I've been fascinated with a material called felt for years now, eager to play with its plastic, sculptural and painterly qualities. Over the past year I've been seeking out opportunities to deepen my understanding of the material alongside experiments in my studio.
What is felt? I've discovered that most people know felt when they see it, but 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 where 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 industrial felt is used for laptop sleeves, acoustics and upholstery. Felt is one of the oldest materials known to mankind and this is partly why I am drawn to it.
Last summer I spent a week in Piemonte at a felt workshop with the magnificent artist Claudy Jongstra.
Claudy's felt is large, expressive, super-contemporary. She's made robes for Star Wars and pieces for Marina Abramovic. But consider that the fun stuff. Her core body of work consists of large installations, wall coverings and tapestries in public institutions, embasies, hospitals, museums and the like. Most recently, she created a large site-specific piece for the SFMoMA's permanent collection.
I first came across Claudy's work online while looking for references for 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 lives in Friesland in northern Holland. She keeps her own flock of a rare breed of shaggy Dutch 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 spent more time with 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 a summer workshop I knew that I had no choice but to sign up.
I arrived in Italy with little sense of what the workshop was going to be like. Turned out that Claudy had brought along a little crew of instructors to enrich our experience. 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 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. On Day 2 I began feeling the medium for myself, and set off on a path of exploration – 'painting' with wool and silk, churning out one colour study after another.
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.
Sensing your roots, your solid ground underneath your being that allows for growth.
All previous elements & experiments come together to let reverberation sink in and let offer deeper insights and connection.
I made dozens of 'colour-studies'
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.
Here's a selection. Somehow VERY hard to take good photos of them.
The same piece as above, dry - in different light. You can see how the silk shines against the wool
Again, I was felting very thin at this point, interested in exploring delicacy.
Channeling my inner Rothko
Wensleydale sheep are known for their curly locks. I'm particularly fond of this piece - it looks like a stormy cloud to me.
Explored texture here.
Going larger, felting tighter. This was the last piece I made during the workshop.
One afternoon we were asked to weave using a piece of cardboard as a base. The idea was that we could pull it off and integrate into a larger piece of felt. Busy with my colour-studies, I never got around to it.
I've been learning how to hand weave over the past two years, but this was my first time making a lo-fi weave. I loved it. Weaving is easy! (I need that on a t-shirt).
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, 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).
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. 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. Which is why I went back for more. Most recently, I spent two months at Claudy's studio in the nether regions of the Netherlands. I've used the time to answer many questions about my relationship with felt, and textiles in general. Based in Bangalore for the next few months, I'm currently working on a series of wall tapestries that will put the material knowledge I've gathered so far to good use.