This month writer and stylist Rachel O’Brien headed to the Fluff-a-torium in Dorking and learnt how to make a pair of hand felted slippers with felt guru Gillian Harris, aka Gilliangladrag.
“The shoe repairer did look at me a little bit quizzically” says master Fluff-a-tier Gillian Harris, author of Complete Feltmaking and Carnival of Felting, as she describes the time she took a pair of felted slippers to the shoe menders to be soled. Clearly not everyone is as well versed in the joys of felt as wool guru Gillian Harris (aka Gilliangladrag).
Gillian has turned felt-making into an art form and her creations have graced the pages of many a magazine, while her felt-making kits are sold in John Lewis and Liberty, and her books have been translated into several languages and are sold around the world.
As a keen knitter myself, I’m used to working with wool but I had never tried making felt before, so this wet-felting workshop was to be a voyage of discovery for me. Not one to turn down a challenge I made my way to (corking) Dorking, home to Gilliangladrag’s Fluff-a-torium where I would be learning to make a pair of hand felted slippers.
A short walk from Dorking West train station, the Fluff-a-torium was easy to spot with its bright and quirky facade festooned with felted bunting.
With shelves, stands and cabinets filled with balls of wool, ribbons, buttons and all manner of felt items, the interior was just as inviting as the exterior and I immediately felt abuzz with creative energy.
The felting workshop was to be held upstairs in Gillian’s studio and myself and the three other students eagerly eyed the collection of Gillian’s handmade slippers spread across the table, keen to get started.
After breaking the ice with a cup of tea and a chat, Gillian gave us a step-by-step demonstration and described the various styles that we could cut our finished slippers into – such as mules, booties or ballet pumps – and the options for soling them.
Handmade felt is made from sheep’s wool called wool tops or roving (sometimes also referred to as wool fleece) which has been cleaned and combed. To make felt, the wool fleece must first be rubbed with soap and water so that the fibres begin to join.
The material is then ‘fulled’ – a process which shrinks and hardens the wool to make it thicker. By the end of the day we would all leave the Fluff-a-torium with a pair of shoe lasts covered in wool fleece to full in our washing machines, then shape and decorate at home.
To make our slippers we first needed to cover the polystyrene shoe lasts with three layers of wool fleece. Spoilt for choice, I finally settled upon lilac for the first layer, fawn for the second and a dark purple for the outer.
Laying one of my shoe lasts on its side, I started teasing out strands of lilac wool fleece and laying it on top. With a piece of polyester netting covering the last, I sprayed it with soapy water and rubbed until the wool was firmly in place.
I continued the layering process until the last was completely covered and resembled a ‘bearskin’ as Gillian described it. We repeated this for the other shoe last and for our second layer, before taking a much needed break for lunch.
After lunch we added our third and final layer of wool fleece. As we would be applying our designs on top of this, we only rubbed the wool fleece gently this time.
Once our designs were in place we would then rub the lasts firmly for around 10 to 20 minutes to ensure the fleece and any decorative felt we had added was secure.
Watching Gillian, who had been working on a pair of felted slippers throughout the day, effortlessly create a simple floral motif around her wool topped shoe lasts, I opted for a similar design.
Using oddments of wool fleece in complementing colours I created five or six roses around each last and then applied soapy water and rubbed until they were in place.
Throughout the day the atmosphere was very relaxed. Gillian also demonstrated how to make needle-felted roses to decorate the slippers so that we could make them ourselves at home if we wanted.
Back home a few days later, I continued to apply soapy water and rub my shoe lasts until I was convinced the wool fleece was firm. Feeling rather apprehensive, I put both lasts into the washing machine along with a pair of old jeans to add friction.
With the slippers rattling around I was quite worried about how they would turn out. However I followed Gillian’s guidelines and kept them in for a second wash and spin to toughen them even more. With the wool now fulled, I carefully cut out the slipper shape and removed the polystyrene moulds to allow the slippers to dry out.
The reult was a beautiful pair of cosy felted lilac slippers decorated with rosebuds and perfect for warming my toes in front of the fire this Christmas.
This one day course is ideal for beginners and keen crafters alike, who want to try their hand at something a little bit different. The making process is quite unusual and the finished product is truly unique and something to be very proud of.
Alongside felted slipper workshops you can also learn how to make felted bags, jewellery, hats and even pictures under Gillian’s expert guidance. All I have left to do now is have my slippers soled. I think I’ll brave my local shoe menders… I wonder how he will react?
To find out more about felt workshops with Gillian Harris visit http://www.gilliangladrag.co.uk/courses/categories.html
Rachel O’Brien is a freelance writer and stylist. Find out more at http://iamrachelobrien.tumblr.com. All images courtesy of Rachel O’Brien.
If you’ve been inspired by Gillian’s work, take a look at her books:
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