At Easthampton’s New England Felting Supply the fiber stars in stuff from pillows to lampshades
Daily Hampshire Gazette, April 13, 2017, By Hunter Styles.
In the bright, high-ceilinged new headquarters of New England Felting Supply in Easthampton, sunlight falls across buckets of colorful dyed wool. Such a vivid array might strike a layperson as a simple rainbow. But to anyone who has dipped their hands into the world of feltmaking, these buckets comprise a full spectrum of raw material.
Felt is a kind of cloth — but it is also, at its base, as transformable as clay. Like paint on an endlessly changing palette, a handful of felting wool breaks down on its way to becoming something bigger: anything from a hat or a scarf to a lampshade, a tiny plush toy, or a giant sculpture. In creative hands, this stuff is among the most magic of fabrics.
In 2007, Christine White founded New England Felting Supply — an offshoot from her Magpie Designs Feltmaking Studio — in an effort to introduce modern artists and shoppers to feltmaking. It is a medium that mostly slipped off the American map during the Industrial Revolution, when spinning and weaving was the name of the textile game. Artisans in countries like Turkey, Russia and Germany have enjoyed uninterrupted generations of feltmaking, and it has taken American crafters some time to catch up.
Now a decade into business, New England Felting Supply — which moved last summer from Cottage Street into the Keystone Building next to Eastworks on Pleasant Street — claims to still be the only full-scale brick and mortar business in the country wholly devoted to feltmaking.
In addition to the Easthampton retail shop, which stocks hundreds of types and colors of wool and fiber, the company also runs a robust online store and a year-round educational program. Those classes includes drop-in day sessions as well as week-long workshops run by teachers from as far afield as Canada, Finland, Turkey, England, Holland and Australia.
The common theme in class, says store manager Christine Laverdiere, is that “many students are surprised by how easy it is. They go to a workshop, learn skills, come home, and find that they can actually do it. It may look a little daunting from the outside, but once you learn a few techniques, it’s really very user-friendly.”
Felt is not woven or knitted. Rather, it is made by matting, condensing and entangling loose wool fibers. It is an ancient art — felt is considered to be the oldest known textile — and is practiced worldwide. Wet felting, which involves warm water and hand-rolling, can produce anything from shelters (such as the yurts built by nomadic people in central Asia) to rugs, artwork, clothing and accessories.
Needle felting, a faster and more portable process, offers additional options for art-making, such as the small plush figures that populate many of this store’s flat surfaces. Inspiration lingers, in understated ways, all around the store: wet-felted scarves and garments fill display racks, and cute handmade children’s toys peer over the tops of buckets and shelves.
New England Felting Supply imports wool from all over the world, but Laverdiere says that the draw of those materials also allows the company to support a “local wools program” — which is evident in one large corner of the shop, piled with wool from farms in western Massachusetts and the Hudson Valley.
Customers and visitors come from all over, Laverdiere says, from professional artists to emerging feltmakers. Since 2007, nearly 2,000 students have taken classes here, and many now lead classes of their own, both regionally and internationally.
Stopping by to pick up a gift for a loved one — or a crafty treat for oneself — is easy enough here. But those thick, woolly buckets of fiber are something more: they radiate bright-colored potential. This stuff can grow, shrink and be shaped into whatever the dabbler desires. On top of that: feltmaking materials are fairly cheap, and the learning curve isn’t steep. As this art continues to grow in popularity, it may be time for more shoppers to look twice at that weekly cart full of pricey finished goods and ask: what if I just made this myself?
For information on classes at New England Felting Supply visit www.feltingsupply.com.