Ann MacKenzie braved the wild Wind River in Yukon’s Peel Watershed this summer – no mean feat for someone aged 71.
On the trip, she was sure to pack her metal, barbed felting needles. With them, she sculpted wilderness scenes from wool.
One scene shows a field of Arctic cotton. Another shows flowers going to seed. A third shows the tumultuous river.
In all cases, the billowy subject matter is well-matched by the soft edges and puffy texture of felt.
Starting today, these and other works are on show at Yukon Artists at Work, as part of MacKenzie’s new collection, House of Felt.
Felting is a fitting passion for MacKenzie, who grew up on a sheep farm in the Scottish Highlands. But her interest in the craft only became tweaked after she moved to the Yukon in 1974.
While living in Tagish, she befriended a woman who lived in a cabin on Little Atlin Lake who had taught herself, by book, how to felt.
MacKenzie caught the bug, and has since passed the skill along to many others during her regular appearance at Whitehorse’s Stitch ‘n Bitch club.
She began by making “practical stuff”: boots, mitts, hats and scarfs. But lately she’s headed into new directions, in part inspired by her two grandchildren.
She’s crafted a cartoonish dog from grey, back and white Sheffield wool. It has a long nose pointed skywards and big, floppy ears.
She’s also made kooky-looking birds and a hobby horse, all of which would look at home in a kid’s playroom.
Another quirky item is a brightly-coloured bead curtain that has been made with ping-pong-sized balls of felt.
And she’s made several felt rugs. One is grey and embossed with a purple “endless knot,” so called because it has no beginning or end. It looks like a Celtic design, but actually hails from Tibet – one of several far-flung corners of the world that MacKenzie has visited.
Felting is believed to be the world’s earliest form of textile. MacKenzie enjoys it because it’s less finicky and requires less precision than knitting.
“These are the original felters,” says MacKenzie, holding pictures from her trip to Mongolia in 2002 of nomads showing how felting is done.
Traditionally, a pile of wool is washed and smoothed flat atop a rug. The rug is rolled tight and dragged by horse for several hours.
The subsequent jostling causes wool fibres to enmesh, thanks to tiny, velcro-like scales found in wool.
Nowadays, Mongolians use a Jeep rather than a horse for this task. Otherwise, the method remains the same.
“That, to me, is real felting,” said MacKenzie.
Her own modified method involves taking the rolled-up rug of felt and rolling it up and down her road, with the help of several helpers.
It takes time. MacKenzie spent upwards of 10 hours rolling the rugs she’s made so that the wool flattens and properly interlocks, pausing frequently to ensure the material isn’t wrinkling. “It’s a huge amount of work,” she said.
The exhibit continues until October 28. Yukon Artists at Work’s new digs are at 120 Industrial Road.
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