by Sass Brown When you think of felting, one dominant stereotype comes to mind, that of the frumpy, middle aged spinster who whiles away the hours creating fussy, floral craft items with no real function and, to a sophisticated eye, even less form. Indeed a quick Google search of felting courses will yield all kinds of retreats and short summer courses advertised with lots of photos of those very same ladies happily ‘walking’ their felted projects on a water soaked table top. In the last few years however, Generation Y felters have come to dominate this scene, growing up in places like Portland, where there has been a renaissance of all things non-commercial and DIY. Cute young things are finding new joy in the process of creation, while simultaneously removing themselves from the hamster wheel of consumerism and bringing new life to this age old craft. There is however a third type of felter, a true artist, as opposed to a crafter, an intellectual, conceptual thinker, a designer who works through this ancient craft to bring new meaning and value to felting. Such are the likes of Christine Birkle, Andrea Zittel, Elena Garcia, Francoise Hoffman and Pat Hopewell.
The ancient craft of felting has been practiced by many cultures around the world and has its share of legends that date back to biblical times. One tale has Moses filling holes in the arc with sheep wool, which, when mixed with sea water and matted, made the boat watertight. Another tale dates back almost as far; a monk on a pilgrimage in colder climes fills his leaking shoes with pieces of discarded fleece, which when mixed with the monks sweat and the friction of walking, created the perfect pair of warm and waterproof insoles for his thin, worn shoes. Whatever the truth, felting has been around for a very long time, with most academic accounts quoting the first century AD. The Mongolians still use it to construct their yurts (nomadic tent-like homes), which are incidentally impervious to rain, snow and wind – pretty handy if you live in Mongolia! Many nomadic tribes from the Gobi desert to Central Asia have an ancient history of felting, living on the wealth of their herds of sheep, camels or goats.
In many cultures, felting was critical to survival, as well as steeped in cultural tradition and meaning. Of course, felt was also constructed in to clothing, with colorful examples in multiple traditions, incorporating rich patterns, vibrant use of color, appliqué, embroidery and quilting in some cases.
The process of felt making is incredibly laborious, requiring long hours and even days of what is referred to as “walking the fiber,” a form of rolling, rubbing or agitating cross laid woolen fibers with a combination of hot then cold water and soap suds until the fibers “mat” together making a continuous piece of fabric. Depending on the size of the piece, such as a yurt (a type of home), the “walking” process can involve entire families and communities, as well horses, donkeys and camels.
Historically, traditional craft techniques like felting have not produced eye-popping, avant-garde fashion. However, the felting craft is undergoing a renaissance. With fashion’s focus on a return to more sustainable practices and a modern eye to form, function and true artistry, there are now a range of groundbreaking designers whose products are as beautiful as they are ecologically sound.
Christine Birkle, founder of the fashion label “Hut up” in Berlin, has caught the attention of such fashion luminaries as Dries van Noten and Matheo Thun. She is a felter extraordinaire, renowned around the world for her creations. She uses a technique known as nuno felting, which incorporates a base fabric, which is shaped and decorated through felting only selected areas. Beginning with minimally seamed garments in silk, linen, or cotton she uses felting in place of darts, tucks and shaped seams, to give the garment shape, form and dimension. Her clothing has an organic appearance in their shape and contour, creating soft, sophisticated pieces with richly detailed and understated textures. There are no consistent thicknesses, no straight edges, and everything is organic. Birkle’s designs have the sophistication of Muccia Prada and the retro sensibility of Paul Poiret. She is the rare combination of an artist, a crafter and a successful fashion designer. Birkle exhibits and sells around the world, has shown her collections in Paris, Milan and London, and sells to Barney’s and Bendel’s in New York and Takashimaya in Japan.
Andrea Zittelis a California based sculptor and installation artist, whose work is an ongoing
experiment and exploration in living as it relates to shelter, food, furniture and clothing, and is in response to her daily routines and surroundings. In the early 1990’s, as a young artist with very little money, working at an office job where she was expected to wear “something respectable,” she conceived the “Uniform Project”. Starting as a pragmatic response to her situation, each season Zittel designed one perfect black dress, which she wore every day for an entire season. The project evolved over the years to explore her changing interests. Simplifying her concept over time, Zittel moved from a perfect black dress to working only with rectangles of fabric, then crocheted dresses, formed from a single continuous thread. Then, in 2002, she discovered felting.
Fascinated by the flexibility of felting, Zittel creates seamless dresses formed directly into fiber and form in three dimensions. Quickly exceeding her strict seasonal requirements, she produces variations in color, texture and ornamentation. She creates exquisite pieces with simple silhouettes incorporating all the uniqueness of the material with dripping hems and lava lamp like holes, varying in texture and thickness and imbuing each piece with a sense of organic connection to the material itself.
Born in Spain, but based in London, Elena Garcia graduated with a degree in Surface Textiles for Fashion from the London College of Fashion, producing her first collection in collaboration with friend, Ilya Fisher directly upon graduation.
Elena Garcia’s work blends daring design, traditional techniques and luxurious, eco-friendly textiles to create beautiful, timeless garments. Her collection has a highly sophisticated, esoteric aesthetic, with a vintage-like respect for couture processes and boudoir sensuality. The collection features silks made from organically fed silk worms and chemical free processing. Much of the wool used in the collection for the nuno and needle felting, comes from the organically-reared British Blue Faced Leicester sheep. Details include special silver clasps and stunning shell buttons. All garments are handcrafted in their studio or produced by small local manufacturers and social enterprise units, working to provide work for local women. All dyes used are free of metal, ammonia and azo compounds.
Elena’s work has been noticed by the likes of Suzy Menkes, who featured her work in an article for ____. Her collection is available online through her website as well as through high end boutiques across the UK and the US.
French felt maker Francoise Hoffmann works in a three-dimensional collage of felting and fabric. Based in Lyon, her designs include many of the local textiles for which the city is famous, including silk chiffon, velvet, linen and cotton lace. Hoffmann innovates using this traditional process with her combination of fabric, felting, print and graphic imagery, digitally printing her fabric with text and images. The use of digital graphic imagery is something quite unique to Hoffmann’s work.
Wool shrinks, but silk does not, so Hoffmann must work from the back side of the fabric and envisage the migration of the fibers from the side they start out on, to the side they end up on. Hoffmann must also be careful to maintain the soft hand of the silks, while ensuring all the fibers are firmly embedded; a fine balance to maintain.
Now with her own felting studio, she works on artists projects as well as one off apparel pieces for a whole range of customers. Creating a velvet jacquard for Lanvin, Hoffmann’s pieces have been purchased by the museum of Art and Industry, La Piscine in Robaix, as well as the Cooper Hewitt in New York. She has also created theatre costumes for Waltraud Meier’s Lonhengrin at the Opera de Lyon.
Pat Hopewell’s journey in textiles began as a lingerie designer in Nottingham, Trent, and took her through many years working in the
developing world. Her experience in Bangladesh with a NGO training young people in fashion technology stimulated a desire to “make the cloth,” she subsequently returned to England and took a fast-track degree in textile design, specializing in weave.
Since graduating Pat has made woven and felted scarves, shawls, wraps, bags, broaches, wall hangings and art pieces, whilst periodically returning to the developing world to work on textile related projects, particularly in Nepal. Embodying slow design, Hopewell works with the time-honored techniques of handloom, crochet and felting.
Working with varied and wonderfully colored soft merino wool, Hopewell loves to make felt using the natural colors and textures of the different breeds of sheep, to produce a whimsical, organic range of bags and purses more akin to ancient felted vessels than your average IT bag. Bags have lace embedded into the felt and are finished with leather, beaded or corded handles. Scarves and wraps have a natural organic appearance with intriguing textures and tonal variations combining twisted and creped fine silk and raw fleece to create delicate effects.
These “artist designers” embody a new generation of felt crafters working with ancient techniques, yet creating hip, cool, intelligent designs that are groundbreaking in design aesthetic and ecological sustainability. In this way, they are true to both the past and the future.