As Wool Week commences (8 – 21 October), Emily Ashworth looks at UK artists using British wool as a source of inspiration in their work.
British products are becoming more and more sought after, and like with many things, provenance is key.
Wool is a multi-functional and fashionable material that is probably more widely used than you think.
It’s versatility and natural qualities are aspects that the five artists below look for when creating art and fashion, while simultaneously championing the British wool industry and local sheep farmers.
From pictures to cushion covers and sculptures, each artist is individual in their talents.
After beginning her career seven years ago Jill Harrison’s artistic journey has been one of success.
Her unique flair and the process in which she uses wool in her pieces is no doubt what has made her a standout artist in her field, striving to promote British wool and all its qualities.
Although originally from Bradford, West Yorkshire, Jill moved to Aberdeenshire after finding it difficult to obtain land and now runs a small flock of Hebridean sheep.
Her main inspirations are from the surrounding countryside and her flock, or from people – portraits are her passion, especially Hollywood stars from years gone by.
Utilising wool from her own animals, Jill has moved away from using traditional methods.
“I usually card the wool and blend different colours to obtain subtle shades,” she says.
“The way I use it gives me a very soft natural finish and I normally liken it to a pastel drawing or a delicately done painting.”
Dying the fibre herself, Jill likes to mix earthy colours to create a natural effect and uses the wool to paint with, building up her image in layers.
Jill has been asked to create a wide variety of pictures for her customers including tarantulas to superheroes but is through using wool that she hopes to highlight the importance of sheep.
She says: “Sheep have been an important part of life for thousands of years.
“They keep our land healthy and our countryside beautiful; their fleece keeps us warm and they provide us with good food.
“We need to look after these wonderful animals and make more use their precious fleece.
“Britain has long been a provider of wool and we should make sure it continues to do so.
“Now, more and more artists are using this medium which can only be a good thing by bringing the use of wool to the forefront once again.”
Sue Lewis is a textile artist who works with wool and silk, after discovering she had a passion for it seven years ago.
Self-taught in her craft, she practices wet felting, a very traditional way of using wool to create art.
“I have put my own twist on it though,” she says.
“I use the fleece in a 'painterly' way which I describe as 'painting with wool'.
“Living on Dartmoor means I’m surrounded by sheep, and different types of fleece bring something unique to my work, either in texture or how it reacts during the felting process.”
Using wool that comes from local farmers, the process to construct a picture is long and requires patience.
Sue washes and then dye’s the wool which is either carded (combed), of left as locks.
The wool is then laid out in layers to create a landscape or design, and very often there can be seven or eight layers to achieve the desired effect of light.
This is then sprinkled with a soap solution, smoothed out between layers of bubble wrap and rolled intensively to encourage the wool fibres to 'lock' together and felt.
Once fully felted this creates a solid picture.
Sue has an adoration for where she lives, which is translated in her work.
She says: “I'm very lucky to live on Dartmoor and the landscapes and the amazing skies we get here are a constant source of inspiration to me.
“The wildlife and flowers here feature quite regularly in my work. Occasionally I'll create a seascape featuring the coasts of the Southwest, but landscapes are my first love.”
Working where she does, Sue sees how essential it is to use wool local to her.
“It's really important to me to support British wool,” she says.
“We have a lot of wonderful breeds of sheep in the country, many of which are rare breeds.
“Wool is such a wonderful resource whether for artwork or clothing, to carpets, mattresses or even insulation. Its possibilities are endless and it’s hard wearing and versatile -the perfect renewable crop.”
Sue’s work is exhibited regularly in The National Trust gallery in Widecombe-In-The-Moor.
Creating stunning sustainable, felted wool sculptures from the heart of the Dorset countryside, Carla Taylor found herself in love with designing and crafting with wool while working with sheep fleece in 2013.
A self-taught fibre artist, The Mousehole Woolery began properly in 2014 after Carla set up in a small outbuilding on a dairy farm in Dorset.
Living with her partner, Haydn, a farm hand working around the area, they came across some who were burning fleeces after feeling there was no use for them.
Carla however felt she could utilise the countless properties of British wool through art.
She says: “I wanted to raise awareness of the wonderful properties of wool and it's many uses such as clothing, duvets, sound proofing, insulation and needle felting.
“I fell in love with the textures and colours of the different wools.
“Being part of a farming community in Dorset, it's very important to me to use as much British and local Dorset wool within my work.”
A supporter of The Campaign for Wool, Carla holds workshops to spread her passion for the industry, realising that we now live in a world where people want to know the provenance of products they use.
“People are becoming more interested in the stories behind the products they bring in to their homes and want to know that the animals are local have been cared for. It's a complete story from beginning to end – from looking after the land and the sheep, to the end sculpture.”
Carla likes to think that her pieces bring a little piece of nature to your home and clearly revels in the scenery she lives in. Her catalogue consists of hares, seasonal produce and local wildlife, to name but a few.
“My inspiration comes from the conservation of both our countryside and coastline,” she says.
“We are so lucky to have over 60 different breeds of sheep in this country, so I always have an abundance of beautiful wools to choose from to create my sculptures.”
Shows are the perfect outlet for Carla to sell her work, taking part in events such as Countryfile Live and Dorset Arts Week, and it is through socialising that much of her work is commissioned.
But it is her interest in championing rural history and its traditional crafts that is most striking.
She says: “While researching what uses wool could be used for, I learnt more about the history and how England had been built on the British wool industry. It was a great shock to hear that farmers were getting little return for their fleeces and sometimes not enough to cover their shearing costs.
“We like to use wool as it's both sustainable and biodegradable and it tells a story of our wool heritage and farming communities.”
After carving out a career in graphic design, it wasn’t until around seven years ago that Katie Allen decided to take the plunge and buy her own flock of sheep.
Both her and her husband are first generation farmers and Katie had to learn not only her craft from scratch but educate herself about sheep farming too.
“I spent many years working in the creative world, but when I started farming it felt like coming home,” she says.
“It wasn’t an easy start for the business. When I got my first sheep it was all entirely new to me. I was learning shepherding skills as well as my textiles craft.
“I have a background in design but none in textiles – or farming - so it is a constant and steep learning curve.”
Her flock of rare breed Castlemilk Moorit and Portland sheep now graze a total of 40 hectares on various conservation sites around Cirencester.
She sees the process through from start to finish, shearing her own sheep then taking the fleece to the Natural Fibre Company in Cornwall, where it goes through the scouring, carding and spinning process to be made into my chunky knitting yarn.
Katie produces a variety of limited edition goods including cushions, throws and homeware, her quality craftmanship leading her to feature on the hit BBC2 show, Back to the Land with Kate Humble.
But it is about showcasing the best of British and provenance is a huge part of her business.
She says: “It seemed such a waste that fleece wasn’t seen as a valuable resource. I often hear about farmers burying or burning fleeces.
“It’s devastating to me because wool is such a fantastic, sustainable resource with many natural properties that far outweigh the offering of manmade fibres.
“I am passionate about connecting my customers with an awareness of British wool and with important rural skills, to give them a feeling that they own something truly handcrafted and evocative of our British countryside.”
Heather Collins has had her work purchased from all over the world.
Her ability to recreate the natural environment is what offers people a unique insight in to how wool can be used in a wide variety of ways.
Using wool purchased from Wensleydale breeder in Lewes, East Sussex, Heather constructs her pieces – mostly inspired by the colours within nature, seascapes and natural landscapes – in a very individual way.
“All my work is created by free machine embroidery,” she says.
“I take a few threads of wool along with snippets of other fabrics, and intensely stitch them together to create a new piece of cloth in the colour palette of my inspiration.
“My work is often described as felted, but this is not the case.
“I stitch my pieces intensely, with only the straight stich on my sewing machine.
“I use my machine needle as an artist uses their brush; my paint is the wool and threads.”
Heather wants to champion British made products and wants to support British farmers alongside.
She says: “I am saddened about all the waste we are creating with synthetics.
“The farmers get next to nothing for their fleeces.
“Natural wool dyes beautifully, and the products last a lifetime if looked after.”
Her work, which includes pieces that replicate forest floors or winter bramble, is so lifelike it is often mistaken for the real thing, a testament to how intricate her art really is.