Vanda Robert’s fantastic felt bag workshop!

I always have a fantastic time when I participate in felting workshops with visiting international artists and my wonderful long weekend at Carmen’s studying with Hungarian felter Vanda Robert was definitely one of my highlights from 2010.  As per usual, when I am a bit apprehensive about the content of a class the reality is always better than the imagining and because Vanda’s bag workshop included a LOT of stitching you can imagine how nervous that made me before the event!  Carmen had almost tried to stop me attending because she knew I wanted to support her in bringing Vanda over but she also knew how stitching makes me break out in a cold sweat.  The fact that the three days included the day of the golf club Captain’s Dance didn’t help either but nothing would have stopped me attending and boy am I glad I did!

Ten layers of wool batt

To start the workshop everyone looked at some of Vanda’s gorgeous bags, oohed and aahed over her relief stitching (there were also a couple of books with photos to browse through) while she explained the basics and showed us how she likes to lay out her wool batts to create thick, even and firm felt.  We then choose our colours and started to lay out 10 to 12 light and even layers directly onto plastic or else onto bubble wrap.  I have always wanted to create a piece of felt using Rathgeeran Rock Art (a stunning local bronze age rock) as my inspiration and was delighted to see some black merino, silvery grey merino and grey gotland which I thought would be perfect for my bag.  The idea in general is to felt a thick but even piece of fabric, preferrably double sided and then cut to shape, reverse some pieces exposing the complimentary colour before stitching the design in relief (amazing stuff here!) and assembling to whole with tiny invisable stitches before adding a handle and possibly a cord edging or fancy stitching around the top.  

First off I created a grey prefelt using three layers of the gotland which I cut into rounds to echo the circles from the rock art.  These were then laid down directly onto my bubble wrap and filled in with three layers of black merino before surrounding the design with three layers of black merino also.  I then laid 4 more layers of black this time covering the whole rectangle, two layers of gotland and finished with a layer of the silvery grey merino.  If you look carefully at the picture above you can see my ten layers laid out and also see that Chris who was working beside me had started to wet out and soap her bundle, half of hers is really high and half is already wet.  Once we had the layers fully wet we just felted as per normal until the wool had shrunk by about a third and the resultant felt was thick, firm and flat.  Some people rubbed the surface of their felt to smooth out any imperfections and dimples but I had brought my ridged fridge liner with me and it proved excellent for rolling the felt on and getting a nice even texture.  At this stage the first day was finished and we all retired home to dry our felt, I had the dance to get to and evening wear to don!

My felt cut into pieces with a picture of the rock which inspired me

Day two saw us cutting out the picecs for our bags and then Vanda gave us a demonstration of the stitches used and we all had a go with some samples.  I can’t stress enough how I would urge you to attend one of her workshops because it is in the stitching that the relief is achieved and obviously that is not something I will be trying to explain here.  Suffice to say you can use wool, cotton or linen thread and depending on where you insert and remove your needle through the felt and at what angle you do so the stitches may be straight or when pulled cause depressions or elevations in the felt, just INCREDIBLE!!!  Initially I had wanted to elevate all my silvery grey ovals but that proved a step too far for me (surprise, surprise!) as in order to do so I would have needed more space between the discs so with Vanda’s help I re-thought and decided to elevate some of the black spaces instead.

To be cont ….. 

Starting to create ridges in the felt through stitching

New felt bag and how to integrate handles

Well, I shouldn’t have blogged the other day about the creative juices somewhat flowing because that just seemed to jinx things and it has taken a long time to get my new bag designed and felted!  I wasn’t happy with the initial sample (the one in various shades of orange, yellow and gold) so decided to make a large piece of prefelt from different proportions and stripes of cerice, turquoise and black merino overlaid with black and gold artificial lace, glitzy but subtle when fully felted.  This prefelt I then cut up into various shapes before felting it onto a base of apple green merino, another disaster!  In this instance I didn’t like the contrast between the different prefelt shapes and the clarity of the green when felted, by this stage I had spent a full day and a half without being happy with any of my samples!  Running in tandem with this very frustrating process I kept adjusting and fine tuning my template until at last I was happy with the shape of the proposed bag.  Eventually after some more dithering and debating I decided yesterday afternoon to just get on with the bag using colours that I often combine together (no sample this time!), black with small amounts of light and dark turquoise.  The front of the bag has inserts of textured leather and the back a few glass beads which I hope to stitch or bead around.  Now that the bag is fully felted I am actually thinking of entering it into an Irish craft competition so probably will take some shots of various details to upload here but not post a picture of the whole bag until the entries have been short listed. 

Handles for felt bags seem to be a topic that many of you are interested in at the moment.  For myself I like one of two things, either a felt handle integrated into the bag itself or a handle made from another material altogether, leather, metal or wood being three excellent choices that jump to mind immediately.  Contrasting materials and textures bring excitment to felt so keep your eyes peeled to see what unusual items you may come across that could be put to good use as a handle.  I also like my bags to have a couple of different options for use if at all possible, handbag, backpack and/or shoulder bag all rolled into one.  To this end I sometimes incorporate a loop into the back of my bags, this may then be strung with a long felt cord to form a backpack although obviously it depends on how the integrated handles are incorporated if this is to work successfully.  Now, how to integrate rolled felt handles so that they are totally strong, don’t stretch, will stand up to practically any hardship and most importantly last for many years!  For strong sturdy sculptural bags the alsolute best method that I have ever used is what I learnt from Lyda Rump at Felt in Focus in Denmark last summer.  Felt your handle/handles totally until they are extremely hard and there is no shrinkage left leaving all the ends dry.  Lay out your bag in three layers, layer 1 merino, layer 2 a strong and coarser wool such as C1 or Icelandic and layer 3 merino again.  Wet and soap lightly between each layer and after you have laid your second layer fluff out the dry ends from your handle/handles and place into position.  Don’t forget to allow for the fact that your bag will shrink, the handles should not shrink any further or only a very small bit if they are still a little soft.  This is why it is so important to felt them extremely firmly before inserting them!  Cover the dry ends with a little more of the wool from layer 2 and needle lightly into position.  Continue to lay layer 3 followed by your surface decoration and when you start to felt your bag pay special attention to the ends of the handle/handles and make sure that they felt into place exactly where you want them to end up.  As your bag felts and gets stronger pull and rub at the base of the handles to make them extremely strong and well integrated.  Another great method for handles is to cut your resist out but don’t actually remove any felt.  You then need to stretch the opening in such a way as to form your handles and then felt them fully.  Both Elaine and Carmen’s handles were formed in this way at our recent complex bag workshops and loads of books on felting give different ways of cutting to achieve this result.  Have a look at the images of Elaine laying out her wool (from my recent posts) and then her wearing the finished bag, this should give you an idea of what I am talking about if you don’t have any suitable books.

My complex felted bag – the big reveal!

Cristina and I were so inspired after the first day of Lyda Rump’s complex bag workshop that we continued working after Lyda went to bed and both had our bags finished by 1.45am on Sunday morning!  We really enjoyed working together and somehow the time just seemed to fly.  Although my photos aren’t the best here goes with the final reveal! 

Front of my finished bag

I had a great piece of driftwood which made the perfect handle, Alan says I need to cut it a little shorter but I am happy with the length myself and let’s not forget it is me who will be using the bag!  Friend and fellow felter Nancy Schwab (hope to see you at Urban Fauna Studio in October Nancy!) throws out the question on her blog ‘do we have to use a felted handle for our felted bags’?  My answer is a definite no.  Obviously a felted handle is perfect for some styles of bags but other different materials and found objects can just be so exciting and unexpected.  That is not to say that many designs don’t suit an incorporated handle (more of that in my next post), just try and think outside the box sometimes and experiment with other types as well. 

Back of my finished bag

 

To answer a question from another friend and experienced felter Dawn Edwards yes, it is actual fish skin inserted into some of the ovals!

And finally ……

Underneath the flaps