A few weeks ago when Jenny Dunn asked if I would like to be guest speaker at the August Guild meeting my instant reaction was “what could I talk about?” But as I mulled over my life and more particularly the last ten or so years one thought led to another (as they do) and like a light going on “journeys” came into my head.
Anyone who has had a child, or grandchild, doing their HSC in the past four or five years will know all about Journeys as that they have been a major topic of study throughout the English syllabus. From this initial thought my mind wandered to thinking about the Journey felt making has taken and ultimately my own journey in felting.
The Oxford dictionary describes journey as the act of travelling from one place to another and that this journey can be both physical and figurative. Life itself is a series of journeys. They can lead us in many different directions, along many paths to subsequent doors. These paths can lead in one direction, head off in another and even weave back across a previous path depending on the choices we make as we travel along.
Probably not everyone here today is a keen felt maker, however one thing we all have in common is our love of fibre, texture and colour.
They are things we discover on our creative journeys both in our own workrooms, whether it be a designated area in our home or studio (I wish) or the kitchen bench where “added fibre in your diet” takes on a whole new meaning; and on our journeys outside our comfort zones. These are journeys of discovery that take you to many places where you meet and see wonderful and stimulating people and things.
In the past week I have embarked on yet another stimulating intellectual journey in my research for today, particularly in the area of the felt history. It has led me to the website of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg Russia where some of the earliest examples of felt have been preserved. (With a folkloric background I have wanted to travel to Russia for many years – now I have another excuse to undertake another “physical “journey.)
Felt and felt making has undergone many physical and developmental journeys. Its establishment across the globe is a journey in itself. Researchers believe that felt is one of the earliest textile forms, but because it is a material that decomposes easily, artefacts are scarce. The oldest archaeological finds containing evidence of the use of felt are actually in Turkey. Wall paintings that date from 6500 to 3000 BC have been found which have a motif of felt appliqué.
Many cultures have legends as to the origins of feltmaking. It is said that Noah’s Ark was lined with fleece and the combination of urine and the trampling of animals left behind a felted wool carpet. (Maybe not the prettiest image of felt)
In early Christian times, the story goes that St Clement and St Christopher, whilst fleeing from persecution, packed their sandals with wool to prevent blisters – at the end of their journey, the movement and sweat had turned the wool into felt.
Whichever legend or journey you wish to believe there is no denying that felt has taken many physical journeys across many lands.
In southern Siberia evidence of felt was found inside a frozen tomb of a nomadic tribal chief that dates from the 5th century BC. The evidence from this find shows a highly developed technology of feltmaking. The felt journey has begun.
Thankfully, there are some preserved examples of this felt in the museum I made reference to earlier, in St Petersburg.
Felt probably began its physical journey in Asia. In the 4th century BC the Chinese referred to the large Central Asian steppes as “the land of felt.” It is the nomadic Mongolians (and other central Asian peoples) who have become particularly well known for their feltmaking techniques and use of felt – especially for their felted wool tents or yurts. Felt was well suited for nomadic life because it utilised the sheep on hand requiring only simple equipment to manufacture the felt. The wool was weatherproof, well-insulated and strong for their portable homes but could just as easily produce thin, flexible felt for stockings and clothing.
The Greeks learned the technique from the Asiatic people with whom they traded. They manufactured coats for soldiers, rain capes, and head coverings. A dense cap became the fashion among fishermen and artisans. The Romans learned feltmaking from the Greeks. Roman soldiers wore tight felt caps, even when going to the theatre and dining! Felt armour was dipped in vinegar to make it resistant to both fire and iron weapons. Roman soldiers also wore felt boots and stockings and used the fabric to prevent their armour chafing.
Throughout the ages and across the cultures head coverings have been made from felt. Even the Babylonians wore felt caps. No other material offers felt’s malleability, density and ability to hold its shape.
In Britain, UK feltmakers used felt to make hats whilst clothes were woven and then felted to make them warmer and more waterproof by trampling in troughs or by use of water-powered mills.
While earlier people discovered that thick felt offered protection against both weapons and the weather in the forms of housing, rugs and blankets other cultures primarily located in the colder climates such as Scandinavia and Russia were predominately producing thick felt socks and boots. Considering how long felt has been an integral part of the day to day lives of so many cultures – 6000 years or so – its journey has followed quite a different path in the last ten or fifteen years. It’s the last decade that has seen it progress from the practical and functional material used for carpets, clothing, and protection to the wearable art form it has evolved into today. From practical and functional to light and frivolous accessories.
It has been during this resurgence that artists have seriously explored the felt making process and the almost unlimited artistic possibilities of handmade felt. Ironically, this exploration occurs at a time when the production of traditional felt is declining. More and more of the world’s nomads are settling in permanent locations and their felt covered dwellings are being replaced with other types of shelter. At the same time, clothing traditionally made of felt is being replaced by mass produced “man made” fabrics.
Hats are no longer the fashion either (except on Melbourne Cup day) and those that are commercially produced tend to use very little wool usually using synthetic needled felt and chemically bonded fabrics instead.
Previously wool was used straight from the sheep or was carded by hand before felting, however today’s feltmakers can use “tops” or “batts” of wool that have been commercially cleaned and have the fibres running in one direction. The tops come in an infinite variety of colours and colour combinations and vary in micron allowing versatility in the end product. Today we have many fibres to choose from – many techniques to produce the felt and so much colour and texture to experiment with. Fibres make the felt journey unique each time it is embarked upon.
With that we have seen the development of Nuno felting and similar surface felting utilising other fabrics such as cotton and silk and the adaptation of needle felting from a commercial practical form to the sculptural control that allows three dimensional masterpieces to be created and smaller embellishments to be added to our latest project. We have progressed to the use of bamboo blinds (yes, this is a modern tool), the use of bubble wrap, electric sanders and whiz bang felting machines to produce our works of art.
Personally, I like to use my trusty (falling apart) bamboo blind followed by massaging the felt between my fingertips, finishing off by firming up on my handmade (courtesy of my husband) washboard. Its quiet application is somewhat therapeutic allowing total control in the final stages of felting.
I guess that leads me into My Journey in felting which began after the death of my father in 1994. My sister Peta was travelling in Hungary at the time – an interesting journey in itself. She had gone there to attend a folkloric camp which involved teaching traditional dance and Hungarian crafts. On her hurried journey through the campsite one morning she ran into a tree – well I guess she probably tripped on a tree root – but she hurt her foot substantially enough that she was now unable to participate in the dance workshop – the prime reason for her journey to Hungary in the first place.
Eager to find something else to do she joined in a felt making workshop. This workshop was conducted entirely in Hungarian (of which she speaks none) and they only had cold water to use. It took a long time. She recounted to me that she remembers a group of children near her that kept going to the teacher and asking “is it enough” and the teacher replying “no, more”. I think she made a pair of slippers and joined in the communal production of a large rug. Incidentally, Hungary has a felting tradition because one of the seven tribes that established Hungary was Mongolian.
Both of us have a folkloric background and interest in traditions and cultures of many countries so upon her return she was naturally eager to share her new found knowledge. We used an ice cream bucket, warm water this time and a cake of sunlight soap. I made a little purse similar to this one – a technique I now know as felting using a resist. We used some fleece we got from Petlins and a little bit of coloured tops (not the 22 micron we all use today) that was used for decoration which Peta must have brought back with her. For me that was it for a while.
Peta returned to the States where she was doing her PHD and continued to dabble in her new found hobby by making a floor rug and a papoose type thing for a friend’s baby. Her journey had not been wasted. Later that year I went to a craft show at the old showground and discovered a stall selling wool from Virginia Farm – I do believe it was a Spinners and Weavers Guild stand. One thing led to another and in 1995 with Peta living back in Melbourne we both attended a felt hat workshop with Joan Fisher. Here I learnt to grate the sunlight soap (the journey is indeed progressing) and ultimately embarked on a journey that is still being travelled.
I now dabbled in flat felt making scarves, rugs and pieces for bears (show bear). I made balls and had far too many hats for one person to wear in a life time. This latest obsession of mine led me on an interesting journey in search of hat blocks. By 1998, I was making felt vests as well and other small felt items to sell at the odd craft market together with a monthly one up in Glenbrook. I had also discovered Lux flakes!
Jenny Hopper’s stimulating Nuno felting workshop came next. This was one of Jenny’s earlier workshops before she incorporated dyeing, wool on both sides of the fabric and “holes”. Now I was creating lightweight felted vests on cotton voile.
My own “filigree” style soon developed and I started using wool blended with silk and then felting onto tissue silk scarves. After all, that is the essence of a journey. Receiving stimulation and guidance from those you encounter along the way and then developing your own unique journey.
This journey of mine reached a turning point in late November 2006 after sudden surgery for bowel cancer. During chemo in 2007 my hands were too sensitive for felting and I decided that the pressure of “manufacturing” things to sell for a fraction of their worth was no longer something I wished to do.
With that thought in mind I threw out my large felting board (well actually my daughter’s boyfriend took great delight in putting it out for the kerb clean-up that he was so enthusiastically helping me with). That was it. No more felting.
You should never make life changing decisions when going through something as daunting as a major illness and subsequent therapy.
I came back to felting by giving workshops once the chemo had ended. Something I have been doing for some …… years now. I have given a few this year from “Tips and Techniques” to “Bags, Glorious, Bags”. I enjoy passing on my knowledge to others and in turn being stimulated by those I teach. You never stop learning yourself. I have found myself needing to make just one more bag as a sample for this workshop or that. I still love the feel that a fine piece of smooth felted merino can give between your fingertips (have the grey piece) and guess who decided she just had to make one of her old bears for today.
The recent establishment of the Guild’s felting group that meets once a month has opened another door on my journey. In particular, Lynette’s introduction to silk paper has inspired me to investigate this wonderful fibre further and its application in felting. Yet another path to travel.
Basically I now realise that while I may have travelled down many different paths I am still on the journey I set out on fourteen or fifteen years ago.
My sister’s search for something else to do on her journey in Hungary led us both on a continuing journey. Who knows, maybe today will be the beginning of a new journey.