Nunofelt Workshop at Pacific Northwest Art School

What happens when you bring fine merino wool together with a light, gauzy fabric? You get texture galore.

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From ruffles to puckers to subtle texture, there is endless possibility when working wool through fabric and then letting the magic of felting happen.

The weekend of April 26 and 27th, I will be teaching a two-day workshop at the Pacific Northwest Art School in Coupeville on beautiful Whidbey Island. Students will spend time experimenting with various fabrics to achieve different textures. Once they have sampled, they will create a scarf, wrap or shrug.

Tuition: $255, material fee: $40, registration fee: $15

Register online at www.pacificnorthwestartschool.org or by phone 360-678-3396.

Needlefelting Puppet Faces

This week, students in both of my Family Learning Program clases began a project that will span two weeks.

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Using recycled or upcycled wool fabric harvested from fulled sweaters as their base, these students needlefelted Harrisville wool to create features for puppets. Harrisville is an ideal wool for needlefelting because it has lots of crimp and the fibers are not aligned, as in many rovings sold as a sliver. It also comes in a wide array of colors and can be quickly blended with your fingertips to create even more combinations.

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The students traced a cardboard outline onto two pieces of fulled wool, then cut along the contour lines. Next, they worked on adding faces to one piece of felt. This student is making a cyclops with a red mouth and fangs.

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This student preferred to be the set decorator, creating backgrounds for the puppets he overhead various students describing. The mixed blues were going to be an ocean for another’s mermaid. He offered to make a tree for my sample owl puppet and a cave for the cyclops.

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Adding surface embellishment to fulled fabric is an easy introduction to felting for young children. Working on a foam pad, they can keep track of where their fingers are, reducing the chance of accidental puncture or snapped needles. The best part for many children is the ultimate flexibility of the method. Don’t like that eye placement? Rip it off and put it somewhere else. Don’t like that color? Rip it off and choose another. Can you think of another medium better suited for those paralyzed by commitment anxiety? This is also a perfect way to allow children to experiment with color and texture.

Free Sew

With this group of super creative kids, I decided the best project was no project. Rather than teach a new skill or introduce new materials, I pulled out a bunch of felt, thread, yarn, needles and let the students do whatever they wanted.

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Things that were sewn today: a pair of butter yellow pants for a rabbit.

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We drew the outline of pants on a piece of paper, cut out two and then taped the edges together. We tried the paper pants on the rabbit to see if they fit. Then we traced the paper pattern onto felt, cut out two, pinned them together and started sewing. The waist was finished with a drawstring.

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One of the mothers helped her young son blanket stitch two felt rectangles together to make a pouch.

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There was a smaller felt pouch with a heart applique sewn together by another student.

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Boo has a new flannel coat with a felt heart applique and a purple button closure.

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This student blanket stitched a pouch with stacked hearts.

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There were sweet little drawings and notes composed for fortune cookies.

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Projects not photographed: some small stuffed round pillows, a doll dress and a super child-sized cape.

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This fleece cow is a bit of show-n-tell. I love it when students bring in work they’ve created at home to share. The cow is wearing overalls. Both the animal and his outfit were imagined and completed with fabric scraps.

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This is not a hat, though it appears to be on someone’s head. This was intended to be a container with a strap; it’s life as a hat is temporary. The exciting part is this student taught himself how to cast on, knit and cast-off by watching videos. The only thing he asked me to show him was how to decrease. I’m so impressed by the genius of these kids.

 

Felting Pictures

My studio fiber arts class created felt pictures this week. They started with merino batts from Opulent Fibers as a background then cut shapes out of the prefelt we dyed with Kool-Aid last week and added additional embellishments with small pieces of merino roving.

The merino batt allows novice students to skip the tricky step of drafting thin shingles of roving into an even layer. The batt arrives as a thick roll; once unrolled, it can be cut like prefelt and peeled apart to separate layers of the correct thickness for the project at hand.

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Once the details were in place, they squirted some warm soapy water over the felt. Since we didn’t want the wool details to move around, some students layered a piece of nylon tulle over their design. Other students folded over the bubble wrap to cover the felt, rubbing gently through the plastic.

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We peeked at the work in progress often to see how it was felting. The tulle only needs to stay on the surface until the layers of roving begin to felt to each other. Once the lines demarcating the cut edges begin to fade, the felt is firm enough to work directly by hand with a gentle rubbing motion.

While many traditional feltmakers roll the felt design and bubblewrap around a styrofoam noodle, then roll the whole package in a towel to accomplish a firm felt; I have found that it works just as well to vigorously rub felt by hand. In my experience, rolling felt in bubblewrap often causes creases to develop and skews the design. I rarely roll work, though there are exceptions to the rule. For the purposes of this class, it is unnecessary work and mess.

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Once the felt was holding together, we squeezed out the cold water and dunked it into a small basin filled with hot water. Then we bunched up the felt and rubbed it on the ridged mat covering my worktable. Using hot water causes the felt to shrink rapidly, so it should be used sparingly in the early stages to control the process.

To finish up the edges, we rubbed the felt with a glazed ceramic felting stone and a palm washboard. This helped smooth out the wavy ledges that don’t get as much attention in during the hand-felting steps.

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The students and parents were excited by both the process and the results.

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It’s hard to make out the details for all the grins here, but the picture on the left is a giraffe sliding down a rainbow on it’s back. The middle picture is an ocean floor seascape. The picture on the right is a herd of anatomically correct cows.

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To display work at home, thread a few pieces of yarn through the upper edge and tie to a pretty foraged stick.

Kool-Aid Dyeing Pre-Felt

Teaching classes in my studio allows us to work on messy projects that require more elaborate preparation and/or clean-up. I imagined this project when I first started teaching classes to younger children off-site, but the logistics made it too complicated.

My goal was to take students through the steps to make their own colored felt. Rather than purchasing industrial wool felt for our projects, I wanted to show them how we could create our own. Since young children often struggle with the finesse required to draft fine shingles of roving sliver, starting with needlepunched prefelt allowed us a shortcut while still working with wool we could wet felt.

One type of prefelt is created in an industrial process using many needles. Wool is fed between two vibrating metal plates, one of which contains hundreds of tiny barbed needles. What emerges is a loosely held together fabric which can be cut, layered and wet felted to create sturdy felt fabric. Many feltmakers use prefelt to create custom garments with lots of drape without the weight or rigidity more common with thick felt.

Starting with an 80″ x 60″ sheet of prefelt ordered from Outback Fibers, I cut it in to 12″ x 10″ pieces. The total weight was a little over 8oz, so I purchased 8 packets of Kool-Aid unsweetened powder. Each packet was mixed with approximately 6oz of water in small mason jars. Kool-Aid is an inexpensive and non-toxic way to dye a small amount of wool as it contains citric acid. In order for acid dyes to bond with wool, vinegar or citric acid must be mixed with the dye. Buying the Kool-Aid packets saved me the step of calculating and measuring the correct dye/acid proportions.

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The prefelt was presoaked for 30 minutes in water with a drop or two of dishsoap added to help breakdown the surface tension. Some of the pieces were wrung out so they had very little water left in the wool, while others were sitting in standing water. Varying the amount of water in the prefelt affected the results we achieved.

Recalling my favorite sibling-annoying method of stealing sips, we used straws to pick up a small amount of dye from the jars. Stick the straw in the Kool-Aid, place your finger over the tip and lift. The vacuum created will keep the liquid in the straw. Drip on the prefelt. Leaving the prefelt slightly wet will allow for more of a watercolor effect.

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It wasn’t long before the students decided it was more fun to splatter and flick than to drop a single bead of Kool-Aid on their wool.

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Once the students were done with the wool, we put each piece in a separate ziploc bag. Towards the end, we used the last pieces of prefelt  as sponges to sop up the remaining bits of Kool-Aid in the trays. These pieces, which were various shades of mossy earth, were put together in a single ziploc bag. The ziploc bags were loaded into the two trays of a bamboo steamer sitting over a large pot of simmering water. We steamed the sealed bags for fifteen minutes. After the bags had cooled a little, we rinsed the prefelt sheets one at a time. For the most part, they held their color very well. Some of the prefelt pieces were thoroughly felted, as they had received so much vigorous attention during the dyeing process. If you plan to dip dye the prefelt in the jars, or submerge them in trays, do it with a gentle hand, minimizing agitation as this can lead to inadvertent premature felting.

 

Feline Research and Development

An important of the design process is sending new products out for testing. Currently under development is an idea I have had kicking around for a while. Since my cat loves curling up on the sheepskins we have on our sofa, wouldn’t a cat bed lined with wooly locks be the cat’s meow? Today I felted my first cat bed: several layers of merino and blue faced leicester roving were felted with an inner layer of romney locks. The finished pod reminded me of an Inuit umiak.

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My studio partner, Maude, offered to take it home to test it out with Henry the Bold, a cat who hasn’t met a box he didn’t like.

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Reports from the testing lab show a few modifications are needed, starting with a larger opening. Back to the drawing board I go.

 

 

Bird in a Wooly Nest

The studio was bubbling on Saturday with the activity of six children and three mothers as we created nests, then birds and finally eggs.20130207-120021.jpg

We started with a base of willow branches woven together with yarn. Next we needled some clean wool locks in layers, building up the sides to create the soft part of the nest. This was the most difficult part of the day for some as it appeared to take a lot of very gentle poking before the wool held together. One mother designated herself official nest builder; she found the repetitive nature of the process meditative. There were bits of ephemera added to the wool: colored roving, ribbon, feathers and yarn to mix in the nest just as a bird might pick soft bits from the surroundings.

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Next we needled together a bunch of peeps. Again, one girl spent most of her morning focused on creating a single, perfect bird while others were content with a pile of fluff with eyes, a beak and wings.

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With an hour left in the workshop, we began wetfelting around styrofoam eggs. These two girls could have spent all morning working in the warm soapy water.

With children between the ages of five and ten years old, it was interesting to see which activity held their attention or captured their imagination.

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The mothers  wrote to me later in the day to tell me how much their children were captivated by their creations. Each family took home wool and kits to continue creating to their heart’s content.

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If you would like to join in the fun, there are four spots open for the next run of this class on Saturday, March 2nd. Send a message using the contact form to register.

Inviting the Spirit

A very special commission came my way recently: a liturgical stole for the ordination of a Lutheran minister.

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The only direction I was given was with regards to color: deep orange shading through red to burgundy. My first step was to order some custom dyed merino roving from WoolGatherings on Etsy.

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After felting several large pieces with four layers of roving, I cut them into small slices, then arranged them into a vague color progression, trying to keep a bit of randomness in the sort. Next I sewed the strips together with a zigzag stitch, abutting the edges.

The last element was a ball of flames symbolizing the Holy Spirit. I cut a piece of silk paper then machine stitched it in place.

The final piece filled my studio with a fiery warmth. It was an honor to create something of such significance.

 

 

Interstitial – Felt In Between Spaces

Last fall, I was invited to create a piece of felt to hang in a brand new restaurant opening in the Eastlake neighborhood of Seattle. Working in a small space, the owners were trying to minimize some of the challenges in the front of the bistro. The walls were painted concrete and the drop ceiling had been removed by a previous tenant, creating a perfect scenario for the sounds of a lively restaurant to become amplified.

The original commission was designed to hang from the ceiling by two chains to provide a visual screen between the dining area and a restroom corridor. Anticipating a busy holiday season, I worked to have the pieces finished for a mid-December delivery. I was given a few constraints: use a deep charcoal grey as the background, avoid any representational imagery and stick with abstract designs in order to fit in with the modern aesthetic of the restaurant.

After working a couple of samples, I decided to use four layers of merino over silk chiffon. I wanted the back to have the textural interest that nunofelt offers, as well as the sturdiness of silk. Four layers of merino seemed to offer the solidity I needed for something that would hang freely from the ceiling. This was not intended to be ethereal, rather something substantial and solid.

As the deadline approached, I had only completed one panel. Covering my entire 8′ x 4′ work surface, each piece was exponentially more difficult to work than anything I had previously attempted. The combination of four layers of wool and a layer of silk chiffon meant hours of lay-out and hours of gentle felting to ensure the full penetration of wool through silk. Once school was dismissed for the winter break, my children accompanied me to the studio, where they ably assisted with each step of the process. Once felted, I sewed three pieces of very heavy nunofelt together to create an ensemble measuring 96″ long by 52″ wide.

Unfortunately, once the hanging was installed in the restaurant, it became apparent that it wouldn’t work as we had hoped. Obstructing the quickest path between the kitchen and the tables, servers had to walk awkwardly around certain tables to serve the corner of the restaurant closest to the corridor. The panel was removed after two nights and put into storage.

A couple of months later, we had the occasion to dine at the restaurant. As I sat facing the front of the house, my eyes were drawn to the bare ceiling, the exposed ducts and a strip of concrete above the windows. Slowly, a plan formed for putting the felt panel to a new use. A panel installed near the ceiling would absorb some of the reverberating sound, soften the hard angles and would cover both the unpainted wall and the ducts. Anchoring the panel on the wall above the window would echo the slant of a chalkboard mounted on the opposite wall used to display the wine list.

The handiest high school math teacher this side of Everett was called in to help create a frame to hang from the ceiling and wall. Together, we upholstered a plywood frame, stapled a backing fabric, and then the felt panel which had to be cut and stitched for the new spot. Cut in half, with some new felt added to create extra length and then stitched together again, the felt was stapled on the frame.

Now that the piece is installed, I’m pleased with the final orientation. The long, narrow shape and recombined sections suit the apparent randomness of the original felt, though nothing is ever random. The name ‘Interstitial’ refers to the fact that this piece serves to span a space, and is composed of several pieces which required additions to fill the 14′ panel. “An interstitial space or interstice is an empty space or gap between spaces full of structure or matter.”

As the installation happened on the last day of Spring Break, my son dutifully accompanied me to the restaurant, alternating between gopher and spectator. In the last hour, he edged toward the kitchen to watch the chef and his sous begin their food prep. This was definitely the highlight of his week. A budding chef in our home kitchen, my son watched with a keen eye. He has been angling for a chance to return there for dinner where ‘he will anything Chef Charles puts in front of him’.

Should you find yourself looking for somewhere scrumptious to eat, head quickly to the Blind Pig Bistro where Chef Charles Walpole and his crew will definitely make your stomach grin, giggle and gush with delight. Check out the slideshow of photos posted by the Seattle Weekly to see just the sort of goodies waiting for you.