By Terese Schlachter, SoCo Arts Lab Writer-in-Residence
Joanne Graham is a melder of wool and of women.
On certain Mondays she can be found at the Soco Arts Lab with fist full of one, holding court with the other. Joanne and her entourage are felters. That is, they massage colorful whisps of fibers, water and soap until the concoction transforms into the fabric of pool tables, Christmas ornaments and hats. Especially hats. The women work as individuals, but they’ve fused together over the years, much like the merino wool, viscose and silk they’re mingling. But Graham is the anointed agitator. Today’s disciples include Ev and Holly, who both drive regularly all the way from Virginia to Tracy’s Landing, Maryland to hear the good word.
Joanne Graham, left, demonstrates layering of wool to make felt
On a table filling most of a room, mats of bubble wrap support the sprigs of wool and viscose each student is laying in random patterns to a thickness not measured--only eyeballed or, uh, felt. Today the women are making flowers.
“Do I have enough on here?” Ev asks.
“Lemme lay my hands on it, like they do in church,” preaches Joanne, gently patting the whisps. She blesses it. Next the layers are soaked and soaped, then kneaded, rinsed and slapped until the materials submit to cohesion. Suddenly, it’s felt. The women each make layers, so the flowers have flappy petals.
“Are your layers separate?” Joanne leans over Holly’s pink pile of potential. Holly looks sheepish, shaking her head no.
“Jesus, keep me near the cross!” bellows Joanne, appalled.
“I hate demerits,” Holly smirks.
In a former life, Joanne was more of a—*gasp*—seamstress. Felting purists don’t sew. But many years ago when Graham was pregnant she was less overwhelmed by the thought of becoming a mother than she was by the price of maternity clothes. So, the expectant mom who once told her home economics teacher she “would not be wearing homemade clothes,” took up sewing to accommodate her swelling belly. After the birth of her son and daughter she embraced parenting, went back to work and an hour-long commute, and still turned out two outfits per week. And she made sure her nail polish matched.
“I love clothes,” gushes Graham. Sewing her own suits, coats and kids’ clothes was the best way to stay fashionable on a dime. Still is. But now rather than pulling needle and thread through fabric she creates her own material.
“No one knows what a felter is,” Joanne sighs, sitting alone now in her studio at the SoCo Arts Lab. She holds up a wad of wispy, swirled tendrils reminiscent of a dust bunny, but prettier. It’s dark blue. “Felting is the manipulation of wool with water to make fabric—this is wet felting.” She pulls more viscose clouds from a bag and tosses them onto the bubble wrap. Next, she shingles the viscose with sections of merino wool, laying the soft stuff of winter sweaters this way and that. The wool is olive green. Then there’s more of the flocculent fiber and next the water and soap. That’s when she gets her knuckles into it.
“The material needs to be agitated,” she explains, as she begins poking and pushing the fabrics together on top of the plastic. She rubs, smacks and flops the mixture for a while. “The more you knead the harder the fabric becomes,” she says, giving the textiles a good whomping. It seems a good way to exercise bad karma or things otherwise known as juju. “You can also roll it on PVC pipe or even one of those styrofoam noodles,” she points out. The object is to get the viscose to migrate into the wool. Soon she holds up a young piece of felt. Actually, it’s “pre-felt”—a smaller piece she’ll use in a scarf or coat later. “I never really know what I’m going to wind up with,” she says. “It’s like Forrest Gump’s chocolate box.”
Hat before and after: A work in progress must be 30% larger than the desired outcome.
Her first career was rather more precise. For 33 years she worked as an accountant for the Federal government, some of that for the IRS. The spreadsheets often added up to cravings for a creative outlet. For a time, she made jewelry and metal pieces then turned to fused glass. For a while, she beaded. But she always loved fabrics, turning vacations into textile safaris through London, Thailand, Florence, Budapest, Brussels and Bruges. All it took was a book and a bunch of YouTube videos and a class or two to get her going down the less beaten path of beating up wool and water.
It was in one of those classes she took up with Ev and Holly. Group felting allows them all to compare techniques and tools, like the new cutting edge on plastic wrap or a wooden- handled agitator. And stories are spun in layers as colorful as the rich textiles they’re slinging.
“It took Ev three years to finish a dress,” Joanne tattles. “If I get to working and don’t cook dinner, I can finish a hat in a day and a half.”
“That dress took up three six-foot tables at home,” confesses Ev. “I have projects all over my house.”
“My husband would put me out!” Joanne says of Karl, who is also an artist.
The conversation rolls back toward texture and color and tones, the joy of morphing something into another thing, working fibers into fashion, Joanne serving as a medium of sorts.
But as Holly points out, “There’s nothing medium about Joanne.”
Joanne models a ruffled scarf, an eco-print and a hat.
If you’d like to see more of Joanne’s work, check out www.thegrahamcollection.com