Gretel Parker invites us into a miniature wonderland where pink cats perch, geese zoom around on wheels and elegant ladybirds don handbags and rouge. But how are these fantastical creatures made? Gretel uses the little-known art of needle felting – for the uninitiated, this involves taking a handful of wool and jabbing it repeatedly with a needle until it takes form – to bring her little animals to life.
To see the technique in action, have a look at the video tutorial on her website. Bibelot joined Gretel to talk about the healing power of creativity and how to avoid stabbing yourself in the finger.
1. What first attracted you to needle felting?
Frankly, I wasn’t at all interested in it at all to begin with. Previously, I was a freelance illustrator and artist. My speciality was painting old imaginary toys, which I often posted pictures of on my blog. I had a few comments suggesting that I should ‘needle felt’ them. This was back in 2008, when needle felt was only just beginning to trickle over to the UK and very few people knew about it – including me. I did some Googling and wasn’t impressed with what I saw. At about the same time, someone sent me a basic needle felt pack in the post. So I felt obliged to try it. I found a demonstration online and was a bit baffled as to how it worked, but once I picked up the needle and began jabbing, it all made sense.
2. What is it about wool as a medium to work with that appeals to you?
Oh, it is just one of the most user friendly mediums you can find! A needle felter uses it as a sculpting material, as that is basically what needle felting is. Unlike clay, it doesn’t dry out. Unlike knitting or crochet, you can’t drop stitches or go drastically wrong with the pattern. Unlike fabric, you don’t have to unpick a bad seam. It may be that you misjudge proportions, especially in the early days, but parts can be easily cut off and patched over, so that it doesn’t show at all. Unspun wool just clings to itself and with enough practise, you can make it do pretty much whatever you want it to. It’s also a very economical craft, as all you really need to get started are a selection of wools, a few needles and a holder, and a sponge mat to work on. Even better, it’s a very tidy craft, being something you can work on your lap or pop it in a bag and take it out for train journeys.
3. What was your first needle felting project – How did it turn out?
My first piece was a little rabbit in a funny mix of browns and blues, loosely based on an illustration of my own. I spent over a day on it, and was surprisingly pleased with it. I say surprisingly, as my art training taught me to be highly critical of my work, especially when trying anything new.
That was when I became hooked. I found to my amazement that I was good at it and the ideas came flooding into my head. I’ve never made anything quite like that rabbit since, but I have very fond memories of it, even though I sadly no longer have it.
4. Describe your perfect day.
Ah. Is there such a thing? I work pretty much all of the time, one way or another, so my perfect day involves no crafting or internet at all. It would be a day with my beloved, wandering around town and going out for a meal, then coming home, watching a film and falling asleep in each other’s arms. As I get older, the only thing which really matters is quality time with the person I love – everything else is just ‘stuff’. Even, dare I say it, needle felting.
5. What’s your favourite wool to use, do you get it from ethical sources?
Merino wool every time. The wool I use and sell myself is ethically sourced from South America and dyed in the U.K. I use merino because it is very fine and it gives me the really smooth finish that I prefer. To be honest, I’m a bit of a fibre philistine; some people like using native wools and experimenting. However I approach my work from a designer’s angle and I use what works best for me.
6. What’s been your favourite needle felting project so far, and why?
Oh, that’s so difficult! I’ve made roughly 200 or so designs over the years, and it’s difficult to pinpoint just one. There are quite a few I feel ambivalent about, and several I really don’t like, retrospectively. One my early and most ambitious pieces
was a large cricketing goose – W.G Goose – which I wish I still had. I also like my elephants, but again, don’t have any of my own. However I tend to favourite the most recent piece I’m working on, as it’s usually a small progression. So at the moment, I really like my flying swan hangings and my new hare dangle design. I’m starting to incorporate bits of semi-precious stone, ribbon and wire into my work, which is taking me in a slightly different creative direction. That’s a really refreshing thing.
7. What is the most challenging aspect about working with wool? Be honest – how often do you get needle-related injuries?
I was lucky in that I took to needle felting like a duck to water. I’ve never been particularly challenged, though I have occasionally messed up proportions and learned from it. Having taught many workshops over the years, I know that for some people, the 3D aspect can be problematic and actually making the wool do what you want it to. That’s just a matter of practise and experience. I don’t often stab myself – I usually have Netflix or TV on my tablet when I’m working, believe it or not.
Some people seem to be more prone to jabbing themselves than others, so I make sure I have plasters to hand when I run a workshop, just in case! I will say this – it IS painful when it happens. Try not to do it.
8. What 5 things can’t you live without?
My fiancée. My iPad. Coffee. Weekend wine. Afternoon naps. In that order. I’d sacrifice the last four for my fiancée though.
9. Tell us about your book Little Needle Felt Animals. Do you have any more in the pipeline?
Well, it’s been out for nearly two years now and seems to be very popular. I wanted to bring out a book that not only offered something a little different, design-wise, but which also contained a really good techniques section, rather than simply telling people how to make a specific thing. I wrote it just a couple of months after the early death of my late partner and it got me through that first awful phase of grief. I locked myself away for several months and somehow produced thirty patterns. I’m not 100% happy with all of them, but on reflection it’s a miracle I did it at all.
I do have a second one planned, and would love to see it published. However publishing is a fickle thing, and it’s touch and go whether it will be taken up by my present or any other publisher. Maybe I’ll have to publish it myself…
10. Lastly could you please share your top needle felt tips with us?
Don’t give up and be patient. It is a very simple craft, which can take a long time to get to grips with. Some people may find that they ‘get it’ at once, some may take longer. For others, it may not be for them at all. Even a small piece of work will take me several hours. Jabbing the wool neatly and not too hard will produce better results than stabbing ferociously and randomly; it can be quite a precise craft.
I’ve developed a method for my patterns which start people off in the right way, rather than just scrunching a bit of wool together and prodding it. Start neatly and you will probably finish neatly. Take your time and most of all, enjoy it – it’s a wonderful, flexible craft and can be very soothing.
Chloë Owens and Badger