Sunday, May 27, 2012


Carded wool, left; and wool after water felting, right.
Display at "Made by Hand," The Works, Newark, Ohio, May 2012
Felt has been made for millennia in central Asia, where it's used for clothing, rugs, and as the coverings for yurts, the homes of nomadic people on the steppes. Its great advantages as are that it's portable and it's breathable, providing winter warmth and summer ventilation. Though we in the West think of felt as being made from the wool of sheep, it can be made from what wool's available—like camels' if you're in Kazakhstan, or bunnies' if you have enough. 

Felt's the material that artist Joseph Beuys told such a compelling story about. Maybe he was and maybe he was not rescued by Tartars after an airplane disaster left him near death during World War II. His saviors salved his body with fat and rolled him in warm, breathing felt to heal. Beuys used felt as medium and as symbol in his work.
Joseph Beuys, Felt Suit, 1970.
Felt, sewn, stamped.
National Museum of Scotland, GMA 4552.

A current show at the Ohio Center for Industry, Art, and Technology (The Works) in Newark, "Made by Hand," features felt as a material for expression. Co-curated by Chris Lang and Lyn Logan-Grimes, the selected artists include Lang, Renee Harris, Sharron Parker, Mary Helen Fernandez Stewart, Yiling Tien, and Megan Henderson.

In the curatorial statement, Lang explains, "wool fibers react to hot water, soap, rubbing and pressure, causing the scales on the fibers to open and mat together allowing it to be molded like a piece of clay. More control over the fibers can be achieved with the use of a felting needle to mat dry wool fibers together, allowing felt artists to paint and sculpt." So despite its roots in the farm necessities and its hand manufacture, felt is described to have the function of other materials that are used to make decorative or non-functional items. And, indeed, in The Works' show, most of what is displayed sits along this spectrum of non-utilitarian craft to fine art. 
Chris Lang, Rows and Rows.
Note that even from a distance, the textures of the various regions
 are discernable and distinctive.

Chris Lang's work in two dimensions is pictures of variegated rural scenery. Working from a natural colored felt canvas (underlayer), she dry-felts her own hand-spun yarns with the barbed felting needle. For the skies, she mixes shades of blue wool together with long strands of white to create the effect of a fine afternoon's high sky with cirrus clouds. Each of the rows of crops has a unique look because she has selected either single-colored yarn or a mixture of loose wools to represent it, thus creating nuance and variety of color and texture. Lang understands and uses the properties of her material—she does not attempt to "paint the picture" but makes the picture that she can make from wool. I appreciate an artist's thorough knowledge and well integrated use of specific materials.

Chris Lang, Rows and Rows. Detail.
Lang's relationship to wool work comes from long association. She and her husband acquired sheep for their children's 4-H project (4-H is an American rural children's development organization: Head/Heart/Hands/Health), which led to the acquisition of her own flock. In a YouTube video she both explains that background and demonstrates the basics of felting technique.
Chris Lang, Mother Nature's Footstool

Bird's nest detail
The finest piece in the show is Lang's heirloom Mother Nature's Footstool. This wonderful, folkloric covering for the cushion and legs of a stool has extraordinary appeal for the eyes and fingers. It has the friendly feel of someone as welcoming and familiar as a favorite pet. Lang uses felt in an ebullient variety of ways—sometimes closely matted, sometimes soft and curly (uncarded wool, she tells me). There is as much textural interest and the natural forms are fascinating. Vines, fruits, mosses, leaves, and even an egg-filled bird's nest, dependent from one leg, create a fairy microcosm. Magical as this work is, it still strikes me as a furnishing, as something real. A child would love to sit down on this. Feet unwinding in felt slippers would happily rest here.

 Chris Lang, detail from Mother Nature's Footstool
Yiling Tien is an active crafts instructor in the Columbus area whose work demonstrates the pleasure of felt as craft material. She shows felted three-dimensional objects that are pleasurable to hold, play with, or admire as decoration: jewelry, jewelry boxes, the balls and toy cat in these photographs. The pretty things Tien sees in her imagination can be realized through felt.
Yuling Tien, Sarah the Cat
Yiling Tien, Four Spheres

Tien's work made me realize that I saw nothing she made that could not have been made of clay or even glass. This reminds me how important the touch, weight, malleability, and texture of a material are; the ease with which it is colored or modified; its durability and portability. In her statement, Tien mentions that she had almost given up on felting when all she knew was the rigorous water method, which would require much heavy work with hand forming objects. Once she understood dry, needle felting with its additive process, she fell back in love with it.

Sharron Parker, Capturing the Light
At the fine arts end of Made By Hand, Sharron Parker's wall hangings are like studies in color, light, and geology, calling on the particular property of felt to be at once dense but light in weight, to represent a massiveness it does not embody. Both Capturing the Light and Capturing the Light II (the latter in the neighborhood of 35" x 50;" the former a little smaller), when seen from across the room, seem like arid landscapes in the dramatic light just before sunrise or sunset. Then they are vivid blades of extremely saturated color: I wondered that it  didn't drip and pool on the floor.  

Sharron Parker, Capturing the Light II
From a distance, I wondered if these fantastic color studies couldn't have been made of paper, or canvas? Approaching them, though, the nature of the material and its importance became clearer. Not as stiff as paper nor as draping as woven fabric, felt has sculptural qualities and mass without heaviness or hard edges. Parker takes advantage of the possibilities that wool and felting needle hold in the ways she twists and folds different colors of wool together, creating valleys, inlets, and gulches defined both by color and actual depth. In the areas with less detail, the felt drapes like sandstone dried after eons in water, a condition that the wet felting process imitates well.

Parker, Capturing the Light II, detail.
I'm very happy to have seen The Works' felt show. It makes me long to see a bigger institution with more resources do a more comprehensive show, one that would cover Asian roots, and the architectural and fashion uses of felt. 

Parker, Capturing the Light, detail.
In the meantime, I can recommend to others this good video that shows Mongolians preparing felt from sheep's wool to cover yurts. Architonic magazine—far from Mongolia, at the other end of architecture and design—has a June 2012 article about felt in contemporary furnishings and wall construction, praising especially its ecological profile. And this site will take you to my dream show long past (2009) at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, Fashioning Felt: Another addition to the long list of fascinating shows I've missed!  

Floating cloud of dyed, carded wool welcomes guests
to "Made by Hand" at The Works.


  1. Oh, love the colors. I want Sarah, the cat.

  2. Ms Tien's contact information is available by clicking on her name the first time it appears in the article. I believe Sarah the cat is available too, and others like her. Ann