At the Arboretum’s recent Herb Festival, Patagonia textile artist and exhibitor Susan Corl demonstrated a technique of working with merino and angora wool called felting. She handed me one of her specialized felting needles and asked, “Can you feel the tiny barbs at the end?” I could, but only if I ran my finger nail over the stainless steel tip. It’s these barbs that allow the felting to work.
She uses these needles to plunge into a wad of wool with even more wool, closely mimicking the arm movements of a voodoo practitioner. But instead of doll in the form of a strongly disliked coworker, she was creating objects like sunflowers and cats’ play balls with dozens of varying colors. She even had a wooden case that unscrewed to show four holes that each held an individual felting needle, essentially quadrupling her production output with each reticulating movement of her wrist.
She demonstrated the technique, then let me try it. I used a single needle to push a small tuft of sienna-colored wool into a mass of other felted strands that collectively had the size and density of a pincushion. She suggested that I use a thick piece of foam underneath to protect me from accidentally stabbing myself. “There have been accidents,” she told me, with a half smile. After about 30 seconds, I was exhausted.
Dry felting is what she had allowed me to experience, but there is also wet felting, the technique that she used to create a rack of beautiful rack of scarves with wool flowers felted to silk fabrics. The wet kind is even more lengthy and labor intensive process than the dry, involving rolling pins and rolls of bamboo. This method requires the confines of well-equipped studio, and not as prone to blood-letting incidents.
A true Renaissance woman, Susan has been farming her own silk worms for about ten years. She feeds the caterpillars increasing amounts of mulberry leaves as they progress through their multiple instars until they create a cocoon. This is where the silk comes from, and it is unwound in a single strand, rather than spun like yarn. “Each strand is stronger than steel,” she said. She also creates her own paper, basketry, and candles, all with a floral or faunal theme. Fish, flowers, butterflies, insects: she uses them all. She even had a meticulously stitched quilted piece the size and shape of a dining table place mat, the kind of place mat you would never rest a bowl of pasta marinara.
I have been familiar with her work for about twenty years, but after talking to her again on Sunday, I was reminded that this is a woman who just can’t stop creating.