The beauty of felt


Fiber artist Vasanto displays some of the colorful hats she crafted from wool felt. She creates the felt in a painstaking process that involves working layers of fleece until the fibers lock together to form a strong, stable material.

DOUG FINGER/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, January 9, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 8, 2005 at 11:12 p.m.
It's all about color. Layers and layers. Deep burnt orange, purples fit for royalty, yellows capable of camouflaging the sun, blues you want to swim in. And texture and softness.
When fiber artist Vasanto goes to work in her studio, she makes a choice. Which color does she feel like working with today? Sort of like choosing which friend you're in the mood to hang out with.
Then she starts the process of making wool felt that she crafts into wall hangings, hats, purses, shawls, baskets - even vases. You can see her wall hangings in her show, "Impressions," on display through Feb. 4 on the second floor of the Alachua County Administration Building.
"Color is a real strong point for me, more than structure or design," says Vasanto, who started her love affair with wool 30 years ago.
Her hats are so full of character, you can imagine changing yours simply by donning one. A sleek and sophisticated black beret with rhinestone pin. Goofy ski hats with long tails dangling in back. Her favorite is the "thinking cap," with its colorful, whimsical spikes much like a court jester's hat.
Felt is one of the earliest materials made by man and one of the oldest forms of non-woven fabric, according to M.E. Burkett's book, "The Art of the Felt Maker." It was first used among nomadic horsemen for clothing and rugs.
Wool fibers have microscopic scales that interlock when the fibers are worked by rubbing or rolling. "The qualities of wool are what make felt, felt," says Vasanto. "It can't pull apart because of the scales. There is no sewing or stitching of any kind." These fibers become stably intermeshed by a combination of mechanical work, moisture and heat.
Ancient scholars lauded felt's strength. "Pliny (the Elder) said that compressed, well soaked in vinegar, (felt) was capable of resisting iron and even fire," writes Burkett.
Self-taught Vasanto, whose legal name is Sandra Nechemias, was given her new name by a spiritual master in 1982. It means "early spring" in Hindi.
She began her interest in fabric and fiber by stitching her own doll clothes on a tiny sewing machine as a child. She started knitting when she was 8. By 20, she was into crocheting - "I started selling crocheted hats on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley" - and in her mid- to late 20s, she spun, dyed and wove wool.
She's a self-taught artist with no formal art training.
"I was interested in art. I always liked it," she says. Her mom took her to museums and galleries in Manhattan as she was growing up on Long Island.
She says she likes doing art for the sake of art, not necessarily for the money-making.
"It should be fun," she says. "It seems absurd to figure out a price. Your labor, time, creativity . . . how do you price that?" She does sell her work via craft stores in Banner Elk, N.C., a mountain town near Boone, and in Garberville, Calif., near the Northern California coast. In both cases, personal contacts led to the merchandising arrangements. In Gainesville, you can buy her hats and other work at the Sweetwater Print Cooperative, 117 S. Main St.
To support herself, she has worked in a post office, a homeless women's shelter, an employment office, and as a house cleaner and paralegal. "Nothing else seems to last very long."
From 1979 to 1986, she lived in both Poona, India, and Oregon, in spiritual communities headed by Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh.
"I knitted sweaters for a boutique that we had, in India and in this country," she says, "and leg warmers for dancers. Dance is my other great love."
Vasanto studied ballet as a girl, and has taken many different dance workshops as an adult. She dances contra, ballroom, zydeco and swing. "I'd love to be a dancer."
The process Vasanto starts her projects with dyed, carded fleece she buys from a woman in New Hampshire. If she's going to blend colors, she pulls off pieces of fleece and lays them onto a carding machine, a spiky wheel with a hand crank. It looks like a large round grater.
As Vasanto turns the crank, the fleece coats into layers. She peels off more pieces of fleece and dabs them onto the wheel, blending colors, giving her work depth. Later, she'll add snippets of contrasting-colored string and yarn to add highlights.
She criss-crosses the layers so the ends entangle, and then lays the wool over a ball. Then she covers the whole thing with panty hose, wets it and bounces it. "Lubrication and agitation are what it's all about," she explains.
"It will be felt - very weak - but strong enough to take off the ball in one piece," says Vasanto. "The fibers eventually move closer and closer together. That process is called 'fulling.' Then you shape it and let it dry."
She shapes the felt over wooden hat molds from the 1920s and 1930s, depending on the type of hat she wishes to create.
In the 19th century, industrial hatters used mercury to rough up the wool fibers and work the felt.
"That's where the saying, 'mad as a hatter,' came from," says Vasanto.
Wall hangings, too Vasanto first started making felt when she attended a fiddling workshop at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, N.C. At the time, she was making painted and dyed cotton and silk clothing. At Augusta, she met Beth Beede, who was teaching a felt-making workshop. Vasanto was entranced.
"She was wonderful. She's my mentor - an amazing artist and teacher," says Vasanto.
She bought felt-making supplies and equipment and started making felt hats that she sold at art festivals in colder climes, such as Detroit, Kansas City and in California, Oregon and Washington.
Once her parents moved to Gainesville and Vasanto began caring for them, she had to curb her travels. Her father has since died, and her mother has Alzheimer's, so caring for mom takes up a good bit of Vasanto's time.
Since 1996, she's had a studio in the Sweetwater Cooperative downtown, where artists pay just $60 a month and a portion of the utilities for studio privileges.
She is into working large these days. Her wall hangings are like canvases and portray abstract and realistic scenes. Her "Mother Tree," right outside the elevator on the second floor of the Alachua County Administration Building, is gorgeous. It looks like the Tree of Life, with 3-D leaves.
"Hats are fun and really neat, but there's not that much room to explore your creativity, your ideas," explains Vasanto. "If you work on a flat piece, you have more room to 'paint' your picture."
Art-making has not been lucrative. And it's not a "choice" per se. Rather, art chose her.
"I've given it up a number of times, and then I go back to it," says Vasanto. "It's what I do."
Julie Garrett can be contacted at (352) 374-5049 or by e-mail to garretj@gvillesun.com.

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