Saturday, 13 June 2015

The final felt banner - with Muir of Ord Art Group

This post is about the making of the fifth of five felt banners being made through Groam House Museum.  All five are taking inspiration from the work of George Bain widely considered to be the father of modern Celtic Art.  The museum houses a large collection of Bain's work along with a collection of Pictish stones.

You can read about the first four wallhangings by clicking on these links.
1 ~ Groam House Museum Volnteers Group, made in Fortrose
2 ~ Resolis Friendship Group, made in Resolis Memorial Hall
3 ~ Culbokie Friendship Group, made in the Culbokie Church Centre
4 ~ Avoch Friendship Club, made in the Parish Church Hall

This banner is being made by volunteers from the Muir of Ord Art Group in their premises in the old school building in the village square.  Other people from the village came to help as well, some staying all day, others just dropping in for a short time.  The library is in the same building so people saw us at work when they came to change their books.

Wednesday 10th June 2015

Today was the warmest day of the year so far but we didn't see much of it as we were hard at work making felt for the coloured sections of our banner.   I took far more photographs than there is space for here, but you can see more of them on a web album - click here.

The design was to follow the same format as the previous wallhangings - Celtic knotwork panels around the edges with some text in the middle section along with others things of particular significance to the place of making.  In this case we drew on some of the history of the village which was originally called Tarradale.  Muir of Ord was an important place for trading of the traditional black cattle favoured by Highland crofters and drovers.  (Highland cattle were black before the Victorians bred them to obtain the lighter browns that we recognise today).  There is a large distillery on the edge of the village and in earlier times the area had a lot of illicit whisky stills so we decided to include these in the design.  The village had a large army base during the war and the war memorial stands just outside the building where we are working so we decided we would include some red poppies.

To create these various components we had to make several pieces of coloured half-felt, i.e. a fabric which has been felted just enough to hold the fibres together, but not so much that it couldn't be felted into the background.

First task was to choose our colours. 
Each person chose two contrasting colours - some opted for tone on tone, others for complimentary colours. The darker colour was laid down first and then the second colour added at right angles.

Some fancy fibres - angelina, silk, mohair - were added to give a bit of interest to each piece and then it was time to wet down with warm soapy water.   After a bit of rubbing through sheets of bubblewrap the fibres had felted together enough that we could squeeze the water out and cut it up into the shapes we needed for our design.

The designs were traced onto a thin non-woven fabric that is normally used as a backing for machine embroidery, but is good for this purpose because it can be drawn on with marker pens and doesn't disintegrate if it gets wet.   Once traced, the patterns were pressed down onto our damp felt pieces and we cut the pieces out with scissors.

By the end of the day we had all the various components ready - except for our Highland cows.  We had the felt, but not the design.  However, one person volunteered to do a drawing that night ready for us to cut out the felt the next morning.

Thursday, 11th June

The task this morning was to create the background for our panel.  I had spread a large sheet of bubblewrap on the table and on top of this a piece of ice wool.  This is a loose, open mesh knitted fabric that is a combination of an acrylic yarn and a lot of fluffy wool fibres.  It is manufactured as an insulator for posh jackets, but it works very well as a base on which to felt ensuring that there will be no holes or thin patches in our wallhanging.

Then we set to work covering the area with two layers of white merino wool fibres, checking that there were no gaps or thin areas.  Once satisfied with this we added some touches of colour, sparkle and textural interest in the form of silk, synthetic and metallic fibres along with strands of mohair yarn and some coarser varieties of wool.

I brought through two buckets of warm soapy water which was duly poured onto our bed of fibres.  Another sheet of bubblewrap on top and we were ready to rub.  We did this just for a few mintues to ensure all the fibres were wet through and flattened.

Time to start the fun bit - getting our design in place.  I laid the paper plan out on the floor and all our cut-outs from the day before were arranged on that - including the Highland cattle, poppies and clarsach which had been cut out earlier.  We did a bit of put and take until we were all happy with the design and then transferred them piece by piece onto our background felt.   The two sections of vinescroll designs had to be intertwined with the zoomorphic creatures that "inhabit" them.  The poppies and the whisky stills had to be arranged, with some partially hidden under the knotwork panels.   When were were satisfied all was in place we damped down the additions, covered it all with the bubblewrap and started rubbing.

A few minutes later we peeled off the bubblewrap and spent some time snipping through the top layer in each knotwork panel  to create the effect of "overs & unders" which is typical of Celtic knotwork, then replaced the bubblewrap and started the serious rubbing........ and rubbing....... and rubbing.

We were blessed with the help of four gentlemen with large hands - what a difference this makes to the rubbing process - they had a much better coverage than mine!

After an hour or so of rubbing we were able to turn the felt over and repeat the process on the back.  Within a short while we could see an impression of our design coming through to the reverse - a sure sign the felting was going well.  By 3 o'clock we were happy that everything was well and truly felted and we rolled it up and squeezed out the water.  A lot landed on the floor, but we had a bucket and mop handy along with lots of towels.

All that remained was to tack a tracing of the space we had left for the text so I can cut stencils for all the words.  This will be needlefelted next day.

Monday 15th June

Today the table was set up at its lowest height so it was good for sitting at.  The task for this day was needlefelting - in particular, adding the text to the central part of our wallhanging.  We had a good turnout and it was quite tight fitting everyone in around the table.
I had cut stencils for all the words using my laser cutting machine and we moved these around until we were happy with the positions.  We pinned narrow ribbons across the felt to give a base line for the text - measuring the space between each line to make sure everything was evenly spread and that the text would be straight.  Then we pinned through the stencils to keep them in position while we needlefelted.
We had a bit of debate about which colour of wool to use for our words which ended in a vote in favour of dark green.  All those at the top end of the table started work on the words.
Those at the bottom end added black centres to the poppies and then started work on the knotwork borders.  When school was out, one of the volunteers from the morning session dropped by with her daughters and they had a little go at needlefelting.
Over the course of the day it all took shape and by 3.30 we had all our wording complete and had made a good start on the other details.







Wednesday 17th June

Today was to be another full day of needlefelting. 
This time we moved the table into the art room (it had been out in the wide corridor) because it had been a bit tight to have everyone moving past each other.  Again we had a good turnout - this time with visitors dropping in to see how it was progressing.

Once again, Tracy brought her daughters in after school and this time they added some tiny poppies in amongst the knotwork.  The part that was causing some anxiety was the black cattle - partly because working on that blocked others from working on the border knotwork panels but mainly because people were reluctant to tackle it.  However, Helen (who had drawn the pattern for the cows a few days earlier) volunteered to stay on after everyone else had gone home for the day and she got a lot of fine detail added in.


Thursday 18th June

The final push-------------- the last details were needlefelted in the morning and then we turned the felt over to needle from the back making it more secure.

By lunchtime we were all done and we could move the table back out into the corridor once again raising the legs to standing height.
We poured warm soapy water all over the felt and covered with bubblewrap, then rubbed, and rubbed, and rubbed some more.  Unlike our previous wet felting sessions where we just needed to lightly felt, this time we wanted to get the whole piece fully felted, securing all the needlefetled detail and firming up the felt.   We started off with rubbing on the back, with the last few minutes done without the bubblewrap.  Then the felt/bubblewrap sandwich was turned over and the process repeated from the front. 

The rubbing probably lasted about an hour until I was satisfied that we had a good, strong piece of felt.  Then we rolled it up and squeezed out as much water as we could.

The next stage was the milling.  This involved spreading the felt out on top of bamboo blinds and rolling it up like a swiss roll before taking turns to roll the felt back and forth.
Our numbers had reduced down to just six people (someone must have let on that there was to be hard work in the afternoon!) but we worked in teams and got the rolling done first from one end then the other, then one long side and the other.  This process shrunk the felt further firming it up in the process.
All that remained was to hang it up so we could admire our handiwork and get our final group photograph.

Finishing off.................... the felt had to be rinsed to remove all the soap and give a final shrink.  Because of the size this had to be done in a bath so I took it home and gave it several rinses in hot water - about 4 bathfuls - treading up and down to get rid of the soap.
Damp weather meant it took a couple of days to drip dry.  It is now just waiting for me to give it a good press and to stitch a velcro strip onto the back for mounting.

This is the last of the five wallhangings that have made up this project.  It has been a thoroughly enjhoyable experience working with all these groups and I would like to thank everyone who helped to make the project such a success.   The 5 wallhangings will be displayed in various venues around the Highlands over the next few months and then we hope to have them on display at Celtic Connections in Glasgow in January 2016.

Thankyou to all who have helped, thanks also to Groam House Museum for giving me the opportunity to work on this and to their projects officer, Wendy Sanders for all her hard work organising venues, groups and individuals - without her, it couldn't have happened.

Well done everyone.
All five banners - left to right, Groam House Volunteers, Resolis Friendship Group, Culbokie Friendship Group, Avoch Friendship Club, Muir of Ord Art Group.