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Wednesday, July 19, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Reviving the ancient craft of handmaking felt

Seattle Times staff reporter

CENTRALIA — Textile artist Janice Arnold wants to save the world from bad fabric, specifically the fabric most of us call "felt," the ever-practical building block of Christmas stockings, school-play costumes and house slippers.

"The felt most people know is acrylic," Arnold said while giving a tour of her "R&D" studio, which occupies a classroom inside an old schoolhouse near Centralia.

Arnold, whose rare craft is making felt by hand — with natural fiber — for high-end clients, won't touch that other stuff.

"I just won't work with trashy fabrics," she said, spitting out her words like polyester scraps.

She handed a visitor a piece of ultra-soft sheep's wool to demonstrate the difference in the material she uses.

"It is pure wool," she said with a touch of enchantment.

With these impossibly cushy tufts of wool, flown in from places like Australia, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Oregon, South Africa and the American Midwest, Arnold is single-handedly raising the profile of one of mankind's oldest — and in her view most misunderstood — fabrics.

What started in 1999 as a commission to produce felt sculptures for window displays at Nordstrom, where she used to work in the visual merchandising department, has blossomed into a career all its own.

Since 1999, Arnold has worked on textile commissions for Saks Fifth Avenue, Jockey underwear, Disney and Cirque du Soleil, and has collaborated with artists and designers.

Arnold's most attention-grabbing creations have been on display for the past month in composer Elliott Goldenthal's new opera, "Grendel," which premiered in Los Angeles before moving to New York.

Critics haven't all been kind to the opera, an adaptation of the Scandinavian Beowulf tale directed by "The Lion King's" Julie Taymor. But most have praised the stage-consuming dragon cape and glacial Queen Wealtheow costume designed by Constance Hoffman, with fabric custom-made in Arnold's studio.

Arnold's intricate commissions are a long way from felt's origins 6,000 years ago in Central Asia, where she's traveled many times to hone her skills and even teach the dying craft.

In places like Kyrgyzstan, she noted, nomads cover their yurt dwellings with wool felt, as well as sleep in it and wear it.

"I love the fact that I have this very basic art," she said. "I've taken a very esoteric twist on a very ancient process."

"Luxury from simplicity" is written in marker on a fabric board in Arnold's studio, and it explains her approach to life as much as art.

Arnold, 53, said she's passed up opportunities to work in New York and other big cities in favor of small-town life in Olympia, where she lives. She and her husband, custom audio equipment designer Stan Klyne, both use the quiet country schoolhouse as a work space.

"It's a very meditative process, this process of laying the wool down," Arnold mused as she delicately pressed her palms against a swatch of layered wool. "It evokes a part of you that's ethereal almost."

"My hands are in each piece of fabric, whether it's 100 yards or 20 yards," she added.

Soak, agitate, repeat

Felting as art falls somewhere between watercolor painting and collage. Brute force plays a role, too.

When wool fiber is dampened and heated, tiny barbs in each strand poke out and interlock with barbs in neighboring strands, Arnold said. Agitating and drying the wool strengthens the bond.

"It's so tight, so tough," Arnold said. "You start with this ethereal fabric. It's like working with clouds, actually. And then it turns into this totally indestructible stuff."

As anyone who's accidentally placed a wet wool sweater in the dryer knows, the fabric can shrink dramatically. An original section of fabric measuring 8 feet by 16 feet will produce a 4-by-8 solid piece of felt.

The strands of colored fabric Arnold layers onto her creations seemingly bleed into one another, creating smooth color transitions.

Central Asian nomads often hitch a rolling pin loaded with soaking-wet wool to a camel and agitate the fabric by pulling the contraption around a field. In Kyrgyzstan, Arnold helped villagers kick pins down the road to agitate them.

When Arnold started making felt in the Northwest, she substituted the camels with a car, and used a schoolyard as the felting grounds. The younger of her two sons used to help out by pulling rolls behind his bicycle.

"I made a huge carpet once and I hired a bunch of teenagers to walk on it," she recalled.

Today Arnold uses a mechanical roller, set up in a tent just outside the school.

She'll carefully place a rolled-up piece of layered textile on a large table under the tent, then pour hot soapy water from a plastic garden sprinkler as the fabric unfurls. Next, she'll roll up the soaked material and affix it to the machine for 15 minutes of agitation. Arnold has to repeat this cycle three or four times for the wool fibers to lock sufficiently. Since drinking tea is a traditional part of felt-making, Arnold will often have a cup or two while she waits. By the end, what started out looking and feeling like wet Spanish moss will have transformed into dense, taut felt.

"I've even felted in the snow," Arnold said. "While it's entertaining when the steam rises off the wool, that's about the only enjoyable part."

When deadlines approach, Arnold practically lives at the school, working 9 a.m. to past midnight if necessary.

For the Cirque du Soleil project, she said, "We were actually felting by moonlight!"

Shrinking and growing

When not working on projects, Arnold experiments with new patterns, textures and fabric combinations.

"When I go home at night, I look like I've been hanging out with cats all day," she said.

One of Arnold's creations is what she's coined "Liseré felt," a translucent yet sturdy fabric created by layering sheer silk and wool.

"The felting process, it's like alchemy," she said. "If you listen to it, if you let the medium speak, it just does amazing things."

Arnold hopes to turn high-quality felt into an economic engine by linking retailers and other clients to ethical textile makers, as well as producers of raw wool.

In 1999, when she traveled to Nepal for help producing fine felt for her Nordstrom commission, Arnold got involved with a nonprofit cooperative of craftswomen that made slippers for sale at local markets. Back then, only 10 women were involved. Today, 150 women are making sellable felt in villages across the country using Arnold's techniques.

Arnold also is developing a trademarked textile called "fair fur," which will have the appearance and feel of animal pelts but consist of felt.

"I don't do things on a small scale — I think big," Arnold said of felt making and her broader plans.

Then she added with a smile: "I don't know if that's a blessing or a curse."

Tyrone Beason: 206-464-2251 or tbeason@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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