Heather Fiona Martin is a multi-media artist based in South East London where she lives with her daughter and their three cats.

 

Heather took to using first her own hair and her then partner's beard hair in her art whilst studying at Goldsmiths, University of London..  During the course of her degree she variously stitched, wove and spun hair into her work.  Interested in memory, the residues of human experience, she likes hair’s richness in historical and cultural symbolism.  Ultimately she finds herself using wool, sheep's hair as one of her main mediums. 

Given a bag of fur – the detritus of caring for “man’s best friend” it seemed fitting to use it in a wet felted “painting” of the owner’s  Bearded Collie.  Not only a great testament to the wonderful bond between him and his beloved pet but also to the power pets have to bring warmth, literal and metaphorical to their owners.  Purr & Wag It was borne.

As well as creating her wonderful felt paintings Heather also works as a community artist in schools and neighbourhoods across Greater London -  www.heatherfionamartin.com. At "rest", she's most likely to be found mooching with friends, in a gallery, cycling somewhere, in her garden, looking after her friend's dogs (Bearded Collie and Griffin) or baking.

 

All my portraits are made using the wet felting process.

 

It has a kind of alchemy to it which repeatedly amazes me.  I start with an amorphous mass of loose fibres -  soft and fluffy and, with little more than good old fashion elbow grease and water, turn those fibres into a cloth - felt. 

But this seeming simplicity belies its complexities.  Wet felt making is known to be unpredictable as, in the making, the fibres must entangle and contract.  This shrinkage gives wet felt making the reputation of also being imprecise.  For me, these are reasons I enjoy using wet felt making as a process.  

It pushes me through my comfort zone. Controlling the shrinkage in just the right way to create my 'paintings' is always a challenge.

 

Made from ... wool tops

 

Felt is a non-constructed textile created from wool or other animal fibres.  Fibres making up the textile are matted together into a non-constructed fabric.  Unlike woven or knitted cloth, felt when cut won't fray.  Whilst it can be made from wool in it's natural state, hand made felt is frequently made using "wool tops".  

In the UK "Wool tops" usually refers to the finest wool with the longest fibres.  It's a semi-processed product of raw wool.  Combing and carding removes dirt and short hairs plus aligns the fibres.  What's left - the high quality long fibres - are the wool tops.  Worked well these long fine fibres produce a top quality felt.

Traditionally felt is made by adding soapy water to wool fibres layered in alternate directions and then applying lots of friction. This method is known as "wet felting".  Like human hair, wool fibres have scales on their outer surface.

The hot soapy water used to water down the wool fibres opens these scales.  Rubbing the fibres together causes the opened scales to interlock and shrink, tightening and matting together.  The end product is felt.

 

 
 

Myths abound about how the process of felt making was discovered.  What is known is felt is a very old textile form.

Beautiful pieces have been excavated from "barrows", the burial mounds of early nomadic cultures in the Altai Mountains, Southern Siberia.   Dating from as early as 4th Century BC the frozen ground has preserved the organic material.  

 
 
felted Swan 30cm high excavated from Southern Siberia, collection of State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia

The fragment of felt covering of a saddle cover with "mouflon" (wild sheep) and swan (just 30cm in height) together with the saddle cover below are just a few of the many amazing items excavated during the mid 20th century in the Pazyryk area of Southern Siberia.  These pieces are in the collection of the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia.

 
 
Saddle cover, Southern Siberia, collection of State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia
 

The process of felt making was mechanised in the 19th century by the invention of the needle punching machine which uses a bed of thousands of notched needles that "punched" through fibres drawing the lower fibres up and the upper fibres down entangling into a felt without the use of water.  

In the 1980's David and Eleanor Stanwood emulated the industrial process by repeatedly stabbing un-spun wool fibres with the notched needles to make 3D sculptures.  This dry felting craft technique is known as needle felting.

 
close up Industrial needle felting machine showing needle bed