Common elements.

Here are some of the materials I will use for the surface design. Some may look familiar; layering materials I previously felted with will reinforce colors and textures. Other materials include silk threads in a variety of thicknesses from wispy kimono silk to 8-ply needlepoint silk, matte beads, silk and cotton fabrics, and interesting yarns and cords.

Since the panels are a workable size, I’ve moved back into my studio. My needle felting machine and other tools are within easy reach. 

This next phase will be the most time consuming as I complete the paintings. Though each panel will be a separate painting, all three together must form a unified image. I have to consider common elements that will appear on each panel to reinforce the composition.

I inserted multi-colored resists at the felting stage to be one of the common elements. Another is a red stitched line that will meander through the panels. Indigo dyed cheesecloth is a recurring element in my Currents painting series. I love the way it evokes waves or currents or light shining on water.  I will use a variety of free form stitches to add to the texture and color integration.

I'll be making decisions throughout this stage about which areas to highlight and which ones need to recede.

Color, thread and stitch choices. Cheesecloth added in strategic places.

Color, thread and stitch choices. Cheesecloth added in strategic places.

 

Defuzzing and blocking the wool.

The felting process has roughened the surface of the panels and obscured some of the color and detail. To make the surface smooth for stitching and other mark making, I carefully shave the front and back of each panel.

This really makes a big difference in the surface texture. Look at all the fuzz I created. I may save it and use it in another piece but I'll probably toss it. I have yet to do anything with any lint I may have saved through the years.

Here comes da _____. No I can't say it!

Using a steam iron, I block the front and back of the panels. This process smooths them even more and makes them more rectangular. It's easier to work with dry panels.

Now the fun begins. I am ready for the art making. 

Now the fun begins. I am ready for the art making. 

Hard felting the wool.

Working on the back.

Working on the back.

You thought I was done with felting? I pull on the material and it gives in each direction. I need a surface with no give in order to add the needle-felted elements and mark making, so I’m felting the panels to a hard stage. I’m using a hard-surface mat with ridges for this stage.

At this stage I look at where the felt is out-of-rectangular shape and agitate accordingly. The three pieces are close in size but none are at the final size. Each panel needs to fit inside a mat that fits into a 24” x 36” frame.  The closest panel is 5" too long and 1 1/2" too wide. I'll work on shrinking the length and then the width. I'm felting from both sides.

After the panels are the right size, I rinse all the soapy water out of them and let them air dry. These panels have been wet since September!

The dry panels ready for the next stages.

The dry panels ready for the next stages.

Removing the resists.

Remember those resists I put in the panels? It’s time to find them, cut them out to expose the silk and then felt the edges. I usually do this step earlier in the process, but there were too many moving parts in these panels. Since I am felting to a hard stage, there will be plenty of time to work with the wool edges.

Using the drawing as a visual aid, and my fingers as tactile ones, I search for the resists buried in the wool. The resists are made of foam so they stand out. I use an Xacto knife to cut an X over each of the resists. The hot pink color is easy to see in the sea of blue, it helps me to not cut too close to the resist edges. Then I cut the points off and lightly felt the edges. The silk will need further attention when I am at the mark making stage.

 

I think I still have some resists in there so it will be like buried treasure.

I think I still have some resists in there so it will be like buried treasure.

+ agitation + wool = felt.

There are many ways now to felt wool. Techniques include hand rolling, using your feet to roll, using a felting machine, using a horse to drag the felt bundle, using an electric sander or using a dryer. My philosophy is to get through this stage with as little pain and physical exertion as possible. I don’t have access to a horse, but I have experienced dryer felting during a workshop so I know it works on multi-layered pieces.  I’ll use a combination of hand felting and dryer felting.

Bubble wrap ranks up there with duct tape in my pantheon of tools.

Bubble wrap ranks up there with duct tape in my pantheon of tools.

I have to take into account there are elements on these panels that felt at different speeds. To ensure the best possible outcome I first felt the elements by hand. That piece of bubble wrap comes in handy as I use it to gently agitate the wool and other fibers. I get the panel to a stage known as prefelt which means the wool scales are enmeshing with the other fibers. Yes it is confusing, as my backing material is also called prefelt.

I'm not sure why I don't have biceps of steel after this process.

I'm not sure why I don't have biceps of steel after this process.

 

 

I wrap the plastic-wrapped panel onto a pool noodle. Then I roll. I open the piece up and wrap the panel onto the pool noodle in another direction. I have to check the piece after each roll to make sure everything is staying in place, and I don’t want to roll a permanent crease into the felt. I roll the panel in every direction until the pieces start meshing. This part of the process takes a while.

 

Ready for the dryer using recycled 1/2 Price Book bags and garden hook-and-loop.

Ready for the dryer using recycled 1/2 Price Book bags and garden hook-and-loop.

 

 

 

 

I use the dryer on no heat strictly for agitation. I roll the prefelted fabric in plastic then bundle it into a damp towel and a plastic bag. Into the dryer it goes for ten minutes at a time. In between dryer cycles I open the bundle and roll the felt in another direction. Wouldn’t want the felt to be lopsided.

 

Look at how much the panel has shrunk. Not quite 40% but I am not done yet.

Look at how much the panel has shrunk. Not quite 40% but I am not done yet.

 

This takes some time but is less strenuous than rolling by hand and it’s much easier than cleaning up after a horse.

Soap + water.

Spraying the wool.

Spraying the wool.

Wetting the wool and prefelt is not an exact science. Too much or too little water yields the same result, the piece won’t felt. I think it just takes experience to know how much water to use.  I am felting up to eight layers of various materials so I will be using a lot of water.

I spray soapy water and diffuse it with my fingers to wet the pieces. There is an interesting conversation in the felting world about using hot versus room temperature water in the felting process. I haven’t seen a large difference using either so I generally use room-temperature tap water.

Note the wet and dry areas of the prefelt. 

Note the wet and dry areas of the prefelt. 

After wetting the wool I look for pieces that moved and put them back. I check that the piece is wet all the way through by carefully lifting a corner of the piece to see if the prefelt is wet. The prefelt is spotty with water so I turn the piece over and wet it from the prefelt side.

Another pair of hands, an extra sheet of plastic and another large board helps in turning the piece safely. The prefelt needs water in random areas.  After wetting, the piece gets turned back over to the other side.

On areas that have too much water, I use a rectangle of bubble wrap to gently press the wool to move the extra water to the outside edges.

I cover the piece and let it rest overnight so the wool scales can start introducing themselves to the silk and other fibers.

Keeping the wood floors dry.

Keeping the wood floors dry.

 

I ended up using 4-5 bottles of water for each piece. There was water run off so I protected the wood floor with big towels.

 

Soap + water + agitation + wool = felt.

The felting process. Wool fibers have tiny scales similar to our hair. The combination of water, soap and agitation causes the wool scales to mesh together forming felt. This process has been used throughout history to make everything from shoes to yurts to car parts. 

There are various stages of felting from soft to hard. If I were felting wool with silk to make scarves I would stop at the medium stage because the material I'm making is meant to wear softly against a person's skin. This project requires the material be hard felted. I know it is hard felted when there is no give when I stretch the felt in either direction. Hard-felted material will form a good canvas for my mark making later.

A sneak peek of a detail of a not-yet-hard-felted panel.

A sneak peek of a detail of a not-yet-hard-felted panel.

Yeah!!!

I have finished laying out the paintings. I'm happy with the compositions and the flow. I stood on chairs a lot trying to see the compositions. Up and down and back and forth to make sure the elements I wanted traveling from one painting to the next were in the right spots. Glad I had the drawings. I haven't seen the paintings together yet or vertical (except in Photoshop) so I can't wait to see them all on a wall after the felting process.

The paintings now.

The paintings now.

I had a minor stopping point when a dark blue variegated yarn I wanted to use for texture starting turning my hands blue. I had to wash the yarn and quite a bit of dye ran out. I wasn't sure what colors would be left when it dried but it ended up working well in the paintings.

Some of the details.

Some of the details.

This is an example of how the elements could mix in the felting process. This is from another painting so imagine, if you will, the color scheme of the Currents series to get an idea of how the pieces and colors will meld together.

Laying out the top elements.

A pile of inspiration.

A pile of inspiration.

Finally I am done with the base layers. Now the fun starts! Here are some of the pieces I have selected to maybe go on these paintings.

I have kimono silks, raw silks, hand-dyed silks, sari silks, cotton threads, gauzes, prefelted wool pieces, yarns and netting.  

Here are the paintings so far. I am getting some tasty details already. You can see the placement of the resist pieces. I decided to go with a mix of red and gold materials for the resists. They will contrast nicely with the blues and purples.

The three paintings. I'm not tall enough even on a chair to avoid this wacked-out perspective.

The three paintings. I'm not tall enough even on a chair to avoid this wacked-out perspective.

Some of the details so far.

Some of the details so far.

I will keep adding/layering elements until the paintings are ready for felting. During the wet felting stage these elements will combine with the wool and form a fabric. This will be the base for needle felting and mark making.

New drawings.

I had to take a step back and do new drawings showing color ways and keys to textural elements. It was getting too confusing holding the three different panels in my head. I enlarged the original drawings and using Prismacolor pencils and pastels I put my color and texture ideas to paper.  

The drawings provide a key to base colors and transition areas as well as some tasty nuno felting techniques. One of the techniques is marked by red circles. The red circles will be silk embedded under the wool. The wool will be cut away to reveal the silk and the edges will be refelted to smooth them. This will add a pebble-like transition from one painting to the next. 

The photography is awful but will give you an idea of my color thoughts.

The photography is awful but will give you an idea of my color thoughts.

The non-blue colors indicate silk, gauze or cotton elements that will be added into one of the last three layers of each drawing. The layered colors will blend during the felting process to create more colors and transitions.

Laying out the wool.

Laying out the wool in thin wisps.

Laying out the wool in thin wisps.

I used to lay wool out in thick chunks not really caring about how it affected the final piece. As I have grown more experienced, I now use wisps of wool to build up the layers. I learned the importance of this technique from taking workshops from Suzanne Morgan (http://www.suzannemorgan.com), Fiona Duthie (http://www.fionaduthie.com) and Judith Dios (http://www.judithdios.com) over the years. They achieve beautiful interwoven colors and interplay of textures not possible without laying wool like this. It takes practice, patience and time to do this technique. 

Drawing the main composition with the wool.

Drawing the main composition with the wool.

Using the drawings as a guide, I drew the major areas of the composition using light blue wool. These panels are huge and I have a problem seeing all the panels at the same time. I have elements that flow from one panel to the other and I must make sure they are laid out in the correct place. This is where a measuring tape comes in handy.

I have planned six base layers of varying colors so laying out the wool will take quite a few days.

These drawings are taking up a lot of our real estate!

Drawing elements on the last painting. Note the start of filling in the base colors on the paintings at the top of the photo. 

Drawing elements on the last painting. Note the start of filling in the base colors on the paintings at the top of the photo. 

Structure and testing.

We had to make rigid structures to hold the panels so we could move them around the house. We used four sheets of foam core board taped together for each of the paintings. This project takes three large horizontal surfaces so being able to move them to accommodate our lives is important. This is one of those times where I wish I had a studio outside my house because this project won’t fit into my studio.

I don’t want bad surprises, only the good ones. I’m using prefelt on this project to form a dark, stable background for the paintings. Prefelt is two layers of roving needle felted to a beginning felt stage. I chose dark purple as it will tone down some of the lighter, brighter colors I am using. I tested the color fastness of the prefelt. I had a bad experience at a workshop once where I assumed my wool was color fast and the red wool bled all over my project. Luckily the other colors were strong so the red didn’t completely overpower everything.

I then tested the percentage of shrinkage. I made a test strip of four layers of wool including the prefelt layer. I didn’t roll it to a hard felt stage but it was close. The wool shrank 25%. I was planning on around 40% shrinkage. The final paintings will also have 6-8 layers of fiber so I am thinking the shrinkage may be more. I have adjusted the outer edges of the paintings just in case I have 25% shrinkage. 

On this strip, I also tested what a light color would do on the blue and purple backgrounds. Looks good to me.

Test strip.

Test strip.

Carding the Wool.

The drum carder.

The drum carder.

I card the wool for two reasons. One is to make blended colors. I dyed the wool in three colors so I could blend them on the drum carder to make color variations for the backgrounds. The second reason is during the dyeing process some of the wool lightly felted on the edges. I'll card the wool to separate these strands.

This drum carder is one of my most favorite pieces of equipment. It was given to me by a friend who was downsizing her studio. Thank you L.! Imagine combining these wools with hand carders. No way.

I am using red, orange, and peach wool for this sample. Add the wools to the feeder and start cranking the handle. Pull the combined wool off the roller. It usually takes at least three rolls to get the color I want.

1. Feed the wool. 2. Crank the handle. 3. Release the wool from the roller.

1. Feed the wool. 2. Crank the handle. 3. Release the wool from the roller.

Look at all that wool. I love the colors I am getting by mixing the blues and other colors. To keep the blended colors separate, I stack them on many large sheets of paper. 

Blended wool for the backgrounds.

Blended wool for the backgrounds.

Drying the wool.

Drying the wool during the September rainstorms took days. No way was this wet stuff coming into the house! I put the last batch on the clothesline to drip dry.

Last batch of wool.

Last batch of wool.

Three levels of wet wool.

Three levels of wet wool.

 

 

Dyeing the wool.

I dyed wool once in my zinc-lime indigo vat and it didn’t work out well. The indigo formula turned the wool crunchy and it didn’t felt well. This made me not feel well as I was under a tight deadline. The wool was for the installation so I had to make it work by needle felting it to keep it in place.

This time I used acid dyes and the vat method to dye the wool. Due to the volume of wool I ended up with three dye vats.  I used two colors of blue dye so I would be able to blend them into various hues. I also changed the dyeing time of the last vat so I could have mottled colors to blend.

I weighed the wool so I could calculate the amount of dye to use. Dark colors require more dye so I adjusted the dye accordingly.

Weighing the wool.

Weighing the wool.

I put the weighed wool in the pot to see if it could move freely. Then I washed the wool while being careful not to start the felting process by agitating it too much. 

Washing the wool very gently.

Washing the wool very gently.

I do all my dyeing outside on the patio. I filled the pot with the garden hose. The temperature comes up rapidly over an open flame so no need to use warm water. A friend came to join me while I was pot filling. 

"Hey, what's with all this commotion?"

"Hey, what's with all this commotion?"

Following the directions carefully I measured out the appropriate amount of dye to use and made a slurry with it.  I’m uneasy around an open flame that is attached to a large container of gas (unless there is a marshmallow involved) so Patrick hung around as I lit my first burner.  

This is me following directions.

This is me following directions.

I added the dye slurry to the pot. Then I added the wool and brought the temperature up to 185°.  I kept testing the temperature because if the water gets too hot the wool felts. When the water reaches 185° it is time to add the citric acid which causes the dye to cling to the wool. 

Toil and trouble...

Toil and trouble...

Since the dye didn’t clear in an hour I added more citric acid and then the water really cleared.

Finally the water is getting clear.

Finally the water is getting clear.

I let the water cool down. Pulling on my lovely gloves I pulled the wool from the water. The water in the pot was completely colorless meaning all the dye had entered the wool.

Pulling the wool.

Pulling the wool.

I put the wool on the custom drying rack Patrick made me for this project.  Two more days of dyeing and voila! enough dyed wool to start the project. When I told friends and family I was dyeing on a particular day, I got odd looks until I added the word fiber in front of dyeing.

Racking the wet wool.

Racking the wet wool.

Questions? Questions.

How much wool?

This is what 3+ pounds of wool looks like.

This is what 3+ pounds of wool looks like.

I have not made this much felt before so how do I gauge how much wool I will need for the background and the quantity of other pieces I will use to create texture, color and scale?  I took a SWAG based on wool used for past projects multiplied up to the nearest measurements for this project.

I also considered the rule that felted wool shrinks about 30-40%.  I felt my wool to a very hard stage (there is probably a double entendre in there somewhere) so I will plan on the 40% number. I would rather have the pieces slightly too large than too small.

Buying the wool. The next challenge was to purchase undyed wool. I didn’t know how what a pound of wool looked like and I wanted to see the wool before I bought it so that meant in-store purchases. During my research, I learned that most of the wool produced in Texas is exported.

The photo of the Bluefaced Leicester sheep comes from the http://www.ansi.okstate.edu website.

The photo of the Bluefaced Leicester sheep comes from the http://www.ansi.okstate.edu website.

I found Hill Country Weavers in Austin during a trip to visit family and friends. In several trips throughout the year, I bought 3+ pounds of Bluefaced Leicester wool. It has a beautiful sheen and dyes well. I know it will provide a good foundation for all the mark making to come.  

Why write a blog?

I am working on a commission that is making me stretch creatively and productively. I’ll use this blog to record the making of and lessons learned throughout the process and so G+T can follow the process as their art is being created. 

Also, I have been requested to provide a video presentation of me creating art to be used next year at an installation.  The photographs recording this process will be the basis of that presentation.

The commission.

I received the ultimate validation an artist can receive when G+T saw my work at a show and ask me to make art for them. They have been infinitely patient as I worked through the process of planning these pieces and the mind clearing I had to go through to have the confidence and wherewithal to do a piece of this size.

The project is to make three felted panels based on the Currents theme and colors. Each panel will ultimately be 24” x 36”.  The overall piece will be a triptych but each panel will stand on its own compositionally. Since the theme is water I asked G+T for their three favorite bodies of water. The winners are Formentera, Spain, St. Barths and Grace Bay.

While I was researching these places I really wanted to pack my bags and go to each for a little private research. My husband Patrick and I have done some sailing in the Caribbean and we have been to many islands but haven’t had the pleasure of visiting any of these.

Water is my favorite element. I enjoy most the vacations we spend around this slippery substance.  The Currents series is my response to me showing favoritism. I have worked mainly in felt for this series but I did branch out to do a Fluid Currents installation using felt, shibori techniques, and ice and indigo dyeing. That installation can be seen on this website.

The drawings are scaled to the final size and show major composition elements. 

The drawings are scaled to the final size and show major composition elements.