Feet Felt – Yuli Sømme
I was inspired by the legend of a wanderer or shepherd using scraps of wool to protect her feet as she walked and discovering the transformation from wool to felt. During a long trek through Norway I did the same and beautiful little toe caps happened, far more effective than blister packs. I decided to develop the idea.
I bought some fleeces from a farm on Dartmoor, where I live. Over a series of weekends, I dressed the feet of 40 volunteers with fine layers of this wool. They put on their boots and went for a walk. Within an hour we had ‘feet felt’! As any good felt maker will know, slippers have to start twice as big, to shrink down and strengthen the felt. These are not slippers; rather they are moulds of the feet. It’s an experience shared with friends, feeling the cool wet fibres turn warm, transforming into felt as you walk. It’s about connecting differently with the magic of the fibres.
I took the 40 pairs up to the Moor just behind the farm and pinned them to the earth with willow pegs. I filmed the winter solstice dawn rise over them, while they were covered in a hoar frost. Over the next two years I visited regularly to document their return to the earth as a way of expressing the ‘sustainability’ of sheep’s wool. The place happened to be an ancient series of hut circles. I wanted to make this connection with our ancestors who lived a life close to sheep; wearing their wool, eating their meat, and possibly drinking their milk. The beautiful three-in-one beast that has supported human life over millennia.
Felt making is a nomadic art, requiring very little equipment. Just your hands and feet will suffice! I like the concept of keeping this exceptional art form nomadic, free from an over-burdening of tools. A ball of clay direct from the earth can be fashioned into a vessel, so too can wool be made into felt by applying moisture and friction.
There seems to be a deeply rooted urge in humans to dwell in repetition. There is repetition in all art forms: dance, music, poetry and art and craft. The rhythm of repetition can bring a profound sense of calm, and release the mind similar to chanting during meditation. Walking also has the same effect.
Walking groups are becoming very popular as people realise the benefits to both physical and mental health and the companionship gained through walking. I soon realised from the comments of some of my 40 volunteers that the concept of walking in wool could be profound in more ways. Connection seemed to be the thing that bound it all together; with the earth, with the fibre, with the animal, with each other, with our own physical rhythm of movement.
I took the concept into schools throughout Devon and beyond, having filmed the process and created an educational package that could spread the concept more widely.
“I walked with eight young adults with fragile educational needs in Edinburgh. Part of our storytelling journey was to go from Musselburgh to the National Library of Scotland. The journey, I was told, would never be walked by the kids – but with wrapping our feet in wet wool and the excitement of squelching we walked a third of the way! Feet Felt was an amazing means of connecting the young people with earth and means of moving and got them walking, one foot in front of the other – moving away from a place of being stuck to embrace an adventure together. Feet Felt was so much fun for the kids and really helped to bond the group for the rest of the week where stories of their life journeys emerged.” Claire, 2010
I always found comfort in knitting when I was young and I came from the Norwegian tradition of working with plenty of pattern worked out on graphs. Then I became a weaver, first spinning the single yarn for setting up a simple warp for my favourite weave – tabby. Tabby is the simplest and most primitive of all weave structures. It’s reliant on the intrinsic quality (and colour) of the yarn. Tabby is the weave that – for me – offers more integrity than more complicated structures. Ethel Mairet was an early 20th century weaver who supremely excelled in simple weaves, relying on the quality of the yarn and natural colours.
“If you have to make a thing, you must know the background of it, the skeleton, the foundations, the actual stuff that the materials have grown out of, their connections with the natural background, their biomechanics – and then building can begin. And then the reason for making the purpose, the human connection. All sides must be considered and known. You cannot just make.”
Mairet explains in her book Hand Weaving and Education (Faber & Faber 1952) how much children learn by handling fleece and using natural dyes. Natural dyes offer young eyes a way in to colour sensitivities as they blend better together than the sharper, clearer synthetic colours and they are also easier and safer to use. Choosing and working with materials from their source gives a more holistic opportunity to enquire about wider issues such as geography, welfare and environment – guided, of course, by a teacher who understands these concepts or is willing to learn!
As our education system reverts to the simplistic rigours of a narrower, linear viewpoint a more holistic vision takes a back seat. Had I known as a schoolgirl myself, that maths had a practical application in weaving and that there are many weavers tales to be told through literature and geography, I may have paid more attention to the relevance of these academic subjects. Craft, art and other creative disciplines are being sidelined when they could so easily be connected across the curriculum. This would engage the more visual students who learn more through tangible experiences. Craft is an uplifting way in to understanding our environment and ourselves. Repeatedly, I have seen the transformation in a disaffected child through the experience of working with something so raw and fundamental as sheeps wool. We are now beginning to understand that if children have no experience of Nature then they will not take care of it. Craft offers an easier way for those children who find life and school challenging and it can connect them to Nature. Whilst society goes through technological and cultural changes, human behaviour fundamentally remains the same.
My experience in schools over two decades highlighted a lack of knowledge of the origins of materials that teachers and assistants have in general – excepting those that are already engaged in craft as a hobby, of course! In the creation of the global market we have disconnected ourselves from the source of materials. The stuff that we buy comes from ‘somewhere else’ and most of us are too busy to enquire where it’s from, how it’s processed and made, by whom, let alone if they were paid a living wage to do so. For most people we take our clothing for granted; we buy them in a shop, we put them on, we put them in an automatic washing machine, tumble dry them and put them on again, or send them to charity before they’ve even had much wear.
Feet Felt gives children and adults a holistic, co-operative opportunity that helps us connect to our more primitive selves. It can be transformative and gives an understanding of transformation of material as we squelch along the track. Felt making in general is an excellent craft for teaching in schools, special schools, community clubs, prisons and so on because of the satisfaction of creating something out of a raw material that grows in the fields around us.
Hand Weaving and Education by Ethel Mairet (Faber & Faber 1952)