Don’t normally say much about the day job, preferring to write about writing, or tell you a story or poem, but in view of the WordPress challenge this week, and my impending exhibition (EEEEEk! for which I am still not ready), thought I would post on that today.
I’m a textile artist. I paint on silk and make felt from scratch. Painting on silk is no biggie, dyes and paints, brushes, piece of stretched silk and away you go. But many people don’t know much about felt and, as it is probably the world’s oldest fabric, I thought you might like to take a peep at how it’s made. And this is not the little squares of polyester felt we used in school, but a fabric made from wool, soap, water and elbow grease. Legend has it that the Romans took the fluffy sheep’s wool off the hedges and stuffed it in their sandals when on a march. Sweaty feet and friction did the rest. But felt is older than that and has been found in Egyptian tombs. This is how I and how many others throughout the world do it:
- The unspun wool is pulled into long fine lengths and laid out on a rough surface. I use bubble wrap on top of a towel. It is laid in layers, first in one direction and then in another to give strength. How many layers is up to the maker and will depend on what will be the end result. A bag or hat will take more layers than a scarf, a rug will need even more and if you’re making a yurt to live in, then you’re going to need quite a few.
- The less layers, the less wool, the harder it is to get the wool to connect, but the finer the end result. You won’t be surprised to learn that I prefer to adopt the ‘less wool finer end result’ philosophy. Never one to make life easy, I make very fine, flimsy felt, which takes an age. Wool has little hooks which are desperate to inter-connect, but they have to be close enough so that when you jostle them, they can shake hands and make a link.
- When you have all the wool laid out and there are no huge gaps, cover it carefully with a piece of nylon net or something similar that won’t felt. Then you can wet it out. If you barge in with hot water, you won’t have time to gather it all together before it felts, so use cool water and a nice soap – I use olive oil soap – Savon de Marseille for preference. Good for the hands, which get a pounding with this job. Some people use liquid soap or make a liquid soap from flakes, but I like to soap the net with a bar because I feel more in control of how much I use.
- Then very gently put your hands on there. Don’t rub, you’ll pull the wool through the holes in the net. Just add some pressure, moving around a bit, and warm the whole thing up with the heat of your hands. When you think the wool has knitted itself together a bit, take that net off, knocking back any loose fibres that try to escape. At this point I put another layer of bubble wrap back on top and work through that, but some people dive straight into the wool, others use a sheet of fine plastic.
- When the wool is forming a whole piece (I know that seems impossible, but it really does), roll the whole thing up in a parcel, and tie it to secure it. Then you need to roll it, backwards and forwards, as if you were trying to flatten out some very solid pastry. Don’t apply too much pressure, because the felt won’t be even if you do.
- How long do you roll? Long enough to cook that wool. Two hundred, five hundred rolls, experience tells you how much to give it. As I’ve said, I make flimsy felt, so I play more on the flat and roll less. Hats need more rolling. Rugs need ages. You will probably have to unroll it and roll it up from the other end to keep it even. However long you roll, it keeps you fit!
- And then you have to turn it into the end result. To finish it, shrink it in hot water to fix the shape and harden the felt. And all the soap needs to be rinsed away or it will rot.
- So that’s it. Now you can make felt too, fancy giving it a whirl?