Wool fiber laid out by hand to create an autumn woods scene
Just like a painter blends their paints or inks, fiber artists need to learn how to mix wool fibers to achieve the desired shade for their felt. Blending is necessary to avoid looking like a colouring book (unless that is your goal)!
Wool fibers are dyed their own colour that doesn’t change when you mix them together. Instead the intimate blending of two or more colours allows our eyes to visually mix them. If you look very closely at a piece of art felt, you can see the hair sized strands of different wool colours intertwined with each other.
Landscape colour mixing can be done without any specialized equipment, I use only my hands. Pull small amounts of fiber from the colours you want to combine, overlap, pull apart, overlap and repeat until the strands are mixed to your satisfaction.
When working on a very large project where you need a quantity of a blended shade, carding could be the way to go. Wooden hand carders are often used by spinners to blend colours and align the fibers for spinning. Another option is to use pet grooming brushes.
Another technique for blending is to create a transition from one colour to another. This is done by laying whisps of one colour down in a row, then add another row with a new colour slightly overlapping the first. The wet felting rubbing and rolling will help to mix these shades together.
The shade of the base layer of wool fiber can also affect the colours you place on top. In the felting process the fibers can migrate through each other and alter the result. Working on a gray or dark under layer can yield a very different look than working on a white wool background. Before embarking on a large project it is best to make samples with various techniques to see what gives you the desired look.
In September we bravely ventured beyond the local grocery for the first time since March. The destination, Pennsylvania Guild of Craftsmen headquarters in Lancaster PA. The goal, safely teach a wet felting landscape workshop to a group of six students.
The Guild provided a spacious room with large tables, allowing the students ample work space, and the ability to maintain social distance. I had all the felting supplies prepared in individual bags.
The workshop project was to create a felted wool landscape autumn scene. The completed felt could be framed and hung as wall art, or used as the face of a cushion/pillow cover.
I taught the students how to lay out wool to make the background structure for the piece. Then we moved into colour blending to create a realistic sky and hills with a feeling of depth.
When the dry design work was complete, we moved into the wet felting portion of the day. This great workspace had sinks with warm water, perfect for our needs. The students covered their designs with a thin cloth, we used voile, and wet the wool using a sponge and warm soapy water.
Next came the rubbing, the friction that causes the wool to felt. We used our plastic gloved fingers to do the felting.
Then came the rolling to full the pieces of felt, this makes them thick and sturdy. It was also quite a workout for the arms. We rolled the projects in bubble-wrap from all four sides, and then did a bit of throwing at the end.
Each felt was then rinsed and the students took their work home to dry. I am so pleased with the results of the day. We all worked from the same photo as the jumping off point, yet each student brought something of themselves into the work. All of the finished pieces were distinctly different, and the workshop participants should be proud of their creations.
A plant with tiny yellow flowers, orange roots and oozing sap that turns bright orange in the air, must go in the dye pot! An herbalist had given me a plant that self seeded into a little patch in the shade under my red maple. The tree died over winter and the now sunny spot will go to bee balm, coneflowers, and black-eyed-susans for the birds. I am also moving my natural dye garden plants; madder, woad, weld and tansy, to a new location where they won’t be hemmed in by the vegetable beds.
Back to the mystery plant. The sticky sap suggested that I wear gloves while rinsing dirt off the roots and then chopping the entire plant. After covering the chopped bits in water, I went online to see what I was dealing with. This antique gem is Greater Celandine and has many common names going back centuries. It had been purported to treat a myriad of ailments, colour manuscripts and was used as a yellow hair dye in the middle ages.
Experience with yellow natural dyes has taught me not to cook them too hot or too long. You don’t want a rolling boil as it may ruin the colour. The beautiful June day allowed me to keep the door of my basement dye studio open to allow plenty of fresh air into the room as I gently simmered the plant material. My recommendation is not to “hover over” a dye pot to reduce risk of inhaling an irritant, especially when cooking a plant new to you.
After straining out the cooked plant bits, the remaining liquid was a promising amber hue. Always at the ready with a skein of wool prepared with alum/ cream of tartar mordant means I could dye right away. I immersed the skein of wool and a piece of cotton in the hot dye and did not return it to the heat. Allowing it to stand overnight to naturally cool was the hardest part! Lovely warm buttery yellow, a different yellow than weld or tansy so devil’s milk (one of it’s common names!) makes the cut to move to the new dye garden!
Outside it is a sunless, dreary winter day while in my studio I am designing new wool tiles with bright juicy colors. I remember the summer days, picking coreopsis flowers used to extract the luscious orange and the honey scented goldenrod I cooked for the happy yellow dye. Spring will be here soon and I can resume the natural dyeing with my daffodils when they begin to fade. I enjoy the process immensely. In the meantime I’m heading to the basement to wet felt these new pieces in preparation for the American Craft Council show in Baltimore next week. I am in Booth 806, still have a few free tickets left so contact me if you would like to attend Feb 21-23.
The next step is combining all those strands of drafted wool into the colour combinations I want for my design. I swirl the wool into shapes with my fingers and begin the task of laying out the pattern on a large sheet of plastic. I use yardsticks in the beginning to help keep the repeats relatively straight. This is the longest part of the entire process, many hours of walking around the table placing little circles of wool in a pattern and then tufts of greens for leaves. I work this design face down so this first layer of colour ends up as the face of the felt fabric.
The beginning of a new felt tapestry involves several hours just preparing the fiber. I’ve made these wispy strands of wool fiber draped on my ironing board with a technique called “drafting”. It is a term familiar to hand spinners who draft fibers in the making of yarn. The fiber mass is extended or attenuated into a thin untwisted strands. Without twist they can fall apart easily so I handle them very gently at this stage. I’ll choose groupings of three colors each to gently coil together for the flower motifs in the felt. The coils are headed to the basement wet studio where I will start laying out the design.
I have been thinking, for a while, about doing a series of works representing the four seasons. It is a theme that is often rendered by photographers and painters. At a show this spring a customer had the same idea and commisioned me to do the works. The most challenging piece is the spring request for a cardinal pair with cherry blossoms. Above I am starting to work on the male bird. Below is the result. I think my customer will be pleased!
I will be teaching “How to wet felt a landscape with wool” class this Saturday, May 19th. The workshop is in Lancaster at the PA Guild of Craftsman building at 335 North Queen Street. There are still some spaces available. Go to http://www.pacrafts.org/workshops to register online, or call 717-431-8706. Email any questions to email@example.com
One of the questions I hear most frequently at art shows is “Do you teach?”. This is your opportunity to learn the techniques I use. Every class participant will create a felted artwork suitable for framing or for use as a cushion cover. Have some fun getting your hands wet and take the mystery out of the felting process!
On the drying rack today, a whole lot of new felted art work! The tulips WERE blooming in Williamsburg last week. When the wind died down I was able to spend a day working en plein air in the Flag Garden. I created two new garden tile designs from that felt designing experience. Some of the other floral designs are inspired by pictures I’ve taken of my own gardens. Yesterday I did all the wet felting and am anxiously waiting for the work to dry so I can begin framing. These new fiber art works will be ready for the Pennsylvania Guild of Craftsman’s Fine Craft Show in Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia this weekend May 11,12 &13.
This is the third year I am presenting my work in historic Williamsburg. The Art and Craft event is ” Art on the Square” run by the Junior Women’s Club of Williamsburg, always the last Sunday in April. Last year I was surprised to find the tulips were done and the iris and roses already blooming! I took advantage of the warm weather to do some felt design work en plein air in several of the gardens. The Williamsburg Roses image shown here is a theme I’ve revisited a couple times since that day in the garden. The felted wool tile is approx. 8″ square mounted in a 12″ burgundy wood frame @ $249.
This spring has been much cooler than normal. My daffodils are finally blooming, several weeks later than typical. Perhaps I will get to see tulips this year in Williamsburg and come home with some new felted garden designs!