If when you hear the word felt you think of hats, snooker tables and children’s creative play, then think again. It is actually a much more versatile fabric than it might first appear, as Nidderdale-based textile artist and designer Yvonne Le Mare is proving.
At her home in Summerbridge, near Pateley Bridge, Le Mare is creating an eye-catching collection of beautiful garments employing wet felting techniques using wool, silk and plant fibres. Her pieces include bridal capes, exquisitely delicate wraps, scarves, coats, jackets and dresses. Some of these pieces are incredibly fine and light, not qualities you would normally associate with felt but, through curiosity and experimentation, Le Mare is discovering that the possibilities are endless.
Having studied fashion and textile design at Manchester College of Art, Le Mare then did a higher diploma in art and design at Leicester Polytechnic and went on to have a career in design and design management roles before going freelance and completing commissions in the UK and internationally. She has also been a visiting lecturer at several colleges including the London College of Fashion and Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Art. Having tried out many different textile-related crafts over the years, she eventually took part in a felt-making workshop in 2007 and it was a revelation.
“It was actually one of those ‘light bulb moments’,” she says. “I found that I had discovered the art form that I had been searching for. It’s almost magical – you start off with a pile of fluff and using only moisture, friction and heat you can end up with a garment, or a landscape piece. You can almost paint with the fibres or it can be really sculptural. It is the versatility of it that I like.”
When Le Mare first moved to North Yorkshire in 1990, she lived on a small farm and spent some time running a flock of Masham sheep. Now she is using local fleeces from Wensleydale, Masham, Bluefaced Leicester and Teeswater sheep to make her designs. “When I had my own flock, I got to know the local farming community,” she says. “I am in touch with a local breeder of Teeswater and Wensleydale sheep. He shows the sheep and judges at shows and has access to other breeders, so I give him a “shopping list” of essential and desirable and he lets me know. I am buying prime fleeces as the sheep are all show class – some of them will have been champions – so it is all top quality.”
Wensleydale and Teeswater sheep have long lustrous ringlet-like locks which feature in a number of Le Mare’s designs, adding wonderful extra texture to the garments.
Some pieces use the natural colours of the fleeces while others are hand-dyed by Le Mare. “One of the things I really love about felt-making is that the colours can be subtle or quite vibrant,” she says. “And you can blend colours together by carding, or if you use different coloured layers of fibre, the under layers will show through so you achieve rich depth of colour rather than a matt look.”
Sustainability and localism are both key issues for Le Mare. “That’s important to me,” she says. “A sheep grows a new fleece every year and as I am using local Nidderdale fleeces, I am hoping to do my bit to reboot the British wool industry. Wool is so comfortable to wear because it breathes and all my garments can be washed gently by hand.”
The range of clothing is testament to the versatility of the technique from solid and structured garments, such as jackets and coats, to light and floaty – there are some beautiful summer dresses in the collection – to the most delicate pieces such as a gossamer-light “cobweb” wrap. “It is made out of Bluefaced Leicester fleece and tussah silk and it only weighs 16 grams,” says Le Mare. “I made it just to see how fine I could go.” It takes around a day to make a scarf, a little longer for a wrap while a garment may take several days. “Sometimes I will leave a piece partway through, overnight,” says Le Mare. “It allows the fibres to settle in especially if I am making nuno felt which is a technique where wool fibres are encouraged to migrate through a loosely woven fabric. The shrinkage rate of different breeds and fabrics vary, so even for experienced feltmakers things might not go exactly to plan.”
Alongside the clothing, Le Mare also makes accessories – handbags and jewellery, homeware including rugs, cushions, even vases and vessels, and striking wall-art.
The inspiration for her work and designs, says Le Mare, is wide and varied ranging from traditional ethnic art and the history of costume to the beautiful landscape which surrounds her, especially aspects of colour and texture in nature. “It is more than a hobby to me,” she says. “It is a way of life.”
Yvonne Le Mare will be exhibiting at the Nidd Art Trail, August 21, 22 and 23 and 29, 30 and 31, www.niddart.org.uk; Nidderdale Show, September 21, www.nidderdaleshow.co.uk; Masham Sheep Fair, September 26 and 27, www.mashamsheepfair.com and at Craft in the Pen, Skipton, November 21 and 22, www.craftsinthepen.org.uk. You can see more of her designs at www.yvonnelemare.co.uk and www.facebook.com/yvonnelemare.feltmaker Prices are from £40 for scarves and £175 for wraps. All other prices on request.