with domestic chores followed by an evening at loom or desk. However, yesterday I ventured out to a ‘meeting’ at a wonderful place called the Tufton Smallholding. I had first come across the beautiful yarns from Jane and John when they came to the monthly Farmers’ Market in Petersfield. I have used them is several of my woven and knitted scarves and bags so I was very excited to be going to seee the actual sheep!

I drove across sunny Hampshire to the tiny hamlet of Tufton, not far from Whitchurch Silk Mill. Jane had very kindly invited me over to give us the chance to plan some wonderful woolly activities in her craft barn ………more about our exciting plans will follow at some point so watch this space!

After a minor sat nav diversion, turning the car around on a single track country lane as a postman’s van approached, I finally pulled up in front of the most delightful little cottage with a front garden full of wonderful plants in pots which Jane sells as part of her smallholding business. Jane lead me round the side into a beautiful cottage garden, bursting with a cocktail of colour. A stroll through the garden took us into a slighly wilder area to see the craft barn where we chatted and started to work on our greater masterplan of craft workshops in needle felting.

Afterwards I was introduced to a little gang of friendly hens .

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Hen chalet

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Our walk then took us through the orchard where a path was mown through the long grass and suddenly there appeared among the trees a forest wizard, beautifully carved from wood.

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As I snapped my camera, a beam of sunshine came through the branches bringing the carving momentarily to life.

What a perfect position for a stuning piece of woodland art!

There was still more to come and I followed Jane into a nursery area with plants under cover and in beds. So many happy plants and vegetables!

More than a hint of The Good Life here, I found myself thinking.

 

 

 

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Anthemis

Back through to the cottage garden for a glimpse of the fishpond before retiring to the kitchen for a cuppa. I treated myself to an Anthemis plant from the nursery shop as the little yellow flowers had caught my eye in Jane’s borders and am now planning where to plant it in my garden.

In the kitchen John was busy preparing apricots for jam making and over a cup of tea we continued our plans for autumn workshops.

As I left I saw Jane’s sheep in a paddock over the road – what bliss to wake up each day with a beautiful garden at the back of the house and sheep at the front!

A spinning wheel rescue

This week I was passing through a village near my home and in the window of a house clearance shop I suddenly spotted a spinning wheel. An emergency stop ensued and I rushed to the shop window to have a closer look. To my frustration the shop was closed, allowing me time to tell myself I really did not need another wheel and I should go home quietly and find something useful to do. However, the sight of this poor forlorn, unloved wheel burned a hole in my heart and the next day I phoned to arrange to meet the owner when the shop was open.

Entering the shop full of treasures from the past I could sense this wheel needed a home. Apparently it came from the home of a lady in her nineties who had passed away and family members had cleared out the rest of the house leaving the wheel in a cupboard beneath the stairs to be salvaged by the final stages of clearance. The footman was dangling, the bobbin was full of decaying yarn and the lazy kate had no metal spokes to carry a bobbin ( a very lazy kate!). Having only ever used a modern Ashford Joy wheel I was totally unfamiliar with the workings of this traditional style wheel and had no idea if I would be able to restore it to its former glory but I decided I was feeling brave and bought it. Apparently another customer had viewed it with a plan to use it decoratively in a fireplace – a distressing thought that something so beautiful with such working potential could be cast to a life of inactivity and unused dustiness!

Carrying it through the village attracted a few comments but it squeezed nicely into the back of my car once the seats were put down and travelled to its new home.

At home I sat down to investigate this beautiful piece of woodwork. My first port of call was my dear friend of Once a Sheep , the person who was entirely to blame for drawing me over to the woolly side about 6 years ago. She would know what to do next!

The advice was lots of oil and wax. I ordered up some more bobbins and managed to fix the leather connector to the footman with a spare screw. Lots and lots of oiling of working parts has ensued and I’m layering on wax to nourish the dried out wood and obscure the water marks where it had got wet at some point. As I worked on her ( now a she rather than an it!) I was wondering about the lady who had once owned her. The scrap of yarn on the bobbin appeared to have been dyed with natural dye, possibly onion skin. Had she been a serious spinner or someone who dipped into a new hobby and gave up? Looking at the chips and knocks on the maidens and the flyer I think this wheel had been well used and loved.

Ready to run, I threaded her up and started to spin. What a joy to see it working! There is something magical about the traditional design which has been lost in the more compact modern versions. She spins like a dream and hopefully with more oil she will stop creaking completely. I can’t wait to create beautiful yarns from her and wonder if someone is looking down on me, glad that her wheel has found a happy new home.

Now all that remains is to find a place for her to live……