Thursday 20 June 2019

Heartfelt passion that turns into an obsession

Sheila Ahern

A FEW weeks before last Christmas, I announced to family and friends that all seasonal gifts would be homemade. The kids were horrified; "you can't knit a Wii" was my youngest son's main concern. All the grown-ups were pleased (I think) with their knitted socks, felt jewellery and wool and silk scarves.

My grandmother had a wool shop in Phibsborough and when I was a little girl I spent hours and hours playing in the Aladdin's Cave of my granny's shop. So even before I was five, I knew my alpaca from my mohair.

Then, about three years ago, I met up with a group of fabulous women who were all passionate about wool fibre and feltmaking. I innocently joined Feltmakers Ireland, and what started as a passing interest has become a bit of an obsession.

It's very hard not to get sucked in by the beauty of the materials, the versatility of the work and the fun of learning and creating. One of the lovely things about being involved with a group of people with a shared interest is that you learn new things, but it is also about a sense of community. There is always some new scheme on the go, and there is never a dull moment. Feltmakers Ireland is the modern-day equivalent of an ancient craft guild -- traditionally the expert exponents of the craft shared and passed on their skills to the apprentices. Nowadays it's a lot more fun than that -- it's real-life learning and mostly costs just your time and materials.

My involvement has led me to lots of strange and interesting places. For the past few years, I have been involved in giving feltmaking workshops in the Women's Prison in Mountjoy. The first time I went, I was a bit nervous. Should I bring scissors? Would anyone turn up for the class? In fact, it was a great experience and the skills of some of the women there were remarkable. After a couple of minutes, you forgot that you would be going home after lunch but they would be going back to be locked up.

So far, my ambition is to make gifts for friends and I probably get far more pleasure than anyone from it. There is an enormous sense of satisfaction from creating something beautiful from a range of simple materials. My motivation wasn't to save money even though the wool and silk fibres you need for feltmaking are quite cheap, really, and you don't need to spend a lot on specialised equipment. Other than the wool fibre itself, all you need is a piece of bubble wrap, some warm soapy water and a towel. Felt is made by a combination of heat, water and friction -- it's like when you put your favourite jumper into the washing machine and the temperature is so high you end up with a matted, shrunk jumper. When you are making felt, you can control the process and form the wool fibre into whatever shape you wish by wetting and rolling it. I love knitting, but making a jumper can take quite a long time, so the speed of felt-making is very attractive -- instant gratification has a lot going for it. Sometimes, after a hard day in the traffic or in front of the computer, I feel like I am either going to make something or kill one of the kids. Making something is a better option.

It is very hard to make a living from any of the traditional textile crafts such as knitting, sewing, embroidery or weaving. There is such an abundance of cheap imported textiles in the country that most people are unwilling to pay for the "real" cost -- the time it takes to make a hand felted pair of slippers or a knitted shawl. Craft textiles sort of fall between two stools -- they're not seen as works of art and without the right labels they don't have the marketing cachet of the designer brands. But just as with designer brands, crafts often are in and out of fashion. And there are some people, such as Lainey Keogh, who have managed to get it right in terms of marketing her beautiful knitwear.

The Crafts Council of Ireland is the backbone of crafts in Ireland. It offers fantastic support to designers trying to break into a very competitive market. It also supports people new to craft and promotes the teaching of craft at all levels. Crafts knowledge could so easily die out. It is the mixing of traditional skills, such as your granny's knitting, with innovations in design that have an appeal to the next generation of weavers, knitters and feltmakers.

I first met Nicola Brown at a weekend the Feltmakers had organised last May in Avondale House. Three long days were spent with 10 of us all working on our own individual projects while listening to Portuguese jazz and having all our meals served up to us by the chef in Avondale. It was bliss. Nicola, at that stage, had just begun to experiment with feltmaking after seeing a demonstration of the craft.

"I am totally addicted to feltmaking," Nicola admitted. "Working with wool and silk fibres allows me to translate my ideas in a way that painting or pottery doesn't."

Her work is now on show in two galleries, the Kozo in Thomastown and The National Craft Gallery in Kilkenny, and she gives classes in feltmaking. Last summer she set up a blog that attracts 650 hits a week (www.clasheen.word press.com). A whole community has built up online allowing for an exchange of ideas and information globally.

And when it comes to the unexpected, few would think that embroidery was at the cutting edge -- the word conjures up an image of a little old lady with a very steady hand, good eyesight and the patience of Job.

So it was a surprise to learn that last year's winners of the prestigious RDS Craft competition for embroidery classes were two young men. Logan McLain won first prize for traditional embroidery and Nigel Cheney for contemporary embroidery. Both men studied textile design. McLain's winning piece, "Seven Secrets", was a interesting depiction of a very male image -- a series of spanners in black stitch on white fabric. His work can be seen on www.loganmclain.com.

"Male customers are not as unusual as you would imagine," John Whelan told me. John owns one of the oldest shops in Dublin; the Singer sewing machine shop in Talbot Street has been going strong for almost 100 years.

"We are working flat out," John says. "Grandmothers bring their granddaughters in to buy them their first sewing machine and young textile designers, male and female, are our main customers".

John feels that there is a resurgence of interest in things that are hand crafted. "Young girls in particular are looking for something a little bit different. I had two girls in the shop last Friday looking for an industrial sewing machine to make bags. There are lots of dress-making and design courses available and are turning out talented graduates."

There is a thriving interest in textiles in Ireland. Of the 51 member organisations affiliated to the Crafts Council, 17 of them are devoted to textiles -- among them are some very traditional crafts such as lacemakers, weavers, spinners and patchworkers.

For some pure indulgence in beautiful textiles have a look at the work of weaver Florence Harmelin. Florence works in the Red Stables in Dublin and weaves the most luxurious silk and cashmere textiles.

From many people who work with fabric and fibre it is the feel and sensuality of the materials that is most attractive.

Pauline Wadell returned to Ireland a couple of years ago after living in New York. She was always interested in craft and even knitted professionally for a while after leaving school in Galway. Pauline recently took up quilting and patchwork. She described a quilt she made from lots of dresses her daughter had as a child which sounded like such a lovely idea.

When I was growing up it seemed like there were wool shops everywhere. In recent years it has become quite difficult to buy knitting wool -- except on the internet.

But there's a change afoot -- I think there is beginning to be a reaction to the throw-away culture.

People are starting to place more value on homemade things and it's great to see two new wool shops recently opened in Dublin.

One is called Stitch and is in Beaumont on Dublin's Northside (www.stitch.ie). Two sisters, Frances Dalton and Teresa McCormack, believe there is a renewed interest in knitting. "Years ago if you had a hand-knitted jumper there was an attitude that you were poor and couldn't afford to buy clothes whereas now there is a brilliant range of yarns available and hand-knitting is a fashion statement".

Teresa worked for 30 years as a legal secretary, but always dreamed of opening her own wool shop. The second wool shop is a new branch of This Is Knit, in the Powerscourt Centre, in Dublin. You do need to be careful about the obsessional nature of craft -- it can end up taking up as much time as you have to give. One friend of mine was berated by her daughter for not being more available to babysit. She put a photo of her mum up on the fridge and said to her son: "That's Granny. Remember granny? She has run away and joined a cult called Feltmakers". Beware of where your inner passion may lead you.

Sheila Ahern

For courses and events, see www.feltmakersireland.com

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