It’s been an exciting year since C&T
released the new edition of my how-to book Felt Wee Folk—New Adventures. I
love hearing from people who are just discovering the book, as well as seasoned
makers who are re-experiencing the joys of creating their own wee folk worlds.
I’ve been busy making pieces that
take the wee folk concept in a new direction and want to share the process with
you. My latest series of embroidered bas-relief
pieces feature head and shoulder portraits of different people from around the
world, using themes of history, style, and cultural identity. Their faces
are painted 20mm wooden beads, with wigs and adornments, similar to the doll
Felt Wee Folk.
My newest piece, Cover Up (24" x 30"), focuses on women’s head coverings that illustrate the conventions
of a particular time, social class, or place in history. They all wear some kind
of scarf, head piece, or mask that serves as a marker,
whether of self-expression or dictated by religious or
cultural tradition. There’s a wide array, from exaggerated fashions to
veils and makeup that hide women’s individual identities from sight.
I loved the research phase of the
project and spent many days hunting for images of women from around the world,
each wearing a covering that reveals something about the culture she comes from. I found reference materials on the Internet and practiced
painting likenesses on wooden bead heads with tiny brush strokes. I used
bits and pieces of felt, fabric, and lace to construct their attire and cotton
floss and wool thread to embroider different hairstyles.
The possibilities were endless, and I
could have kept making new characters for a long time, but I had to narrow it
down to fashions that I thought would best represent a variety of
cultures and periods of history. In a lot of cases it came down to choosing portrayals
that had characteristics I found personally intriguing. Who could resist making
a Marie Antoinette–style hairdo, an Afghan burka, or a Goth girl? Some
depictions are identifiable by their national costumes, tribal markings, or
regional headdresses, and others are less distinguishable and open to interpretation,
but they are all distinct individuals who fit into a collective portrait of
women across time.
To make the background, I grouped my
felt scraps in piles and pieced them together crazy-quilt style in
diagonal strips according to their hue. I find large solid colors too
overpowering and simplistic, whereas breaking up the field into small parts
brings a softer, more impressionist appearance. I used plant-dyed wool/rayon
felt that I bought years ago. Unfortunately it is no longer being produced, so every
little piece in my stash is as good as gold.
The random-shaped felt
pieces are held together on the back with a simple slip stitch. On the top
side, I used a fly stitch to join and decorate the edge between the pieces. My
husband Rob filmed me stitching at various stages of the project, which he put
together in this video.
I outlined the openings with
Soft Flex beading wire and embroidery floss, which gives the holes some
structure, as well as a nice clean edge.
During the month-long period of stitching
together the felt pieces, I occasionally shuffled around the portraits to see
how they looked in the holes. When the whole felt background was finished, I
sewed it to the back of a stretcher frame that I had covered with
The next phase in the project
involved making a felt-covered wire border, which is a technique I’ve recently
developed. The idea originated with a desire to form and stitch lines that have
a three-dimensional quality. I’ve used wire in my work for many years, but mostly in
miniature. To change the scale, I cover larger gauge, insulated electrical wire
with strips of embroidered felt. With this new way of working, I can incorporate
bolder, linear patterns and designs, like in my 2012 piece,
Birds of Beebe Woods.
Cover Up's border started with a sketch of a vine-like
pattern. As usual, plans changed once my hands began the process of shaping
and articulating the wire lines. It ended up looking more like a lattice-topped
pie or a chain-link fence.
sewed strips of felt to lengths of insulated electrical wire and embroidered
stripes of pastel shades of variegated floss. Straight lines seemed too
rigid and unwelcoming, so I wiggled the wires and arranged them in a diagonal
For the lattice pattern, I used many worm-shaped lengths
of covered wire. I don't know how to explain the part about joining the wire
ends. Let's just say that it involves poking wire through felt and lots of
fussy sewing to keep the wire from pulling out. When the border was finished, I
spent a long time repositioning the doll heads until I was satisfied with the
arrangement. I then secured each portrait inside their hole with a few stitches
on their shoulders.
Perhaps I should mention the time commitment, because people
are always curious. This size (24" x 30") piece usually takes three or four months of solid work. But I must add that I believe
that time alone doesn't give a piece of art its value. Like
other artists who do labor-intensive work, I am not deterred by the prospect of
spending countless hours on a single piece, as long as it holds the
promise of transcending the effort involved.
We all have a personal narrative
to share and it is my hope that this project inspires others to tell a story of
their own by expanding on the basic instructions in
Felt Wee Folk—New Adventures.
During the months-long project, I
shared behind-the-scenes images with my
Facebook, Instagram, and blog followers, including individual images of the women. The response to the
photos was so enthusiastic that I decided to print a poster which shows
enlargements (200%) of a selected collection of these portraits.
The 12" x 17" poster is available in
my Etsy shop.
Cover Up and other embroidered bas-relief pieces will be included in my exhibit Intertwined—Needle
Art of Salley Mavor
at the Bristol Art Museum, Bristol, RI.