The transformation of wool fiber to felted cloth is the result of intuitive composition, the construction of layers, and finally the physical binding of the materials. ”
– Claudy Longstra, textile artist
I felted some wool at a craft class once. The small piece of fabric I produced that morning was colourful but not beautiful, rather thick and ungainly. Well, feltmaking is an ancient craft after all, and so it takes practice. The magic of fusing wool fibres and combining colours wasn’t lost on me though, and it seems that felted wool is destined to follow me through life. Most recently, I spotted the exquisite felted wool coat by Jean Muir (1988) in NMS’s new Fashion and Style Gallery from 100 metres away. It’s just as wonderful close up.
Good felting is hard to find. There is an abundance of poorly crafted, garish felted wool for sale at Christmas markets, for example. It’s hard and scratchy, not much better than my own first effort. Sadly, that’s how most people encounter felted wool, and they don’t like it.
The very best felt is fine and soft. It is sculptural. Different wools, and different colours of wool, are combined abstractly, or used like oil pastels to create still life pictures. Detail, such as over-stitching and embellishments, is an added treasure to be discovered close-up.
All of these extraordinary qualities of this natural and abundant fibre were revealed at Inspired: An Exhibition of Felted Wool Design last month in Edinburgh.
Four designer-makers and artists headline the show producing an avalanche of colour and texture; Sarah Brooker, Heather Potten, Lubi Lykan and Rosie Doyle. Artworks, accessories and garments hang on walls, perch on plinths and even suspend from the ceiling. Big statements and small details juxtapose. There are great whooshes of colour as well as tiny delights of stitch and beadwork.
The pictorial work of textile fine artist Sarah Brooker, the most experienced of the exhibitors, frames the show. These large artworks sweep across two walls of the gallery, all masterpieces, full of energy, joy and surprise. Sarah Brooker paints with wool, and captures moments from nature and the home. The movement of the abstract pieces is invigorating with their raw, uneven outlines and big colour statements. Each piece is hung on a hidden baton and is exposed; nothing is behind glass. You can see close up how the fibres fuse.
Heather Potten, curator of the exhibition, champions wearable felt in her own collections, and her collaboration with fashion designer Lubi Lykan has an otherworldly feel, and is exciting. Two garments – a vibrant tunic and a perky purple pixie dress complete with wings – combine Heather’s fine felt samples with Lubi’s tweed designs. Rosie Doyle takes a different route to making felted fashion, remodelling existing dresses with her original felt pieces.
The environment – both natural and urban – as well as the wool itself provides inspiration for this work. There’s no political discourse on show here, but perhaps there’s a hint of social comment in Sarah Brooker’s dolphins and Susan Horsburgh’s extraordinary, unusual masks where the natural landscape meets urban life.
The seamless vessels produced by Heather Potten’s students, some exhibiting for the first time ever, is reassuringly high quality. Here, texture triumphs over colour.
The next stage of this exhibition is surely to document all these creative journeys on film, and reveal more about the fascinating potential of felted wool.
Inspired: an exhibition of felted wool design ran from 10 to 25 September 2016 at St Margaret’s House Edinburgh.
Author – Nicky Orr
Founder of Frugal Cool, Nicky is an experienced communications manager, specialising in strategy, PR and content creation. She mentors craftmakers and artists, and teaches PR for the Creative Industries Academy. Nicky works part-time for 37 Agency; she returned to her retail roots in 2010. @NickyOrr
Photography credit: Kat Photography