Chris White is first and foremost a felt maker and the author of Uniquely Felt (Storey Publishing, 2007). She also is the owner of New England Felting Supply, the largest U.S. importer of merino bats. Chris is a teacher. I feel the need to say it again, Chris White is a felt maker, a very unique felt maker.
Chris, it is so good to see you. I have been mulling around what exactly I wanted to talk with you about. I decided to turn it around....what would you like to talk about?
Well, I am coming off of a week- long private feltmaking intensive, so I’d have to say both exhausted and exhilarated. I worked with other felt makers to help them understand their felts in a very intimate way.––Why different wools make different felts, how the fibers move around and interlock and what material properties a finished felt has because of these things. Discovering what the wool is capable of.
Would you say the discovery is a major part of your work?
Basically, the heart of my work is sharing the honor I feel when working with wool. Wool is a mysterious and deceptively simple, alluring medium. When I began felt making I saw that felt was at a unique stage in America: under-appreciated, unknown, largely undefined. Because it can be simple, I saw immediately that it could be both embraced and dismissed by people.
But the more you delve into it, the more complex it really is, like a lot of things. And I saw a very rare chance to help define a fiber arts medium. I acknowledge that is pretty heady stuff. Looking back now, I see that I was approaching the wool as I did any other material, basically, learning about its properties and behavior. Thinking about simple adjectives... how it felt in the hand and how quickly it changed. Why does one wool change one way and one wool, another way? I quickly developed a skill set to make felt projects, but the finished piece was never as exciting to me as the Big Show going on under my hands! But I determined early on that I would let the wool lead me.
For about three years I struggled with self-doubt. How come I couldn't stick with one thing? Felt making instruction was–and still is–project-oriented. How to make a purse, how to make a hat, how to make a ball. I didn’t relate to that slowly, I began to see a common thread which was that I loved making all kinds of different felt because each experience told a different story. And then it dawned on me that this approach could be used to help organize and define this widely-variable medium. I realized I did not want to go the way of the production artist. I realized my contribution was going to be like translator or ambassador(k) of felt. Laugh! I accidentally hit the 'k' key turning ambassador to ambassadork-laughing so hard we nearly fell of the chairs! Chris clearly feels a kinship with 'ambassadork'.
I made all kinds of felt and attended a variety of workshops, but I found for me the changing of the wool under my hand.....from fiber to coherent felt, was the most exciting part. Chris gestures with her hands, the process, the 'rub' of the palm of your hand against fiber. She is clearly excited at the thought. The sparks fly from her palms. That is the moment of magic...not what it produced. The magic moment is the portal to something different, a new experience. The “different” is the invitation, my muse.
After many workshops, I realized that I was taking a completely different approach to felt.
You had the presence of mind to recognize this.
I didn't have a choice but to go with it, but I still struggle with it. For an artist to be considered successful there has to be a coherent body of work. People want to see one theme. For me that body of work is in the communication.
So what do you do now?
I just continue to do what has always made me happy. Learn the wool. Describe the commonality among all the different kinds of felt. Then, in 2004 Surface Design came out with a cover story on Materiality. That was really encouraging. Somebody is getting it! The article was what I had been talking about early on. That is when I coined the term Fiber Dynamics to describe how the fibers moved and changed through time during the felt-making process.
I study the differences between fibers; as well as the spatial arrangement through time. That means studying how and why different wools lock down differently. Quickly or hard, fast, gradual or instant. Every wool has a voice. That is how I think of it–I am having a dialogue with the wool.
When I start to felt –does it shed water; when I lay my hands on for first time, is it warming quickly; the dialogue leads me back to the character of the wool. I have been able to follow common characteristics and character; there is actually a physical logic as to how a given felt forms.
Back in 2002, I began collaboration with Sharon Raymond (Shutesbury) of Simple Shoemaking. Making the felt needed for shoes was the first time I was able to use these materials to a practical end, so shoe making allowed me to apply fiber dynamics. I needed to create something durable AND flexible. Like a good leather shoe should be. When I wasn't finding it in a single wool, I tried mixing wools together. For example, a very durable wool with one that was finer and fast to felt. The coarse wool was like scaffolding that gave the shoe its form, but takes a long time to felt...so by adding merino to the scaffolding I was able to create a felt that went faster and filled in the spaces to make a super strong but flexible.
I just have to say for how long have known you, for all the conversations about creativity etc. I have never heard you speak like this. I am speechless. I have to stop a minute.
As I talk about it, it is logical, so simple and it is not mine. It is the wool’s voice. I am the translator, the ambassador. It had to come out. In its own time. And now is the time. When I wrote Uniquely Felt, I decided it would be a contribution to the medium and it would assist in defining quality.
Do you feel that happening?
It is happening. I had decided myself that it is going to happen.
The business is doing well, the book is written, what is next for you?
I’ll continue to get New England Felting Supply on its feet, but mostly I’m thrilled to finally be able to turn my attention back to creating again after 6 years of writing and retail. I’m organizing more Fiber Dynamics Intensive workshops and when a felt maker is ready to learn about the medium in that in-depth way, I’ll be here! Fibers offer knowledge, and you can learn to speak wool if you just slow down and let your hands listen.
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