Nancy Shafee – Well Urned Rest

This week on WHITEBALLOON INSIGHTS we talk to Nancy about discovering a wonderful community of feltmakers, and the warmth and softness of this ‘huggable’ material.

Q:  Felt making is a little-known craft.  We’d love to hear how you came to learn this skill? 

Felt is actually believed to be the oldest known non-woven fabric with well-preserved items dating back thousands of years.  I was looking for a new interest after a cancer operation – something to excite me. Commercially dyed fibres are available in some 150 colours so I was immediately enthused!  Feltmakers across the world are very welcoming people and we are always sharing ideas and techniques via the wonders of the internet!

Q:  Tell us a bit about the felting process and how long it takes. 

To make wool-felt you just need fibres and warm soapy water. Rubbing the wet wool causes the fibres to mesh and shrink, thus forming a strong, warm, durable fabric.  Silks, open-weave fabrics and yarns can also be added along with other fibres like rami (nettle), viscose, bamboo, silk etc to create different effects, though these slow the felting process.

Creating the designs using colours, fabrics and fibres takes almost as long as making the felt!  When I teach, my classes can easily spend half an hour just choosing their colours before even getting to the design stage!

Q:  Is there a particular breed of sheep that produces good wool for felting and where do you get your wool? 

I use merino wool for teaching and for much of my own work as it is durable, soft and comes in myriad colours.  Blue Faced Leicester is another favourite and good for things like slippers and bags for its strength.  I buy my wool from a UK supplier who imports South African fibres, so I know it is ethically produced.

Q:  You have made decorative items for the home and personal accessories for many years.  What prompted the move into felt urns? 

I was helping a friend choose a resting vessel for her mother. She wanted something she could keep at home and enjoy looking at, but something that could be buried at a later date, preferably bio-degradable.  In the end she opted for wood, feeling that ceramic and metal did not have the right ‘feel’. But I was left thinking that surely something with more ‘warmth’ to the material should play its part, and so Well Urned Rest was born.  Felt is strokable and huggable.  I call it ‘the soft option’, particularly my newer ‘huggable’ designs.

I do still make gifts and fashion accessories – and even wedding bouquets – ‘variety is the spice of life’.

Q:  We love the way that you have divided your designs into elements and seasons.  How are these reflected in the colours and styles of the urns? 

The decision to start with the elements and seasons was more to focus my mind than for any other reason, though they do influence the colours, as you suggest. 

Having said that, I have made a ‘Winter’ urn in red for one client and ‘Summer’ has now been made in soft sweet-pea colours and in yellows and golds with sunflowers, so the designs really are just a starting point for discussion.  When someone saw my Amsterdam cafetiere cover they asked for an urn in a similar design – but of course with the opening at the top rather than the bottom!  I am happy to discuss all sorts of ideas, though do have to gently reign in those I know won’t work!

Q:  Your urns are bio-degradable.  Why is this important to you? 

I just love working with wool and as it is a sustainable material and also biodegradable, it seemed obvious to follow that route.  I am not averse to adding clients’ own buttons, bows and trinkets but they do have to understand that their urn will not then be accepted by a natural burial ground with these elements added.  As far as I know, even seeds cannot be added to urns without permission from the owners of these burial grounds. 

Of course, some people like to keep their urns with their loved-one’s ashes at home, which is why I make them decorative. However, I do like to think that if they are buried, they will be returned to the earth along  with their precious contents.

Q:  And finally, reflecting nature in your designs is obviously important to you.  Do you have a particular place you love to walk and explore and what is your favourite season? 

I am lucky to live near Hatchlands, which is a National Trust property.  It’s on my doorstep and has everything from garden flowers around the house to open grasslands and the most beautiful wooded areas where bluebells and primroses are truly amazing in the spring.

However, Autumn is always my favourite season – the colours are so rich and varied, and I love to see leaves swirling through the trees on a breezy day.  It’s a shame it has to be followed by months of biting winds and grey skies though!

Thank you Nancy for sharing these insights.

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