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Backbone of Britain: Preserving the ancient art of wool felting

Charlotte Ashley has recently found her traditional felting skills in high demand and now, she wants to put a younger perspective on this rural craft. Emily Ashworth finds out more.

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Using wool to create beautiful felting art and preserving an ancient rural craft

These days, it is hard to come by anything that can not be manufactured by a machine, so it is no surprise to learn that Charlotte Ashley’s unique and handcrafted artistic felt creations are becoming increasingly sought after.

 

After growing up in Preston, Lancashire, Charlotte, 30, moved to Appleby in Cumbria 11 years ago to be with her husband, Roy, and now helps to run their 73-hectare (180-acre) beef farm.

 

It was this switch in lifestyle that prompted Charlotte to join her local Women’s Institute group, where she saw a demonstration on wet felting and, with the family’s small flock of Herdwicks in mind, knew she had found a profitable way to utilise the wool.

 

“I watched it and thought, I can do this,” says Charlotte.

 

“The wool isn’t worth anything – most people burn it and I had some just hanging in the shed.”

 

Choosing to opt for the traditional needle felting method, Charlotte has learnt her trade from scratch, realising the profit from selling her art could provide a steady income, especially given the couple are soon transitioning into dairy.

 

Felting, says Charlotte, ‘is one of the most historic crafts known to us’ and wool felt is considered to be one of the oldest known textiles, predominantly used to make clothes.

 

She hopes to play a part in reviving something integral to our rural heritage, too.

 

“Quicker, modern and more cost-effective methods do not have the quality of original methods,” says Charlotte.

 

“And, it does not carry the heritage or passion for creating them. I am lucky to be able to create what I love, but I am not into fast fashion and I would rather buy a woolly jumper and make it last.

 

“I am also not into disposable artwork either – what is on your walls should be a reflection of you and your individuality.”

 

The process of felting is one of intricacy and precision, and Charlotte makes detailed pictures of anything from dogs, to people, to farm animals.

 

After the wool is sheared, any vegetable matter is removed and the fleece is then washed and carded to align the fibres, so they are uniform and go the same way. The wool balls created can then be used to make backgrounds using the traditional wet felting technique and the details can be added using a small barbed needle. The needle felting process is simply pushing the wool through another material where it is held in place.


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Young

 

It is also nice, says Charlotte, ‘to put a young face to it,’ and show felting isn’t just made for generations gone by. Plus, championing British wool and its sustainable attributes is important, too.

 

She says: “I really feel this craft deserves recognition and interest from us youngsters – it should not be dying out but taking off. I am behind my craft 100 per cent and a big advocate of wool and the rural way of life.

 

“Wool is natural, sustainable, biodegradable and has no air miles. Wearing wool clothing reduces micro fibre pollution and is a good way to buy something British. And, in a world where people are becoming increasingly aware of their impact upon the environment, I do feel wool is having a resurgence. I feel I can reach a wider audience through my craft and social media presence.”

 

The craft industry is also, says Julie Crawshaw, executive director of The Heritage Crafts Association, becoming much more widely appreciated.

 

She says: “Traditional crafts tell the story of our cultural history. Materials and styles used in the same craft have fascinating variations across the country, which in turn have been influenced by climate and local industry. The tradition of passing skills down the generations from master to apprentice creates a tangible link to the past. There is no doubt some crafts will be lost as the need for a particular product disappears, but many crafts can be used to create new products that do have a market. It is also important to keep traditional skills alive to ensure that our historic buildings and their contents can be repaired, restored and conserved for the future.

 

“Art-led felt making is practised very widely and often to a very high standard and in recent years there has been a renaissance in traditional craft generally.”

 

This notion was further proved after Charlotte appeared on the BBC One programme Home Is Where the Art Is, in April 2019, where she had to specifically create a piece of art for someone’s home. She was the only felt artist on the show from a farming background who used her own wool in her creations.

 

It then naturally became about showcasing Charlotte’s way of life.

 

She says: “You don’t realise what people don’t know about the industry.

 

“Some people just have no idea what they are eating and I use the farm as a story to my work. I also like my work to promote farming – I used to use the line, ‘from field to frame’.

 

“There is a list of where the wool comes from on my website for example, and I either use my own wool, or from local farmers and friends.

 

“I feel people respond to a back story that is honest and real, and traceability of materials that are hand-processed helps.

 

“Countryside art is becoming more popular too, along with shopping locally and at independent stores.”

 

Winning

Winning

Charlotte went on to win the show and has since seen her small hobby explode overnight into a successful business, receiving 400 requests from people after the programme aired.

 

She says: “It was an affirmation of my skills that had previously just been a sideline. It has given me the confidence boost I needed to really make a go of it and I enjoy sharing the process with the wider public and showcasing the farming that enables it all to happen. This was crafting on the side and now it is a viable business, which is a bit of a shock.”


Although there are many traditional rural crafts that have not been able to stand the test of time, Charlotte believes her line of work is enjoying a resurgence, as she sees more people take up, or show interest in, felting.

 

“Young people seem to be getting into crafts,” she says.

 

“I sell felting kits online and they have all sold out. It feels like people are leaning more towards home-made rather than buying from big producers, which is great for me.”

 

She is now booked up until January, aiming to produce pieces every 10 days and selling them for £250-plus per felted animal.

 

With her business, Charlotte Ashley Art, expanding at an alarming rate, Charlotte feels that, coming from a non-farming background, her journey into felting has enabled her to integrate herself in to the farming community, many of whom have supported her and supply her with materials.

 

“Being part of the rural community, I feel, is key to my success,” she says. “The amount of wool I get given is unreal and, although it is not worth as much money as it used to be, it is invaluable to me and I appreciate every bag.”

 

As for the future, is felting a family trade she wishes to pass on?

 

She says: “My children do not know any different as they have grown up with wool boiling on the cooker and seen the dye splattered all over. They love getting involved in the process of carding wool already.”

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