Of felt and badge making

Handmade felt badges, made with 100% WOOL Merino wool-tops

My first real connection with WOOL actually came about through my interest in felt-making, rather the through the interest in knitting which followed. I was staying with my friend Caro in 2005 when she lived in Devon, and was there at SPARC – the scrapstore where she worked then – when a massive delivery of 100% Merino wool-tops were dropped off by someone who could no longer use them. I had no idea WOOL could be like these wool-tops, and the huge array of colours was extremely exciting. Caro was delighted with the delivery and explained how one could turn these wonderful fibres into felt.

I came home with a small bag of wool fibres, and tracked down a felt-making class in Aylesbury at the Queen Park Arts Centre where I spent some happy evenings turning loose wool fibres into a playful mix of fun things. I had a penchant for making foolish items out of felt; peas in a pod; a slightly disturbing muffin with its own polka-dot casing; a mouldy-cheese and a slice of lemon-torte, for instance.

Muffin + polka-dot case, made with 100% WOOL Merino wool-tops

Peas in a pod, made with 100% WOOL Merino wool-tops

Lemon torte slice, now used as a pin cushion and made with 100% WOOL Merino wool-tops

I also made pictures out of felt, including my Damien-Hirst-impression “spot painting” felt, which was my first piece of felt-making. It’s nearly 1cm thick, highly inflexible, and totally solid.

Damien-Hirst impression, felt “spot-painting”, made with 100% WOOL Merino wool-tops

Through rubbing wet wool with soap between sheets of bubble-wrap, rinsing it in hot and cold water, and testing the surface periodically with my fingertips, I learnt much about how WOOL behaves, and about how the tiny imbrications on the surfaces of wool fibres can be agitated to bind with one another. There will be more discussion of IMBRICATIONS during WOVEMBER, but what I’ll say for now is that I can thoroughly recommend that anyone who is interested in understanding the unique qualities of WOOL should learn to make felt, if only to understand how the fibres behave under pressure, alternating temperatures, and agitation.

Making felt is wonderfully physical. When I travelled to Scotland one year for the Edinburgh Fringe festival, I hunted down an experienced Scottish feltmaker – Jenny Mackay – in order to see the amazing Scottish Storytelling Yurt and to ask her about the travels that she and some other Scottish women had made to Mongolia to learn about felt-making. Mackay kindly welcomed myself and my friend Isolde into her home and we learnt that in Mongolia, yurt-walls are created by rolling damp wool fibres up in blankets, and then attaching those rolls to contraptions pulled by great, strong horses. If you think of how a steam-roller is constructed, I believe the roll of fibres is similar; a cylinder of wool fibres, carefully arranged into a pattern, is attached to a horse, and is then agitated into becoming felt through the friction and pressure of that horse pulling it along the ground.

I have never made anything on the scale of a yurt wall in my dabbling with felt-making, but I enjoy the slight ache in my arms after coaxing a soapy wet portion of WOOL into dense, handmade felt. I have been pleased with some items I’ve made out of felt, but overall it has been the process of playing with materials and colours which has been most exciting to me. I love how different sheep fleeces behave when you felt them, and have developed a preference for using the scratchy, coarser fibres than the incredibly smooth merino which I began to learn with. However for colour-range, combed merino wool tops – such as those available from Wingham Wool Works (there is an amazing photo of the wool top shed in this blog post to give you an idea) – seem to be unrivalled, and I have two pieces which I made which really were just about exploring colours, such as these two “pictures” which I made, just discovering really what would happen if I layered different shades on top of one another.

mucking around with colours with 100% WOOL Merino wool-tops

mucking around with colours with 100% WOOL Merino wool-tops

These felt pictures do not please me as objects in their own right; they are evidence of a thought process, and the exploration of tiny choices in colours. “What if this blue goes beside this one?” “What if I lay a tiny film of white fibres over this area?” etc. To my mind, such a series of tiny ideas is most perfectly suited to my medium du jour, The Button Badge. I have therefore transformed my exploratory felt-pictures into 2 series of button badges. I was a little apprehensive about putting something so fat through the badge-maker, and there have been rather a lot of failures in the enterprise.

badge circles, derived from 100% WOOL handmade felt picture

felt badges!

However I am quite pleased with the result, and I love how turning the pictures into badges isolates the individual qualities so that you can see the different ideas, one by one, as I originally had them in my head while I was making felt.

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