ORONO, Maine — The smells of soap and wet wool filled the air in teacher Jessica Barnes’ classroom at Orono High School last week as students got a lesson that art isn’t just something made with paint or clay — and can be useful in a career someday.
Even if things didn’t go exactly as planned for some students working on a project using a wet felting technique that may eventually be turned into a pillow.
“Oh my gosh, look what happened to my edge,” freshman Schuyler Collett cried out when he opened up a plastic packet on a table in front of him to see how his project was going and realized the design on his wool was bleeding into the edges.
Mallory Cudlitz, a student teacher working this fall in Barnes’ classroom, assessed the damage.
“Just so you all remember, this stuff shrinks,” she said as a caution to the rest of the class. “That’s what happens with this. That’s why I told you not to make your images too close to the edges.”
Cudlitz, a Freeport native and senior at the University of Maine, is running the lesson in wet felting as part of Barnes’ commercial art class, which seeks to explore real-life applications for art and to show students they can make a living through art.
Wet felting — a term that derives from the use of soap and water to shrink wool into felt, just as a wool sweater shrinks in a run through a washing machine — has origins in Scandinavian and Asian countries. For the purposes of the Orono High commercial art students, Cudlitz wanted to demonstrate how a piece of art can be turned into something practical, such as a pillow, hat or wall hanging.
The students’ final product will likely be displayed somewhere in the high school.
Barnes said wet felting and fiber arts are new to most of the students, who are accustomed to lessons in fine arts such as painting, drawing and sculpture.
Fiber arts have taken off in Maine in the last few years. UMaine had a fiber arts exhibition this summer in its Lord Hall gallery on campus, and a statewide map of locations of fiber artists was reissued this year.
“Fiber arts seem to be coming into the forefront,” Barnes said. “The university’s doing a lot with it now. [Cudlitz] went through the same [UMaine art education] program I did, and they’re starting to incorporate this.”
Cudlitz said she has worked with fiber arts before and had a job at one point as a seamstress on campus, but became interested in wet felting through a UMaine classroom lesson given by Jody Clayton of One Lupine Fiber Arts in Bangor.
Cudlitz taught wet felting to the Orono students as she had learned it. First, students spent a few days making a 14-inch-by-14-inch square of wool out of two layers of undyed wool, with one layer of dyed wool on top.
The wool came from One Lupine Fiber Arts.
“It’s important to show [the students] you can make a connection between local economy and business, and fine arts,” Cudlitz said. “They can get these materials right down the street, without ordering online from some big company, and support the local artisan and business owner at the same time.”
After the dyed wool was laid down as the top layer, the students used pieces of colored felt to create a design — some students chose symbols that were meaningful, while others made a Maine scene.
When the design was finished, Cudlitz showed the students how to lightly drizzle liquid dish detergent in a zigzag fashion over the wool design, then slowly drizzle water all over the soap-laden wool.
The students then wrapped the wool in plastic and rolled the wool around a thin wooden dowel, and the entire packet in a terrycloth towel. After securing the towel, the students began the felting process, rolling the wrapped wool back and forth.
The agitation created by the soap and water and rolling movements caused the wool to meld, or felt, together.
After seven minutes of rolling, the students unwrapped their wool to adjust the design and make sure it wasn’t too close to the edge, as Collett found his to be. When the designs were checked and adjusted, the wool was wrapped back up and rolled for about 40 more minutes, with periodic unwrappings to change the direction in which the wool was rolled.
As the classroom time wound down, Cudlitz had the students unwrap their newly felted designs and rinse the wool with water to remove the soap.
Some students had success, meaning the layers of wool had felted together, the design locked into place. Others realized a few spots had not felted together because they hadn’t used enough soap and water or hadn’t rolled the wool vigorously enough. Those students, Cudlitz said, would have to come back to class later to re-felt their pieces — otherwise, she said, the unfelted areas could fall apart.
Later, the students decided they’d like to try to make pillows out of their felted squares.
“It’s weird. I’ve never done anything like this before,” said sophomore Andrew Kelley. “But it was cool.”