Durable, bright and easy to get started: Blaine artist offers classes in feltmaking

Published on Wed, Jan 25, 2012 by Jack Kintner

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Donna Hunter, center, leads two students Marilyn Miller, left, and Carole Quick through their felting projects in a recent class in her H Street studio east of Blaine. Photo by Jack Kintner

A high-tech Bernina sewing machine sits in the corner of fiber artist Donna Hunter’s cozy studio, tucked away in the woods just east of Blaine, next to the log house she built with her husband Graham 28 years ago.

“I’ve always sewn my own clothes,” Hunter said, but the fabric she’s likely to use these days is felt. It’s a material that lends itself to projects that can be completed quickly, but is as highly durable and as artistic as the person creating them.
In Hunter’s case, that’s a lot of artistic. Five years ago she was the featured artist out of the hundreds who showed at the popular Whatcom Weavers’ Guild annual October sale in Bellingham.

“Feltmaking is easy for a beginner but offers continuous opportunities to learn new techniques,” said Hunter, 61, who recently retired from a career in audiology. “A beautiful and useful item can be created in a shorter time than with weaving or knitting, and the design possibilities are endless. It never gets old.”

Hunter’s studio is a hard place to keep your hands to yourself, loaded as it is with colorful hats, jackets, tops and scarves hanging all over the place. You find yourself wanting to touch and feel everything. Work tables where she teaches four-hour feltmaking classes three or four times a month to groups of four to eight students take up the center of the room.

“Whatever the student makes usually just needs to dry out and it’s ready,” she said, holding up an area rug that she made recently. “I get moms and daughters and lunch clubs, groups of [mostly] women who want to have a fun afternoon and go home with something they can wear or give away.”

A chance to be creative in a medium that’s relatively easy to learn is appealing, as Semiahmoo resident Nancy Hobberlin found. “Before felting with her [Hunter], many don’t realize they possess any creative ability, which makes it very exciting to witness the joy and pride of accomplishment in their self discovery,” she said. After finding herself to be the only student in one recent class, Hobberlin has since recruited more than a dozen others to try their hand, literally, at felting projects under Hunter’s guidance.

Felt is so easy to make it can almost happen by mistake. Hunter said that all you need is the right kind of wool and water mixed with something such as soap to help the wool fibers hold together quickly. When they do, the resulting item can last for centuries.

Other kinds of animal fibers such as alpaca, mohair and angora can be felted, she said, but wool works best because certain breeds of sheep, such as Merino and Romney, produce wool with barbed scales on the fibers.

This makes them tangle as readily and as irreversibly as a dime store fishing reel when mooshed together, or “agitated,” as a feltmaker would say. That’s why felt is tough enough to be used for everything from winter boots and doormats to horse tack and construction material. “Mongolian nomads rolled huge layered sheets of wool behind their horses to make felt panels for portable dwellings called yurts that survived Siberian winters,” she said.

The process Hunter teaches involves laying small tufts of carded and dyed wool in overlapping rows, the size and shape depending on the item being made, wetting with soap and water and then agitating the fibers together by rolling the piece in what looks like a bamboo place mat. The bigger the piece, the bigger the agitating device.

“The item shrinks by 25 to 30 percent, so that has to be taken into consideration,” Hunter said “I once made a top that ended up being three feet wide and only two feet long because I layered it wrong and it shrunk in only one direction.”

One of Hunter’s heroes in the small but growing world of feltmaking is Australian Polly Stirling, who developed an innovative technique for working with felt in the 1990s called “nano felting,” when she interspersed layers of wool fibers with light, open weave fabrics such as silk. The wool fibers felted together right through the lighter material, anchoring the piece together but modifying felt’s sometimes board-like thickness enough to make very light and flowing garments.

Items made this way have a dramatic look where broad swaths of color may alternate with nearly transparent gossamer panels, resulting in beautiful and expensive-looking combinations of texture and shape.

Hunter first learned to make felt 20 years ago at a Whatcom Weaver’s Guild workshop. “I was hooked [on feltmaking] from the first class,” she said. Hunter’s first instructor was Whatcom Weaver’s Guild co-founder and internationally recognized felting authority Pat Spark, whose website (www.sparkfiberarts.com) reflects just how much this hobby has grown in the last 20 years.

As an art professor at Oregon State University and Evergreen State College, Sparks used feltmaking to teach her students about color and design. One can see why. As Hunter said, “It’s hard to imagine an artistic medium that’s so easy to get into but has such limitless possibilities.”

Hunter’s east Blaine studio can be opened for visits and classes can be set up by contacting her at 360/332-5526 or gndhunter @ telcomplus.net.

For more information on felting, visit Whatcom Weavers Guild at www.whatcomweaversguild.org. Meetings are held at 7 p.m. on the second Wednesday of each month except July and August at St. James Presbyterian Church, 910 14th Street, Bellingham.

Peace Arch Weavers and Spinners Guild meets at 10 a.m. on the second Wednesday of each month except July and August at the Surrey Museum, 17710-56A Avenue, Surrey, B.C.