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During workshops, I am often asked by my students which wool breeds I recommend. Although I have my personal favourites, the answer of course depends entirely on what I intend to make. Different breeds have different characteristics and result in a different kind of felt. Once the qualities of a breed are understood, it becomes possible to make a more informed choice.
My own work mostly consists of 3-dimensional sculptural work, and for this I tend to use a combination of wool breeds that fall into the range of 28-32 micron. As I work with complex resists, I also prefer to work with carded batts, rather than tops (or slivers); I find it easier to lay out and control the fibres.
My first step was to make a basic flat sample with each wool in order to calculate the shrinkage, and to see how the wool behaves.
Both samples started out at the same size (30 x 30cm) and incorporated the same amount of wool (40g.)
Sample A (Bergschaf) shrank by 31%, sample B (extra fine Merino) shrank by 41%. Aside from the difference in shrinkage (which is explained by the relative coarseness of the fibre), the most noticeable difference between the two breeds is in the finish, with Bergschaf being much hairier than the Merino.
The next step was to start experimenting with a range of sculptural shapes. Each of the samples shown below were made in pairs, using the same techniques and the same amount of wool in each pair.
Samples 1 and their resist
In this first pair of 3-D samples, which were laid out around a simple resist shape, I incorporated some strips of pre-felt of different thicknesses. Playing with different thicknesses within one piece can give rise to interesting sculptural possibilities: The thicker the layers of wool, the smaller the shrinkage that will take place; the thinner the layers of wool, the more shrinkage will take place. The contrast between thick and thin areas cause distortions of the overall shape. One can respond to, and let oneself be informed by these distortions to create a 3-dimensional shape. This can be a liberating and intuitive process, and I highly recommend experimenting with this.
The difference between the two samples was quite striking. The sample made with extra fine merino (R) shrank extremely quickly in comparison to the Bergschaf. It was easier to work on very fine detail too; I managed to rub in some very fine pleats. But overall, its sculptural shape felt a bit "soft" and floppy to handle, and my concern would be that it wouldn't hold it shape very well on a larger scale. This is an important consideration for me, as a lot of my work is quite large.
In contrast, the piece made with Bergschaf feels sturdier in the hand and generally seems to hold its shape better, but it was harder to achieve really fine detail (pleats). After working on the piece for a while, the sculptural shape started becoming a bit obscured by the "hairy" nature of the fibre, and I had to burn away the fuzzy layer after drying to reveal the sculptural shape again.
The other observation was that the colour of the pre-felt migrated through to the surface of the felt more noticeably in the extra fine Merino.
In the next sample, I wanted to try a different variation on the technique of incorporating pre-felts.
Pre-felts made of 7 layers of wool
Sample 2: Resist templates
Sample 2: Covering the resists with pre-felt shapes
Sample 2: Pre-felts have been covered with wool, wetted out, and the resist has been turned over. The wool has been allowed to extend beyond the edges of the resist more than usual...
... in order to control the pre-felts that are positioned on the edge, and keep them in place.
Sample 2: Wool laid out on the reverse side
Sample 2: The finished pieces
The most noticeable difference between these two samples is that the surface of the piece made with extra fine Merino (R) is much more subtle and less defined. Although the outline of the buried pre-felts is clearly visible, the overall effects is more surface decoration than sculpted surface. In contrast, the piece made with Bergschaf (L) has a much more pronounced 3-dimensional finish. Were I to repeat this sample in extra fine Merino, I would use thicker pre-felts to see if it is possible to achieve a similar 3-D effect as the Bergschaf sample.
Having seen such a pronounced difference, I was curious to know how the extra fine Merino would behave on a more complicated resist with multiple "pages".
Sample 3: Resist templates (consisting of 3 "pages" each)
Sample 3: Laying out and wetting the wool
Sample 3: Bergschaf sample after rubbing (L) and Extra fine Merino sample after rolling (R). The 3 "pages" are clearly visible in the template on the right.
Sample 3: Finished pieces
Sample 3: Showing the hairy finish of the Bergschaf wool (before burning)
To my surprise, the extra fine Merino performed better than expected in this challenge: Although the finished piece still has a relatively 'soft' feel and is less sturdy than I would ordinarily like, I did manage to get a nice and clear sculptural shape and outline, and the piece stands up by itself. The Bergschaf wool performed more or less as expected, including a sturdy but very hairy finish that required burning and shaving to reveal the sculptural detail.
Finally, I wanted to see how each respective breed would perform in one of my favourite techniques of stitching into pre-felt.
Sample 4: 2 layered pre-felt with cotton scrim, stitched.
Sample 4: Resist templates and stitched pre-felts
Sample 4: finished pieces
Sample 4: The pre-felt made from extra fine Merino (R) shows a little bit more definition and detail than the one made from Bergschaf (L), although the difference isn't as big as I expected it to be.
Sample 4: This photos clearly shows the contrast in finishes between the two breeds, with Bergschaf (L) being by far the hairier of the two.
Having spent this time comparing the two breeds, my conclusion is that both these wool breeds can be used successfully in sculpture, albeit for different purposes:
As Bergschaf is a coarser wool, it is suitable for hard wearing items such as slippers, and it generally performs well in 3-dimensional work. It can be felted in to very rigid forms, it has 'body', and holds its shape well. Provided the felt is well made (i.e. fulled hard) it can be used very successfully in larger work without fear of the shape collapsing. The one negative of this wool is its hairy surface, which needs to be razored or burnt off, if a crisp, clean line is required (unless of course a hairy finish is what you want).
Extra fine Merino is suitable for smaller 3-D work, as it doesn't quite have the stiffness and rigidity that can be achieved with Bergschaf. In large sculptural work this breed would probably need stiffening to hold its shape. However, the benefit of this breed are that it's extremely fast felting, it has a superb smooth finish, and it can be sculpted into very fine detail - all great characteristics to be exploited.
I was pleasantly surprised by the performance of the extra fine Merino wool. My next step would be to combine these breeds in one piece in order to obtain the benefits of each within one work . Some experimentation would be required to decide on the best ratio between the breeds, but that is for another time!