Exhibit spotlights handmade textiles
Kristen Rockwell journeyed halfway around the world to find the Pittsburgh artist she is featuring in a new exhibit at her Squirrel Hill textile gallery.
As owner of O’Bannon Oriental Carpets, Rockwell often travels to make purchases for her store. But earlier this year, she combined a business trip with pleasure by attending a felt-making workshop with world-renowned felt master Mehmet Giraic in Konya, Turkey.
“I signed up with a friend as a way of furthering my own artistic needs,” Rockwell says. “I love to learn new textile techniques.”
While there, she met Karen S. Page, an accomplished fiber artist from the North Side’s Mexican War Streets, who had traveled to Turkey to enhance her knowledge of a craft she already has practiced for many years.
Rockwell and Page will display their felt rugs in the “Falling for Felt” exhibit beginning Nov. 2 at O’Bannon Oriental Carpets.
Page has taught felt-making classes at the Society for Contemporary Craft in the Strip District and at the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, where she is a member of the visual arts department faculty. She also has exhibited her artwork extensively, at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts in Shadyside and most recently at the Mattress Factory on the North Side.
Page, who made her first trip to Turkey along with a few of her adult students, says the experience was “really like walking into the past.” The process of making hand-felted wool is an ancient technique practiced for thousands of years, she says.
Some sources say felt is believed to be the first man-made fabric. In other parts of the world — including the middle-eastern province of Konya — felt still is used for housing material, clothing and footwear.
“Felt is a universal material because of its versatility,” Rockwell says. “It is warm and waterproof, so it is ideal for clothing, shelter or floor covering.”
Their teacher, Mehmet Giraic, is famous in Konya as a maker of the felt hats worn by the whirling dervishes. The dervishes are a segment of the Sufi sect of Islam, whose religious ritual includes whirling rapidly during prayer ceremonies.
Page says the historical significance of felt extends to the nomadic lifestyle of shepherds, for whom the material was an important textile. “They would raise sheep, shear them without having to kill them and use the felted wool to cover their homes and as blankets, boots, hats and coats,” she says. Felt making is “a very low-tech process,” she adds, because it does not require a loom and is done by hand.
The process is time-consuming, Rockwell says. The traditional method of felt making is a labor-intensive, four-day-long project. “The first day, the pattern and colors are placed on a reed mat,” she says. “The next step is like whipping cotton candy out of dried fleece to physically change the fluffy fleece into felt.”
Rockwell says that for three days, eight hours a day, she worked on kicking the mass, rolling it like dough and steaming it. “Heat and water cause the felt to shrink,” she says. “You have to keep moving it to condense the fibers.”
She adds that the grueling process was the most physical exercise she has experienced, and she acquired severe brush burns on her arms.
Rockwell says the artistic process “gave me a real respect for felt and the work involved in making it.” Each student chose dyed felt to create colors and designs for a small rug, which they brought home with them and will be in the exhibit.
Page also will display other felt pieces in the exhibit, along with a rug made by Giraic during the class, which is for sale. Her one-of-a-kind felt accessories include scarves, bags and pillows, in addition to two wall hangings.
Also showcased in the exhibition will be an 80-year-old felt tent pole and 50-year-old hand-embroidered felt carpets from Uzbekistan, she says, as well as traditional felt clothing, carpets and accents from Uzbekistan and Turkey, and a Mongolian hand-stitched felt rug.
Page — who has undergraduate and graduate art degrees from Syracuse University and Kent State University, respectively — says she considers herself one of a group of early fiber artists who experimented with and explored the medium of felt as art. “When I first started, there was very little information about it,” she says.
Her work has been recognized in several art books and magazines. She first displayed felt artwork in 1980 at the American Craft Museum in New York.
|‘Falling for Felt’|