Felting with friends

Last year my friend Nicola, who I met through our book club, went on a felting course with her mother and really enjoyed it. We said we would have a joint felting session sometime, but we never got round to it.

Well, today she finally came round to make a birthday present for her cousin. As she’d never felted round a resist before, she decided to make a bag. Her husband Nick, who accompanied her, drew the short straw and got to make the cord!

Originally the bag was going to have a flap, but because the lovely iris design was too near the top we decided simply to cut straight along the top and have an open bag. Nicola may felt a flat strap separately and sew it on later.

Because of lack of time (and various plumbing problems in the kitchen!), after fulling it on the washboard Nicola decided to take it home and rinse and press it there before attaching the cord. I’m looking forward to seeing the finished piece!


Indikola weaving

You know those oriental goddesses, like Kali or Guanyin, that have several pairs of arms? I think I met a real-life incarnation in Sri Lanka.

Meet Soma Edirisinghe, who makes incredibly delicate purses, boxes and bags from indikola, a kind of palm. The tender leaves are picked, bleached or dyed, dried, and cut into thin strips. You can see her holding some in the photo above, along with some of her products (more close-up shots below).

She uses a long metal needle called a bodkin, pointed at one end and with a cutting edge at the other, to help manipulate these incredibly delicate strips – some no more than 1mm wide.

Soma could see I was fascinated by watching her work, so she gesticulated that she would show me how to make a simple box. (She spoke no English and, needless to say, my Sinhala was not up to this.) So with sign language only, we set to work.

Now, I did make a woven basket last term at Morley College. But it was made from cardboard, on a much larger scale, and I used clothes pegs and masking tape to help keep the strips in place. By contrast, Soma used just her hands and the bodkin to do everything. Which is why she seemed to have more than one pair of hands – when I was in the middle of making the box, I certainly felt as if I needed at least two more pairs!

First she takes a leaf of indikola and scrapes both sides along the length of the needle (a bit like using scissors to curl a strip of paper – only in this case it is to straighten the palm, not curl it). Because the leaf is thicker at one end (where it was attached to the stalk) and tapers to a point, it’s not of uniform width. So she cuts off the thick end, and uses the point of the bodkin to slice thin strips off each side of the leaf so that the width is more consistent. The art is to get all the strips the same width – which isn’t as easy as it sounds, as it’s quite tricky to get the leaf to split exactly where you want it!

While I was attempting to get 10 strips about 1cm wide, Soma was preparing five much narrower strips – about a third of this width. Then I lined up five wide strips vertically, alternating the thick and thin ends. Using just the weight of the needle to keep them in position (no masking tape here!), Soma then helped me weave five wide strips horizontally through the vertical strips, again alternating thick and thin ends. Then we added five narrow strips at the top.

Now the fun began. Faster than you can say “Where does that bit go?”, Soma had formed the corners and indicated that I should carry on weaving. This was really tricky, trying to keep the bits I had already woven in position just using my hands without the help of clothes pegs. As you can see, I did have some help!

When I had woven three vertical rows with the wider strips, Soma showed me how to weave in the narrow strips to form a decorative border. Then I was ready to finish off, weaving the ends in and cutting off the ends. Success!

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to make the top of the box (you can see a complete one among the products in Soma’s photo), as I had to go off and interview some other craftworkers. But I had a great time, and I think Soma did too. Despite all the help she gave me she said I was a natural – so I had to confess that I had done something like this before, though not on such a small scale.

Soma has won Unesco and Presidential Awards for her skills – and justly so. I can only admire her skill and dexterity in handling these delicate strips of indikola – not to mention the beautiful designs and colours – she dyes the leaves herself.

Shibori purses and clutch bags

So I managed to make a zippered pouch. Next step in developing my sewing skills was to make some lined purses and clutch bags.

I started by sewing a shibori sample and the lining material together, right sides facing, leaving a small gap on one side. Then I turned them inside out and stitched up the gap.

This means that when I  sew up the sides, the stitches will show. I guess this might work, though with all the patterns going on already, I’m not sure what stitches and colours to use. Will have to think about this.



So then I wondered how I can sew it up all in one go so that I get a lining without any raw edges and the sides of the purse/bag stitched at the same time. After a bit of mulling it over in the bath (I always get my best ideas in the bath) and a bit of experimenting with scraps, I had my eureka moment!

I’m afraid I didn’t take photos as I went along – just the finished product. But more experienced sewers probably know how to do it anyway. I tried looking  it up online but didn’t know what terms to use – so if there is particular terminology, I’d be interested to know.

The two purses/bags above are closed by slipping a cloth loop, or rouleau, over an antique ivory bead. I was given a whole bag of these beads, of varying shapes and sizes, by June, my mother-in-law, who used to deal in antiques. She also has a collection of beautiful fragments of mother of pearl, which I would love to find a use for.

Another day, another bag

Still experimenting with making bags with integral handles. The proportions of this one are more pleasing; the dark brown wool is Icelandic, and the turquoise is merino with wool slubs.

I stretched the handle more on this one before it hardened, and rubbed the two halves  so they felted together to make a thicker handle.

Now I have to stop making felt and do some gardening!

…one step back

Buoyed by my success with the ridgeless felt eyeglass case, I thought I’d try making a bag with a handle. Following the instructions in Lizzie Houghton’s Creative Felting, I made the handle first by rolling and wetting strands of wool to form a long cord, leaving the ends dry so that I could felt them on to the bag itself.

Then I made the bag as before, enclosing a bubble wrap template with two layers of wool plus decoration, rubbing and rolling it before cutting it open. At this stage I tried to felt the handle to the inside of the bag, wetting the dry ends of the cord and rubbing them to attach them to the bag. However, I think the bag had gone too far in the felting process, as I couldn’t get the handle to stick.

Felt bag
First felt bag - with separate handle!
Back of bag
Back of bag

It seems that if I am using an enclosed template I will have to attach the handle to the outside of the bag at an earlier stage. I don’t think I can cut through the wool to felt the handle to the inside of the bag any earlier, as it won’t be stable enough.