What is felt? I've discovered that while most people know felt when they see it, they don't know it by name. Felt is both a noun and verb - you can make felt, and you can also felt. Felting is the process of evenly rubbing wet wool (by hand or machine) until little hooks present on every strand enmesh together into a soft fabric.
You find felt across the world wherever you find sheep - Ireland, Wales, Canada, Tibet, New Zealand, Holland, Jammu & Kashmir, Iran. People have made felt shoes, rugs, blankets, jackets and so on for thousands of years. The Mongolians even made their homes, yurts, from heavy-duty felt. Today it is also used for laptop sleeves, acoustics and upholstery. Felt is one of the oldest materials known to mankind and this is partly why I am fascinated by it.
Claudy doing a quick (and I mean quick) demo
Last week I spent a week in Piemonte at a felt workshop with the magnificent Claudy Jongstra.
Claudy's felt is large, expressive, super-contemporary. She's made robes for Star Wars, pieces for Marina Abramovic and Stella McCartney. But consider that the fun stuff. Her core body of work consists of large installations, wall coverings and tapestries in institutions, airports, museums and the like. Claudy says she likes to bring softness to places that most need it.
Claudy Jongstra, Inner Moods installation, felted and hand-dyed wools from Drenthe Heath sheep, 2009, Cooper-Hewitt
I first came across Claudy's work online whilst looking for references for some felt rugs I was sampling. If Claudy's work is magnificent in pictures, I find it breathtaking in person. The first piece I physically saw was a wall-covering in the Amsterdam Botanical Garden café. Striking from a distance, richly detailed up close, I spent some time looking it. Claudy is working on a piece for SF MoMa right now so I hope more of you will encounter her work soon.
Claudy lives in Friesland in northern Holland. She keeps her own flock of sheep as a supply of wool for her artwork. She grows her own plants to dye her wool. She also regularly runs art workshops for children with the intention of bringing them closer to nature. As I have learnt more about her, I have grown to admire the way she has set up her life and her practice - integrated with nature and society. When I heard that she was doing this workshop I knew that I had no choice but to sign up.
I arrived in Italy with little to no idea about what the workshop was going to be like. Turned out that Claudy had brought along a little crew of instructors to enrich our felt-work. We had Annette giving us the lowdown on natural dyeing, Tijo teaching us about painting with minerals, Amelie and Rebecca for all-round help and Gia guiding us through an hour of body-movement in the mornings.
The workshop was titled, 'From Intuition to Impulse - Constant Meander of Perception, Selfpath, Transformation, Impulse'. It's oddly phrased – probably a literal translation from the Dutch – but I like that. Says a familiar message in an unfamiliar, energetic way.
The title in fact captures the spirit of the workshop perfectly. The instruction emphasised less on technique and more on sensing the material. I felt vulnerable - unsure if I would get it 'right'. But I quickly discarded this feeling and rose into a flow of experimentation.
We worked with different materials based on the theme of the day. Around Day 2 I began feeling the medium for myself, and set off on a line of exploration – 'painting' with wool and silk, churning out one colour study after another.
Giving wool a good massage
Descriptions from the workshop leaflet will give you a sense of the vibe -
A bowl growing beneath the ground, what does it feel like? Growing layer upon layer around a core, to be revealed again when brought up from of the earth; left naked.
Sunflower seed dye
Rhythmical work to feel and understand the patternity in seeds.
blue from indigo, but there was some blue-grey from sunflower seed to the left
Sensing your roots, your solid ground underneath your being that allows for growth.
brown from walnuts, green from onion + indigo
All previous elements & experiments come together to let reverberation sink in and let offer deeper insights and connection.
A selection of my 'colour-studies' - somehow VERY hard to take good photos of them.
Foreground: pink silk
Background: dark green + dark blue wool.
As I found myself layering quite thin, I began using the white wool as a backing layer to 'glue' the piece and hold it all together.
The same piece, dry - in different light. You can see how the silk shines against the wool.
Foreground: red Wensleydale
Background: blue Wensleydale
The Wensleydale sheep is known for its curly locks. I'm particularly fond of this piece - it looks like a stormy cloud to me.
Foreground: white silk
Background: white/grey wool
Again, I was felting very thin at this point, interested in exploring delicacy.
Foreground: white cotton + blue silk + white wool
Background: blue grey wool.
Was exploring texture here.
Foreground: copper silk + white wool mix
Background: green + blue wool
(channeling my inner Rothko)
Foreground: pink silk + white wool
Background: blue wool
Going larger, felting tighter. This was the last piece I made during the workshop.
An overview of the pieces for a sense of size.
One afternoon we were asked to weave using a piece of cardboard as a base. It was my first time doing a lo-fi weave. I loved it. Weaving is easy! (I need that on a t-shirt). The point of weaving was to potentially integrate it in a felt piece. Busy with my colour-studies, I never got around to it.
weaving on cardboard - front
Weaving on cardboard - back
On the 'seed day' we started the day with a blind drawing exercise - drawing a seed without looking down at the paper. I love these kinds of exercises, the ones that force you to LOOK.
Though the work sessions were largely self-driven, every aspect of the workshop was thought through, from our morning warmup exercises to the unbelievable vegetarian food (both of which deserve their own write-ups).
Our morning ritual - an hour of eurhythmics. Here, we had just finished spending a few minutes looking at some plants. We are now in the midst of capturing their character through moving our body. Standard stuff.
Pasta coloured with vegetable juice, woven (to reflect our work), baked to a crisp then placed on the table to share
Creamy cheese in a half a walnut shell, grapes covered in cheese then rolled in nuts and a ball of crumbed risotto disguised as a pear.
On the last evening of the workshop, we all got together and shared a couple of words about our work and the whole experience. Let's say it got emotional.
We worked on the lawns of a house that was once the residence of the Marquis of the town – Incisiana. It's now a bed & breakfast that also makes very good wine. More info about the wine here.
The view from our work stations was grapevines, hills, forest and terracotta roofs from the village beyond. The weather was crisp and sunny for the most part and the rain was considerate enough to arrive at 6pm on our last day.
What I loved about this workshop was its conceptual rigour. It's hard to find learning opportunities with people whose judgement you trust. This was one of them, and I am grateful for the experience. In these five days I answered many questions about my relationship with felt, and I've now set some kind of direction going forward.