Textile artist turns Yorkshire Dales landscape on head by transforming wool into striking pictures

Andrea Hunter's work isn't just inspired by the Yorkshire Dales, it's steeped in its tradition of sheep farming. She talks to Lynn Leadbeatter.

PIC: Bruce Rollinson

t’s a cliché that sheep farming has shaped the Yorkshire Dales landscape. But in a quiet corner of Wensleydale, textile artist Andrea Hunter is turning it on its head by transforming wool into striking pictures that are alive with the sights, sounds and smells of the windswept fells. Felt has a cuddly image often associated with craftwork, sculpted into colourful vases or used to make cosy slippers and bright and cheerful wall hangings. Not in Andrea’s work.

A stunted and twisted hawthorn is bent by the force of the wind. Tufts of cotton grass light up the moors beneath a bank of louring black clouds. Hares flee for shelter from a snowstorm, eyes bulging, muscles straining. And everywhere there are sheep, often depicted in monochrome shades against a backdrop of snow and dark, threatening sky.

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“When I think about a view or a scene, it’s not just a visual recollection,” says Andrea. “It’s the wind and the rain coming in and the smell of the peat and the wet wool around me that conjure up the image that I try to capture in the picture.”

There’s an immediacy to Andrea’s work. She relies on observations made on her daily walks and rarely takes photographs or makes sketches. But the sense of apparent freedom belies a lifetime’s experience and hours of painstaking effort.

Born into a farming family in the hamlet of Hardraw, near Hawes, Andrea still lives within five miles of her eight siblings. After leaving Wensleydale School in Leyburn, she started an art foundation course at York Technical College with the intention of becoming a graphic designer but quickly realised she was more interested in textiles.

Taking a year off, she worked as a machinist at SR Gents, which supplied clothing to Marks & Spencer, whilst building up a portfolio of work. After graduating from Leeds University with a degree in textiles in 1987, Andrea returned home and concentrated on working in pastels and charcoal.

The following year she married Swaledale shepherd and drystone waller Stewart Hunter and while the couple were building their current home on a plot of land belonging to her mother, Andrea found some old pieces of felt in the attic and her interest in textiles was rekindled.

“I decided to play about with wool as an artistic medium,” she says. “I was using it in a very free and painterly way so it was natural for me to have the pictures framed. I did realise at the time that a lot of textile enthusiasts want to touch and feel the fabrics but I quickly discovered that presenting my work as art put a different value on it.”

Each picture starts off by setting down two layers of white Merino wool at right angles to each other to form a base. Then Andrea teases out more fibres and painstakingly lays them down in all directions on top in much the same way that a painter builds up an image from individual brush strokes – and the effect is to invest the work with a sense of depth, movement and energy. Her most recent pictures show a preference for a monochrome palette, inspired in part by Mr Nash, her art teacher at Wensleydale School, who encouraged his students to work in charcoal on a large scale.

“You can create more atmosphere with black and white,” says Andrea. “I love the simplicity and all the gradations of tone, while the rawness fits the landscape. I don’t think of the Dales as bathed in sunlight; I think of them as wild.”

Finally Andrea sprays the work with soapy water and covers it in bubble wrap before applying friction with rollers to lock the fibres together. It’s a nerve-wracking moment. At this point the picture shrinks in size by about 20 per cent and there’s no going back – not a single fibre can be added or removed.

“It’s not an exact science,” says 
Andrea. “You’re never sure what you 
will end up with but I love the spontaneity and the flow. The wool is so tactile that it’s almost therapeutic to work with. It’s a fantastic art medium and it’s still very much untapped. I came up with this technique through playing around, but when I went on the internet I realised that there wasn’t anyone else working in such an illustrative way.”

Today Andrea is widely recognised as something of a trailblazer. Readers of her book Creating Felt Pictures, which combines practical guidance with an insight into the sources of her inspiration, regularly describe it as their bible. After starting the business in cold and damp conditions in her garage, Andrea secured a regeneration grant to build a first-floor studio and gallery with views across the valley to Hawes and Wether Fell following the foot and mouth epidemic of 2001. Her monthly workshops fill up fast and she is now in a position to pick and choose between offers of teaching overseas.

Yet she does have one small regret. Because the local Swaledale sheep are so well adapted to the harsh, wet climate, the fibres in their fleeces are very tight, making it unsuitable for felting. This means that Andrea is forced to use the more open Merino wool, which can be made to lock together with less friction, allowing more definition in the finished image.

But the resilient spirit of the Swaledales still pervades all her pictures, whether they show the hardy animals searching for grass amid deep snowdrifts or celebrate the spectacular landscape of drystone walls, heather uplands and rocky outcrops that they have created.

Andrea’s latest collection is on view at the Focus on Felt Gallery, Hardraw. The studio is open from 11am-4.30pm, Tuesday to Friday, until October 31. focusonfelt.co.uk. Andrea will also be taking part in the North Yorkshire Open Studios event on June 3&4 and 10&11.