I studied art at Hunter College in New York City at a time when the likes of Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Motherwell, and Helen Frankenthaler were teaching there. I was going on to a Masters degree in anthropology at Teacher's College, Columbia University, where one of my heroes, Margaret Mead, was teaching, when my husband took a job in the Boston area and we left New York City for good.
Looking around for something to do with my art degree, I took a course in Peruvian textiles at Radcliffe Institute, and fell instantly in love with fiber. I learned to spin at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education and subsequently studied spinning and weaving, first with Scottish weaver Norman Kennedy, and then with the late Edna Blackburn at her farm north of Toronto. While at the Blackburn's I also got a taste for sheep farming, and when I returned to Massachusetts, my husband and I started our own sheep farm. For twenty years we raised Border Leicester-cross sheep for handspinners' fleeces. During that time, a fellow spinner in the Boston Area Spinners and Dyers gave a workshop in feltmaking at my farm, and I was hooked.
At the same time, I became involved with Border Collies and began to write about them. At the time, there were no Border Collie magazines in the USA that did not cover mostly trial reports and biographies of sheepdog handlers. I was more interested in the history and culture of the breed, and I decided to fill the gap. I began publishing my own Border Collie magazine that I called The Shepherd's Dogge, à la Johannes Caius' description in 1576, which ran for fifteen years. I fell in love with writing and honed my writing and editing skills in that small publication. I'm still writing about shepherds' dogs today, but I'm also still passionate fiber and feltmaking.
Much has been written about the history of sheep and wool, textiles and weaving, but less is said about the history of felt. Why is that? Perhaps, as Shirley Toulson writes in her book about drovers, "no one bothers to record the ordinary". No one, for example, has written a history of the iron pot (that I know of, except briefly on Wikipedia), though it undoubtedly played a seminal role in the history of cooking (and dyeing). Felt was an ordinary or commonplace fabric. Unlike silk, it was useful but not glamorous, used by shepherds, transhumants, and nomads. To them, however, it was a very valuable commodity, and one that pervaded their lives and played a role in their history. They lived in it, sat on it, ate on it, wore it, stored their possessions in it, and rolled up in it at night to go to sleep, and many of them still do. But pastoralists do not ordinarily write books, and those that do write only mention felt history in passing. For every book written on pastoralism, finding information about felt is literally like looking for a needle in a haystack. So, I have been writing for many years, in my head, a book about the history of felt, and hope to turn it into reality someday.
To that end, about two years ago, I began to do research, and collected fiber samples from a large variety of sources. Most of them are fleece samples from as many breeds of sheep I could find (I have nearly 30 right now); but I also collected samples of other wool-bearing animals, like llama, yak, and dog; and non-animal fiber such as cotton, silk, and hemp. These I have been slowly turning into felt in an effort to study their properties for felting, for every fiber felts differently.
I do mostly wet felting, but, unlike most other wet felters, I do mine in my washer and drier. It's a lot easier on the shoulders, but that's only part of it. Most feltmakers want control over their felt, but I prefer the mystery and surprise that comes from giving up control to the process (though admittedly, it can sometimes also be a disappointment). I lay out my batting, roving, and fleece locks in a general design on a pillowcase, cover with another pillowcase, roll it over a piece of foam tubing (I use water pipe insulation), pull a leg from panyhose over it, knot both ends, and toss it in the washer and drier. What comes out is often just short of amazing to me, and that is when I begin to exercise control. I don't try to tame the earthy-looking felt that emerges from the washer and drier, but I work with it. I look at it as a collaboration among me, the washer and drier, and the fiber. Texture is very important to me. The material drives my work and inspires me. I like to see the original structure of the fiber in the finished product, and that is important as well for exhibiting the characteristics of a fiber for felting.
Carole L. Presberg — Email Carole
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See more examples of my writing at The Border Collie Museum and on
I also have an online bookstore that sells books relevant to sheepdog enthusiasts: