Join us for my first workshop of the year next Saturday, January 3o at NEFS. To reserve a spot, call 413-527-1188 (Tues – Sat, 10-5) or email firstname.lastname@example.org
This is a wonderful feature story about New England Felting Supply and owner Chris White. NEFS has been one of the main springboards for my felting career. They carry my one-of-a-kind nuno ribbon felt scarves in the storefront, showcase my hand-painted silk yardage as a base for nuno felt and offer the nuno ribbon felt scarf class that I teach.
Wild and woolly: New England Felting Supply in Easthampton is a crafter’s paradise
By Margot Cleary
Photos by Jerrey Roberts
Friday, January 22, 2010
Don’t be put off by its industrial-sounding name: New England Felting Supply.
And don’t be put off, either, by its stock-in-trade: billowy cloudfuls of feathery-soft fluff from frolicking farm animals, in all the colors of the rainbow, which sounds suspiciously like My Little Pony turf.
In fact, Christine White’s venture is a canny blend of the practical and the fanciful. She’s managed to turn her passion for the craft known as felting – in a nutshell, making sturdy fabric from wispy bits of wool – into what she says is the only business of its kind in the country. Working out of her Easthampton headquarters, which serves as a retail shop, classroom and mail-order warehouse rolled into one, she buys wool from shepherds, cleans it up, then sells it to crafters who use it to create stylish one-of-a-kind scarves, utilitarian trivets, whimsical fantasy figures and more.
Business is good, White says.
Everybody knows what felt is, of course: the plain Jane workhorse that’s a staple of everything from homemade hand puppets to the liner in your car’s trunk. Easthampton, as it happens, has long been a major source of the material, thanks to National Felt Co. (now known as National Nonwovens).
The offerings at New England Felting Supply, though, are different. Rather than deal in the dregs of the textile trade, the way industrial felt makers often do, it specializes in virginal raw materials – clusters of luxurious wool, some in the original sheep-y tones, others dyed in hues so exuberant that they belong in a box of brand-new Crayolas.
The art of felting has a long tradition in other parts of the world – think Scandinavian troll dolls, or wool clogs – but it never really caught on in the United States.
Until now. The Internet, White says, has spiked interest in what was heretofore a fringe craft. While she won’t give sales figures, she says, “I basically caught a tiger by the tail.”
There are two approaches to making felt, both predicated on a distinctive property of unspun wool: It has countless little fishhook-like barbs that are prone to getting hopelessly tangled up in each other.
Needle felting is as simple as can be: Loose clumps of wool are poked repeatedly with a needle, a process which makes the wool denser and denser, thanks to those little barbs, until it becomes flat, and holds together. Wet felting is a more complicated process – but not too complicated – in which those same sorts of wool fibers are stretched and shaped and wetted down and rolled out by hand, layer by layer, until they, too, become flat and hold together. “It’s tough,” White says of felted wool. It may look delicate, but even the most spidery cobweb-like designs will not unravel.
(Felting, by the way, does not mean purposely shrinking a knitted item to make the yarn tighter, even though such items are often referred to as felted. That’s actually a process known as fulling.)
Making felt is not for the person who likes crisp designs and precise measurements. It’s all about fuzzy edges, and shifting contours.
White, who is 47 and lives in Belchertown, discovered felting roughly a decade ago. A geologist from New Mexico, she was newly arrived in western Massachusetts – her husband had taken a job at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst – and unemployed. She was also facing back surgery and a long recuperation. She needed a hobby, she decided, so she took up knitting. “I knitted all winter,” she recalls, “without anyone to teach me.” She picked it up quickly, and soon was branching out from traditional items like sweaters into abstract shapes – 3-D cocoons, she calls them. Someone who took a look told her she should forget about yarn and work with the fiber in its purest form: unspun wool, straight from the sheep.
White, a high-energy, talks-a-mile-a-minute type, got a book on felting and stayed up all night reading it. In less than a week, she’d hatched the idea for a business. “I do things with intensity,” she says.
With no formal training, she began making and selling simple felted objects like place mats, purses and oven mitts. She also began teaching other people how to make them. She called her cottage industry Magpie Designs, which is fitting, she says: “The magpie can’t turn away from strings and little glittery things” – the exact sorts of adornments that add extra texture and interest to a felting project.
And one other thing, she adds: “The magpie talks a lot.”
White says she enjoyed making felted objects. What she really enjoyed, however, was what went into making them: “Right away I could see that it was the wool and the process itself that really got me excited.” That, she says, is what led to her business.
New England Felting Supply is housed in a 1920s-era block on Easthampton’s Cottage Street, part of an artsy little cluster that’s sprung up in the last few years. Custom furniture business Nojo Design and KW Home, a home furnishings store, are right next door; Nashawannuck Gallery, which sells art and contemporary crafts, is just down the street. White’s spot, as folks who have been in town for years like to note, once housed the Majestic Theater, a former vaudeville house that became notorious in the 1960s and ’70s for showing X-rated movies.
White is tickled by the building’s colorful past. “It’s the home of formerly loose women,” she says cheerfully, “and now loose wool.”
She moved her business into the Easthampton space in early 2007, after a few years of running a sort of underground operation in her home (felters would pass the word, she says: “Come to Chris’ house and buy wool”).
Even so, for the first couple of years in Easthampton the business retained a semi-clandestine, clubby feel: Customers had to make their way along a warren of side streets to a parking lot out back, and enter the building through a nondescript, slightly rusty metal door.
Inside, they found a different world: handsome brick walls, pressed-tin ceilings, a space that’s both cavernous and cozy.
The cozy part is thanks to the merchandise: barrels and bins of fluffy felting wool, in that rainbow of Crayola colors, practically begging to be touched (a little touching is OK, White says, but not too much, or the wool will lose its loft). When she was in the planning stages, she says, she knew exactly what she was after: a general-store sort of feeling, with wool that customers would ooh and aah at, then weigh out on scales by the ounce. The penny-candy approach, in other words.
White likes looking in the shopping baskets of her customers, to see what color combinations they come up with. Who would have thought that that garish pink could look so good? she’ll sometimes marvel. She favors subdued colors herself, slate grays and earth tones that suit her background as a geologist. But she also stocks plenty of wool in what she describes as “bright Michelle Obama colors.”
She carries flat batts made from merino, which she calls the Cadillac of wools because it’s so easy to work with, and specialty varieties like curlicues of Karakul, perfect for the beards of troll-like dolls. There are wools from Norway, Finland and Australia, and wools from local farms and 4-H’ers. White says she’d love to be all local, but there just aren’t enough sheep around here – and enough breeds of sheep – to keep her supplied. Through regular trips to agricultural fairs and word-of-mouth, she’s built up an international network of shepherds. Exactly who and where they are, she won’t reveal: That’s proprietary information, she says.
In addition to all the wools, New England Felting Supply stocks books and videos and novelties like the “I Felt the Stars” calendar by Alaska artist Kay Petal, featuring famous figures crafted in felt – Johnny Cash, Janis Joplin, Mr. T. There are kits for making things like the decorative doodads that White has dubbed Beede Balls, after their creator, Beth Beede of Northampton (easiest felting technique ever: layer wet wool on a rubber ball, cover it with pantyhose, then bounce the ball over and over until the wool compacts and turns into felt). There are notions, including glass eyes for dolls (“a little bit fun, a little bit creepy,” White concedes); swaths of silk dyed by local artisans that are used as the basis of felted scarves; cellophane bags of embellishments like wool nubs and fancy ribbons; and piles of pool noodles, those foam toys kids use for swimming, which felters repurpose to roll out layers of wet wool.
White says that customers get more than the materials for felting. She and her staff can provide expert advice about how to work with those materials, either by answering questions on the spot or through classes. Fall is the busiest season for retail sales – people are stocking up on supplies for woolly holiday gifts – and White offsets the ensuing slowdown by focusing on workshops in the winter. On Feb. 13, for instance, New England Felting Supply will offer a session on making “Illuminated Ice Caves,” based on the Beede Ball technique; it will run in conjunction with Easthampton’s monthly Art Walk, which for February has a Fire and Ice theme. Other classes are listed at www.feltingsupply.com.
Mixed in with the retail merchandise and the classroom set-up is White’s mail-order business, which accounts for a significant portion of her sales. She receives much of her raw wool from thousands of miles away, and then, after she’s seen to having it processed and packaged, often turns around and ships it thousands more miles. Huge cardboard boxes are stacked everywhere, and the sound of packing tape being stripped from a dispenser creates a kind of white noise.
This past February White expanded into the front section of her space, opening a small shop on Cottage Street to sell finished felted goods.
They don’t come cheap. Felting may be simple, but it’s labor intensive. Felting can also be forgiving, in a free-form sort of way, but that very quality means that some projects risk turning into a muddled mess. Creating something exquisite is an art.
A pair of fetching baby booties by Easthampton felter Jean Gauger is $40; Gauger’s lush “butterfly” shawls, which White says are wildly popular, are priced from $550 to $650. White’s own round place mats, made from natural-colored wool from Northampton’s Sojourner Farm – she calls them tortilla mats, and says, “With these and a margarita you’re good to go” – are $42 for a set of four. In the window is the piece de resistance: an olive-green upholstered chair by New Hampshire artist Nicole Chazaud Telaar that’s adorned with dozens of sewn-on swatches of felted wool in myriad colors. It’s called The Flapper Chair, and it’s $6,000.
Felting, finally, is getting some respect in the United States. Last year the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City mounted an exhibit called “Fashioning Felt” which drew more than 100,000 visitors. White notes that the exhibit showcased felt through the filter of fashion design – one more sign that the medium is morphing from earthy-crunchy craft into something more.
Despite her supply business, despite her teaching, despite her book, White shrugs off any suggestion that she might deserve at least a little of the credit for that.
“Felt does that on its own,” she says. “The wool is amazing. I feel like I’m an ambassador.”
Margot Cleary can be reached at MCleary@gazettenet.com.
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