December 2016

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Since September’s epic hand washing and drying of 40kgs fleeces, I’ve been doing more thinking than making.  I tell myself this research is important, when starting out. A degree in textile art would be helpful but I read and read about ancient textiles, especially prehistoric ‘snippets’. Felting is an ancient craft. Respect!

Thanks to Doctor Mary Macleod, I find the earliest piece of Scottish textile comes from the Isle of Lewis, up the road. It’s called the ‘Sheshader Thing’. And it is pretty much felt!!   It’s a pad of compressed (nearly felted) cattle hairs, with cords made from twisted strands of wool and from plaited horsehair. It dates from the Bronze Age and survived in a peat bog. http://www.scottishheritagehub.com/content/44-organics .

Following the history of felt, I find myself tracing the story of sheep, their domestication and early felt relics found on the Central Steppes of Asia, the ways of nomadism, how felt making reached and emerged in other nations and continents and the role of women in society and the textile industry.  Sometimes up here, on the edge of the Atlantic, I feel a tiny part of this story.

A real sense of history lies close by. I am living with the ruins of a 13th Century church and seminary at the back door. This is definitely influencing my making.  Out on Uist, it is easy to bump into megalithic monuments and other Neolithic or Bronze Age features on a daily basis as well as the ‘rarities’ of otters, sea eagles and storm abandoned seal pups at this time of year.

The felting tradition has strong Scandinavian connections. The Norsemen most probably brought felt to the Hebrides on board their fierce boats. It therefore feels entirely right that if need to buy any pre carded truly Hebridean fleece, it comes the Birlinn Yarn Company, up the road on Berneray. http://www.birlinnyarn.co.uk/about

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I have started making much ‘harder’ and robust felt vessels adopting some of the techniques learned from sculptor Claudia Gemein at the 2016 Felt Forum in Fife. This means less water and soap and a new efficient felt ‘yoga’ moves. So efficient, I managed to give myself bursitis of the elbow using a rolling pin.

A recent foray into slippers is the result of a day’s course run by Ellie Langley www.ellielangley.com who works mainly with fine wool fleeces. Next up is to make them in Hebridean and Cheviot/Blackface fleece. I like the idea of making something useful with a long lineage.

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Other times, my making is a response to a strong feeling, like loss.  Michael’s memorial vessel is made in Cheviot x BFL carded fleece with bog cotton fibres I collected in August and naturally dyed raw silk. Michael was a good friend, fellow gardener, mentor and formidable campaigner against plant breeders’ rights. He died suddenly and recently in Burma, while plant collecting with the help of the mountain people he cared deeply about. A brave and pioneering man who loved the land.

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What of my other life? My ‘proper’ job helping to grow veg at the Local Food Project is supposed to support my felt making, but the truth is it has taken over. Working with wild and domesticated plants in a landscape context has been the focus of all my working life, so it is part of me. But how best to bring felt making and ‘gardening’ together? My dilemma for 2017….

Finally a quick end of year thank you to Emergents for their support, to all local crofters who kindly donated their fleeces and to friends and family for encouraging my new venture. I’m still on Facebook on a more regular basis at Rebecca Cotton Felt.   Jimmy One Horn, my flock of one ( now aged 4 and as big as Bruno the ram) continues to inspire.

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