9:41am Tuesday 11th January 2011
By Maxine Gordon
AS Fiona Hirst sifts through balls of coloured wool looking for the perfect shade of purple, she turns to me coyly and says: “I’m warning you, felt making is totally addictive.”
Fiona, a 47-year-old mum-of-three from Copmanthorpe, speaks from experience. Once upon a time, she was an HR consultant; today she has her own felt-making business in the heart of York.
“The first time someone showed me how to make felt, I was hooked,” says Fiona, who runs Grace & Jacob, her shop and studio, in Walmgate.
“I think the reason it is so addictive is that anyone can get results with felt. I haven’t met anyone yet that I couldn’t teach.”
Felt is essentially a piece of cloth that is made by rolling and pressing wool, using water to shrink it.
It can be used to make a variety of items, from simple corsages or book marks, to bags, hats, slippers and even clothing.
Fashion designer Stella McCartney has used felt in her collections. When I meet Fiona, she is wearing a pretty off-white scarf around her neck – made of felt.
Pride of place in her shop is a gorgeous red jacket which she has also made from felt. On sale are bags and hats, again all locally handmade.
Felt is one of the oldest textiles. Legend has it that a man was walking across the desert and his footwear was rubbing so he grabbed a handful of sheep wool or camel hair to put into his sandals for added comfort. The constant friction from walking and the moist and warm atmosphere in his shoes together with the sweat turned the wool into a piece of felt.
Felt making today still follows these basic principles. To illustrate, Fiona selects a few balls of coloured wool or “tops” to name it correctly. It is soft and almost fuzzy, like cotton wool. The trick is to pull fluffy strands or “fibres” from it and layer them until you have the desired thickness, colour combination and pattern. Next, you have to soak the wool in warm, soapy water. Using bubble wrap and a bamboo mat, you roll the piece up then roll it to and fro for several minutes.
“People say do it 100 times one way, then turn it and do it 100 times another, but I tend to do it to a track of music – it’s about the same time,” says Fiona.
It is this friction that causes the fibres to shrink and make the felt. People can make felt by stamping on it, pounding it with their hands or even rolling it up and throwing it. It’s all great fun, particularly for kids, says Fiona.
Using your own colour and design also means that you can make something unique.
“You can get really creative with felt,” says Fiona. “I love the use of colour, and I love the fact it’s really tactile. I like things where I can enjoy the process and not just the result.”
Fiona is thoroughly enjoying her “second career” as a felt maker, revealing that she always had a creative bent.
“I’ve always been interested in textiles,” she says, sitting at the Jones sewing machine in her back-room studio. “This machine is as old as me. My mother, Sybil, made all our clothes. One of my first memories is hearing the whirr of her sewing machine.”
At school and university, Fiona made clothes for herself and her friends, often adapting items bought in charity shops. “I once made a vest top from an old pair of pyjamas,” she recalls. “It was quite trendy at that time.”
She has passed her skills in knitting, sewing and felt making to her three daughters, Grace, 15, Alice, 17 and Aimée, 21, who is studying knitted textiles at Nottingham Trent University.
One of the reasons for opening Grace & Jacob is so Fiona can encourage more people to get crafty. Indeed, Fiona is planning to teach her new assistant, 19-year-old Rosie Lee-Phillips, how to sew, knit, spin and felt – and will get her to write a blog about her progress on the website graceandjacob.co.uk Grace & Jacob is not only a shop and studio; besides selling all you need to start felting, it will also be hosting a series of workshops and classes, run either by Fiona or other local artists. A spinning group also meets twice a month.
Some of the workshops planned for this year include felt hat making, mixed media jewellery, rag rugging and felt slipper making. Courses cost around £40.
Fiona says there is a bit of a renaissance going on for crafts.
“It’s not just about austerity, but people want to experience things and make something unique.
“With felt making, you are creating something truly individual. Even if you only make a sample and you only like a little bit of it, you can cut that bit out and make a corsage.
“It’s also environmentally friendly,” says Fiona. “And it’s waterproof, warm in winter and cool in summer. I can’t think of anything more versatile. Also, it needn’t cost a lot once you have got the basic skills.”
Felt is durable too. “Not only can you make things that are beautiful – they last,” says Fiona. “If I make something for someone, I expect it to last a lifetime.”
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