20th Anniversary Address from Elizabeth Bonnar

On Sunday, the 7th of May 2023, the founder and president of Feltmakers Ireland, Elizabeth Bonnar, gave an address at our AGM. Below is an excerpt of her speech. Underneath this, there is a selection of felted creations that Elizabeth shared during the meeting.

Elizabeth Bonnar at the AGM

It is a great pleasure for me to be with you all today to give this address to Feltmakers Ireland in the new venue here in Inchicore. This is an auspicious day for us. We are celebrating the upcoming launch of the book on our Guild’s Wool Project and the 20th anniversary of the founding of Feltmakers Ireland, which took place on the 3rd of May 2003, 20 years ago almost to the day.

I have been asked to talk about our Guild’s beginnings, but first, I will tell you a little bit about the history of feltmaking, how I became aware of this amazing craft, and how that set me on the path to setting up Feltmakers Ireland.

It would be good to start by precisely defining what felt is:

Felt is the world’s oldest textile structure. Felting converts fibre – usually wool – into fabric without spinning or weaving. When wool fibres are subjected to a combination of moisture and friction, with the addition of heat and a little alkali, the resulting fabric is felt. Wool fibres are covered with overlapping scales, which open up and interlock when rubbed together. The longer the rubbing, the more entangled and firmer the felt becomes. Shrinkage is involved, and this, of course, must be allowed for.

~~ Elizabeth Bonnar ~~

The history of feltmaking tells us that it is an ancient craft dating back over four thousand years, which had its cradle in central Asia. From the late 1960s, in the UK, a revival of feltmaking occurred mainly due to the British artist Mary Burkett. During a trip to Iran in 1962, she stopped her car for a closer look at a group of people rolling a bundle of something in a bed of leaves. It turned out to be felt. She recognised the antiquity of the designs and the unusual but simple nature of the process and wondered why such an ancient craft seemed to be close to extinction. She spent the next 16 years researching felt in the East, research which had far-reaching effects. Her exhibition “The Art of the Feltmaker” in Cumbria in 1979, followed by a book of the same name, was a revelation to the public. Artists and crafts persons alike were amazed and delighted. The book and the exhibition acted as catalysts for the rebirth of feltmaking and the setting up in 1984 of the International Feltmakers Association, based in the UK and covering the British Isles.

How I discovered feltmaking
In 1996, planning to retire a few years early and exploring new horizons, I joined the Irish Guild of Weavers, Spinners, and Dyers. Having been an inveterate knitter all my life, I thought I knew everything about wool, but at one of their workshops, I discovered to my amazement, that apart from knitted and woven articles and carpets, it was possible to make fabric from unspun wool, using water, friction, and soap, giving myriads of possibilities in colour, texture, shape and design. I was immediately hooked. Having learned about the International Feltmakers Association, known as the IFA for short, I enrolled as a member. I was allocated to Region 15, the Republic of Ireland, which had six other members at that time, one of them being the area coordinator.

Just after I retired, I was able to attend a five-day international conference held by the IFA at a college in Manchester. The top feltmakers worldwide were teaching there, with spectacular exhibitions of their work on display. A large hall filled with stands showed felting supplies from the UK and abroad. It was like an Aladdin’s cave of colour and texture, like nothing I had ever seen. I was fortunate to see the world’s best at the beginning of my felting journey. In addition, I was able to attend some of the workshops, one of them being Nuno feltmaking, felting into the fabric, taught by Sheila Smith. Nuno is the Japanese word for cloth. Nuno later became my favourite felting technique. Sheila and I formed an immediate and lasting friendship. As fellow Scots, we had both been trained in Glasgow. I came away from the conference realising that there existed a very active worldwide network of felting organisations which anyone could tap into – or contribute to. This international element we used to the full, later in our Guild.

At the annual Knit and Stitch Show in the RDS in Dublin in November 1996, I had my first experience of helping to handle a stand for the IFA. It was up on the balcony, in the crafts gallery between the Lacemakers Guild and the Weavers, Spinners, and Dyers. Our stand was staffed by two members from the UK and our team from Ireland. The UK members were Pamela Dunbar from Lisburn and Joan Braganza from Surrey. They became great mentors to me, not only in feltmaking and running the stand but also in how to organise meetings and workshops, sourcing and ordering supplies, record keeping, networking and financial matters. Later, I became the coordinator for Area 15 and took over the running of our stand at the Knit and Stitch Show.

At The Knit and Stitch
At the show, we feltmakers were the relatively new kids on the block, as the craft of feltmaking was virtually unheard of. There was huge interest in our stand. Three of us would stand in a row demonstrating how to make samples. We used coloured and natural wool tops, adding in yarns, silk fibre, fragments of materials and lace, showing how pieces of fabric could be produced like magic within minutes using wisps of wool. We hung them up along the edge of our table to be touched and admired. The effect was electrifying to the public, and throngs surrounded our table. Naturally, water was involved in the process, and much plastic sheeting had to be manipulated to keep the table and floor dry. One of my most challenging experiences occurred when clearing up after the show ended. I was carrying a heavy bucket of water away when the handle came off, and the water cascaded down through the gaps in the decking onto the floor below. It caused great laughter upstairs but not so underneath. Somehow it got blamed on Joan Braganza, who, luckily for me, had already left the country for home.

In the beginning
Under the auspices of IFA Region 15, we started running feltmaking courses in Castleknock in the lovely new parish centre of Our Lady Mother of the Church, with its beautiful facilities. We began with the Basic and Beyond, a one-day course held in January, which we advertised at the Knit and Stitch in November. This worked very well as people booked places in advance for themselves and as Christmas gifts. The Basic and Beyond was a great success over the years. We often had 36 participants, filling the hall with three sets of pupils, teachers, and much-needed helpers. After that, we held regular workshops, often with international tutors, including hat making, Nuno felting, silk papermaking, and sampling fibre from different sheep breeds. Our workshop in February 2003, entitled “Felt Fragmented”, was given by Sheila Smith, now immediate past chairperson of the IFA and a superb teacher.

The Birth of Feltmakers Ireland
Our membership grew to 40, and in February of 2003, because of the surging interest in feltmaking, we realised it was time to set up an autonomous group in Ireland to be known as Feltmakers Ireland. A steering committee was set up, and with advice from the Crafts Council, who provided a facilitator, we organised an Open Day in our hall in Castleknock. At this event, the Guild would be formally established and inaugurated. From the beginning, at the Knit and Stitch, we had noted down the names and contact details of everyone interested in felting who visited our stand. Over the years, we ended up with about 240 names. We circulated these names and those of all other guilds, notifying them of our intention to set up a feltmaking guild at the Open Day, held on the 3rd of May 2003, in Castleknock. We invited them to attend. On the day, there was a great turnout. We had set up an exhibition of work, feltmaking demonstrations, and stands selling materials used in feltmaking, fibre from different sheep, silk fibre, yarns and fabrics. Afterwards, there were refreshments.

Twenty-eight of the many attendees stayed on for the formal setting up of the Guild. Then the facilitator from the Crafts Council took us through the whole process, which entailed telling our story so far, group discussions to decide our aims and objectives, and question time. After consensus was reached, officers and committee members were elected. All went smoothly, and by 3 pm on the 3rd of May 2003, Feltmakers Ireland had come into being.

Then the hard work began, registering with the Crafts Council, setting up bank accounts, getting insurance, organising workshops, and so much more. Over the years, Feltmakers Ireland has thrived despite some ups and downs, the sort any guild would have. The worst was Covid, but the committee saw us through this with great stamina and perseverance. The good news is that there has been renewed interest in feltmaking since Covid and that a second felt renaissance may well be on the way. Our committee is ready for it!

In conclusion
I want to finish by thanking all those who helped set up our organisation, all previous members and all those who have followed in our footsteps. Long may Feltmakers Ireland continue to give us creative joy, enriching fellowship, and fun!

A Selection of Elizabeth Bonnar’s felted creations