This week, Mary Reichert talks about how she stumbled into the art of felting and textiles. She’s become passionate about the craft, and has even gone to live in Central Asia to learn more about the history and techniques.
MR: I work with wool, making felt. How this came to be feels like an incredible mystery and also the most natural thing to happen. When I speak about felt-making I light up; I feel connected with the world. I have been most at home in my life working with a group of people making large community rugs. I did not grow up making things, surrounded by animals or wool, or ever imagine myself involved with fiber.
My grandmother was a weaver, spinner and lacemaker, but as a teenager it never crossed my mind to look closer. When I finished college in 2004 I was bit by a growing curiosity to learn more about sheep, and I started working on some small fiber farms in New England with the intention to learn to weave. I learned enough to finish an old piece of my grandmother’s and after that I like to think that I was given her blessing, because I took a hard left turn into the land of felt-making and haven’t turned around since!
I love the process, the simple action of adding soap and water to wool and then physically shrinking the wool, and feeling the whole time how the wool is changing under my hands. I love working to create crisp, fine lines in such a soft medium while also creating soft lines that move like water in the wool. Felt is also incredibly versatile- traditionally yurts had thick felt walls, and the insides were covered in felt rugs, the dishes were carried in felt bags, and the people wore felt clothing.
When I first opened my studio in 2012 I made a list of dreams, one of which was to traveling in Central Asia to learn about felt- one year later I was living in Kyrgyzstan for three months with a family of renowned felt makers! I have returned a couple of times since then, and continued learning the language, culture, and roots of this art. The people of Central Asia have lived in, worn, and celebrated felt for thousands of years. Felt is intimately tied to a way of life with the sheep and the rivers, the grasslands and mountains. It is a way of being at home in the world with which I feel deeply connected. So for me, creating felt is a way of connecting to these old roots of remembering how to listen to and live well in the world. This is what keeps driving me forward, feeding this old root of culture while adding myself on as one of the many, new budding branches.
One of the challenges is keeping this bigger picture of why I am doing this work in focus, and finding that balance between learning to run a business and having the business run me. I love not working a 9-5, but it also means that my work is staring at me 24-7. Still, I wouldn’t give it up for a minute. It teaches me the gift of dedication. The more I dig in, the deeper and wider the study becomes. When I first decided to truly become a student of felt-making I remember worrying about all of the doors I was closing. I now know the vastness of learning and the depth of possibility is endless if I allow myself to follow the details of felt-making all the way.
I have been working with rugs and scarves in the last few years, and have now also started working on felt vests. I named the business Otlak Felt Studio and Clothing because I knew at some point I wanted to make felt clothing. I am excited to now be moving in that direction and will have them for sale this summer at the studio and through art festivals. I am applying to St. Anthony in the Park June 2 and Grand Marais Art Festival July 14, 15; acceptance letters come in March.
The other big change around the studio is I have learned how to make large felt rugs with groups of people. It’s so amazing! I would like to bring this skill to the community and share what I’ve learned. I am hoping to offer a community rug making class through the Duluth Folk School this Fall and next year with North House Folk School.
Feature on WDSE’s “The Playlist” from 2017
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