Felt puppets and elves delight for the holidays

Posted Nov. 25, 2009, at 5:26 p.m.

Maine artists and artisans will display their homemade wares during the 21st annual Maine Artistree open house to be held Nov. 27-29 at the East Vassalboro Grange. Among the array of appealing items to be featured this year are puppets, dolls, Christmas elves and elf-head ornaments fashioned out of felt by Jessie Stover of Winthrop.

For Stover, it takes a farmyard to provide the materials that go into making her one-of-a kind creations. “One puppet can contain fibers from as many as four animals,” Stover said during a recent interview. “And that’s not all. Some of the dyes used to color the fiber come from nature, too.”

Fortunately, this felt maker has plenty of natural resources to draw from — all found on 60-acre Spinnakees Farm, which her parents, Elizabeth and William Stover, own and operate on the outskirts of Augusta. “For instance, I use mohair from my parents’ Angora goats to make hair and beards on some of my felt items,” Jessie Stover said. “That’s because it is naturally curly and crimpy.”

While this relatively wiry fiber works well for embellishments, rovings made from blends of Rambelais and Merino sheep’s wool and Angora rabbit fur are used for the more dense fiber mix that forms the felt. Rather than employing the felt process that entails washing wool to shrink it into a felted mass, Stover meshes the fibers together by means of piercing the roving repeatedly with a barbed needle. “You stab at an area over and over again,” she said.

To create facelike features on a basic felted form, Stover then adds more pieces of roving, attaching them and building on thickness and shape by working with the same barbed needle. To further define an area such as the sides of a nose or a dimple, she continues to poke the area with her needle.

To add color to her creations, Stover uses wool that her mother hand-dyed by means of natural and a few chemical dyes. Some of the dyes are made up in a slow cooker, as is the case with a dye Elizabeth Stover makes by boiling down onion skins. “This makes a wonderful yellow color,” the felt maker said. Of course, many of the colors used in the puppet need not be dyed. The Angora goats alone produce white, black and mocha-brown fiber.

Hours of work go into each felted item. For instance, Jessie Stover spends about four hours making each of her elves’ heads or “Santa’s helper” Christmas ornaments. It takes far longer to make a full-felted Santa doll.

But Stover never tires of the process. She particularly enjoys giving some of the felt figures a rough or “primitive” look, while making some look more smoothly finished.

“I love picturing how each is going to look, and I enjoy making each one different from the last one,” Stover added. “And it’s just so much fun to see how different wool goes together so fabulously.”

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