It may normally be associated with children's play time, but felt is also being used to create stunning works of art by one Monmouthshire woman. JEN MILLS reports.
FELT was made was in biblical times, according to legend. Animals herded on to Noah’s Ark shed their fleece on the floor, and after 40 days and 40 nights of trampling, standing around, rolling on the floor and jostling the donkeys the wool was looking much flatter.
The material was also allegedly created when St Christopher lined his sandals with wool in preparation for a long journey. After trudging for miles in the Middle Eastern sun, his sweaty feet rubbing on the wool was enough to compress the material into felt – and no doubt give him some blisters as well.
These stories may not have been historically the first incidences of felt production, but they do illustrate the necessary conditions to make the ancient material.
Local artist Sarah Goodgame, 49, invited me into her home and studio in Gilwern near Abergavenny to tell me how she makes her local scenes from brightly coloured wool.
The most important thing in the felting process is agitation, she said. Just like the action of fleece ground into the floor or a sandal, she needs to make sure there is pressure on the wool to make it bind together into the denser material of felt.
“I use needles with notches”, she said. “By pressing and stabbing the wool you’re knitting it together by using barbs on the wool – you could probably see it with a microscope. It’s very therapeutic actually, stabbing the wool. ”
Mother-of-one Sarah makes her felt from scratch, with farmers from Brecon and Powys donating fleece they don’t need. She washes it and dyes it in bright colours ready to go through the agitation process.
The grey and fuzzy fleece the felt is originally made from is a cloud of sheepy smelling fuzz. Its transformation into the stylised pictures she makes is impressive, and proves an apt medium to depict rural scenes for a nation famous for its sheep farming.
Depending on the mood of the painting, she said she takes a cloud of sunflower yellow, lime green wool or petrol blue wool for example and works it until it comes together. This allows her to build up the pictures with a textured depiction of the fields around the Sugar Loaf, a church at Capel -y-Ffin, or a row of miners’ houses at Collier’s Row.
Seemingly established as an artist, it was surprising when Sarah said she had only given up the day job only a week before our meeting, after more than 30 years in the NHS as a ward sister and emergency nurse.
“I was an A&E nurse for most of my career,” she said. Working in hospitals was incredibly rewarding, she said, but added that at times it led you to give so much of yourself that there was little left to work on creative projects. “I’m tired, like most people in the NHS”, she said. “It’s hard work being surrounded by suffering and people who are ill - although actually, that’s the bit I don’t mind. It’s not the patients who are hard. I love meeting people and doing things for people. But it’s becoming more and more difficult to do that in the way you want to do it.
“As an emergency nurse I’ve been used to dealing with chaos. I’m used to working from minute to minute.”
This is reflected in the way she designs her pictures, she said. “Very often, when I sit down to do a piece of work I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Creativity comes naturally, as she has been drawing since childhood – but her work was not always so well received.
“As a child I remember drawing on my wallpaper in my bedroom.”, she said. “I drew lots and lots of people. I must have been three years old. I drew all these little stick figures. My mother and father went mad. They said, ‘do you think we’re too poor to buy paper?’ To me it was just different, it was fun.”
Having now graduated on to felt, she still likes to explore with different canvases. Picking up one scene, she said: “For this one I used a utility blanket. I cut it into a square. I’ll choose my colour pallet and start to stitch the wool in.
“Most of my pictures have a red kite in them. It’s a kind of signature. When I see a red kite I still gasp because they’re amazing birds.”
Now working for herself instead of in large medical team, she says the idea is daunting but exciting. “A typical day would be getting up early because I have been lying awake with creative ideas all night. I’d have breakfast in the garden with my husband and my Springer spaniel. Then I’ll go up into the workroom and just sit amongst billows of wool and start working.
“You can’t sit for a long time felting because it does your head in. I might have lunch with a friend, take a bit of time out. Often I’ll carry on working into the night. “
Her studio, a shed in the garden with bare floorboards, rug and wooden roof is scattered with sketches and art books as well as the pervasive wool.
In the garden outside are metal sculptures made by her husband Chris, which help provide artistic inspiration. In September she will begin a course at Hereford Art College having never had any formal art training before.
The artistic life she has adopted wholeheartedly comes after a personal loss made her reflect on life. Sarah said: “I lost my mum in April. I think she gave me the push really. Losing a person obviously makes you stop and re-evaluate your life I think and that’s what I have done. I know she would be saying follow your heart. I think she would be really proud.”
In the future, she hopes to build on the experience she gained working as a nurse to tell the universal stories she learned. “Working with people for that length of time gives you a really rich bank of stories to tell,” she said. “You learn about people, really. There’s such a lot of waiting in the NHS, really. Waiting for an operation, waiting to be seen, waiting for results, waiting for treatment, waiting to go home, waiting to be discharged. All I have done is manage people’s waits, over the years.”
“I would say to anybody, if you have a dream follow it. Life is very short. I have seen peoples’ lives just snuffed out like that; if you have a dream, have the self belief to go for it.”
Sarah Goodgame sells pictures at Usk Farmers Market, through the Made in Monmouthshire website and on Facebook.
She tweets @LittleBirdWales.