I came across felting while searching the internet for a solution to a friend’s problem: a deterrent for Martens, the cute, furry animals fond of chewing rubber and warm cables, that had taken up residence in her attic! The advice, based on the idea that cat odor would discourage the Martens, involved making hairballs from cat hair and distributing them where the animals were not wanted.
Making hairballs was said to be simple. Rubbing the cat hair between your palms will transform it into a ball through the process of felting. It did! Cat hair, or rabbit, sheep, goat, alpaca, or camel hair that we know as wool, consists of a shaft covered by a series of scales. When wet, the fiber softens and droops, loosening the scales. Agitation, such as rolling and rubbing, encourages the scales to become entangled with neighboring fibers and form a dense fabric, felt. So, after the cat-scented balls, fascination with the felting methods that produced almost by magic a world out of unspun wool made me move on to merino birds, wool hearts, and other small decorative objects, and to “wool paintings.”
While I was playing with felt, I was also exploring its history. Myths and legends abound about the discovery of felt, the oldest non-woven textile said to have appeared in Central Asia over 6,000 years ago. While there is agreement on the auspicious coming together of animal hair, moisture, and friction, there is variation on where it originated and by whom it was developed. My preferred legend: it was first created by accident on Noah’s ark. The accumulation of hair on the floor of the ark, wetted by water and urine, and trampled by the animals, became felt.
Since its discovery, felt has become an essential part of the lives of Asian and Middle Eastern peoples. Garments, shoes, hats, rugs, household containers, yurts, and ceremonial objects were made of felt, and continue to be made today. In the Western hemisphere, more recently, felt has mainly been used for decorative and design arts and crafts. The wet-felting technique, involving wetting the wool and using pressure and heat, is laborious, usually taking hours to complete. Dry-felting, using special needles to encourage the wool to felt, more suitable for decorations and 3D objects, is less physically demanding.
Not long after my fascination with the history of this ancient art, and in the process of felting, I came up with a haiku. And when I decided to take part in The100DayProject—a global art project encouraging everyone to participate in 100 days of making—I committed to making a felting and pairing it with a haiku daily. Given the time required to make a felting, this meant my cautious nature was seriously challenged to relate spontaneously with the work.
It turned out the perfect combination for me: haiku (and related forms such as haibun and tanka), the mainstay of my poetry, and felting, involving a physical process, coming together to give birth to a new object, visual and tactile, what I called a “haikufelting.” As a result of bringing these sides together, through seeing, touching, handcrafting, imagining, and experiencing, I developed a strong, almost palpable connection to my creations.
Several of these objects became haiga, juxtaposing image and haiku in unusual and interesting ways that do not simply describe but enhance and deepen the work. In the traditional Japanese form, haiga combines brush painting (image), haiku (poem), and calligraphy (writing). In the West, a medieval practice with affinities to haiga might be found in the inscription of poetry by Benedictine monks, such as John Lydgate, into textile pieces. In modern haiga, poets use paintings, watercolors, collages or digitally created images, and modified photographs, with the poem often digitally superimposed on an electronic device. The latter creations are usually referred to as photo-haiku. Whatever the technique, I am coming to realize, there are long threads running through the relationship between poetry and visual representation. The combination of poetry texts and textiles, in particular, has a history that goes back through medieval verse on tapestries and wall hangings to the elaborate decoration of medieval manuscripts aiming to enhance the understanding of the text, and beyond.
Initially, my process involved making a felting, and during this making, or shortly afterward, writing a haiku. I photographed the felting and added the poem to the digital image. With the original small 100 haikufeltings, and the time pressure involved, I could not see another way of adding the poem. Since the completion of the 100-day challenge, I started making larger pieces that allow me to hand-stitch the poem into the felt. This needle-writing, turning the embroidery needle into pen, the thread to ink, in some way echoes the calligraphy of the traditional haiga. Developing my competence in embroidery writing will be my project for the next year. This step—barring rearing and shearing my own sheep, and dyeing the wool—completes the circle of making a felting haiga using my own resources from beginning to end.
PS: Did the hairball solution remedy the problem? It appears that when the balls were made with freshly gathered cat fur, the Martens kept away. Once the balls lost their smell, the Martens were back. It looks like I will be following this scent trail for a while.
I am grateful to Clare MacQueen and MacQueen’s Quinterly journal for putting the trail on the map.
In MacQueen’s Quinterly, 1st January 2020