There are some stunning handmade crafts available for our homes, but have you ever wondered how they are made? Sara Walker caught up with textile and mixed media artist, Mel Anderson, to get the lowdown on felting.
Mel Anderson is a textile artist based in Castle Donington, Derbyshire. Having originally trained as a make-up artist, she soon realised her interest lay with more conventional art forms, and began to experiment with different paint mediums.
She began to produce modern, geometric canvases using acrylic paint, adding bold blocks of colour for a striking, textured effect. She quickly found the process of painting on a flat canvas was just too restrictive though, and the end results looked too flat and lifeless, so she started looking for a medium that would allow her to produce pieces in three dimensions.
She decided to explore felting – the process of using natural wool to produce fabric shapes – and soon found it particularly well adapted to her trademark use of quirky, stylised images such as cupcakes and Union Jacks.
Felting, an ancient skill dating back thousands of years, involves matting, rubbing and rolling woollen fibres to turn them into chunky, durable cloth. Mel mainly uses a technique known as ‘wet felting’, a process that can be both painstaking and time-consuming – her wall hangings can take up to 14 hours to complete depending on the size and design. She also uses needle felting for more intricate designs.
Mel predominantly uses merino sheep’s wool in her work, but she’s constantly experimenting with different fibres to produce different effects. Banana and bamboo fibres add a raised, wavy texture when used with the wool, and she also traps feathers, spangles, sequins and glitter into the fabric to produce specific effects.
Here, she talks us through the process of creating one of her signature wall hangings.
Step 1 – preparation.
Mel starts by laying out a towel to absorb excess water, then spreads a paper pattern over the top. The pattern gives a size guide, and helps her to keep the edges as straight and even as possible. Over that, she lays a sheet of bubble wrap to protect the wool and keep it in place, and that’s followed by a sheet of netting. Then, she spreads out a layer of natural white wool to make the base, pulling and stretching the clumps as evenly as possible. The initial layout is much bigger than the required size of the finished piece, as the wool will shrink significantly during the felting process.
Step 2 – laying out.
Mel soaks the wool base evenly with soapy water. Now she can start to work on the shape of her design (a heart), and lay out the coloured wool on top of the base to see how the colours look together. When she’s happy with the result, she covers it with a layer of protective netting.
Step 3 – starting to felt.
Once Mel’s satisfied with the initial layout, she starts to the felting process, rubbing the wool carefully by hand on top of the netting layer, until the fibres start to mat together.
Step 4 – felting.
Once the fibres have matted enough to secure the design, Mel covers the wall-hanging with an old roller blind to help speed up the process, and begins to felt in earnest, rolling the wool until it bonds into a single piece of fabric, embedding the design.
Step 5 – rinsing.
Mel rinses her work several times in clean water to remove any last traces of soap, squeezes out any excess water by rolling the fabric in a clean towel, then straightens it out and leaves it to dry.
Step 6 – finishing.
Once dry, Mel pulls the felt into shape and sews on a fabric backing sheet, including a channel for a hanging pole at the top and weights at the bottom.
Step 7 – the finished piece!
By Sara Walker