Out & About: Corinth Felt Artist Creates Scenes From the Middle Ages

  • Artist Neysa Russo. (Courtesy photograph)

  • "Peaceable Kingdom" by artist Neysa Russo. (Courtesy photograph)

  • "Artis Equus" by artist Neysa Russo. (Courtesy photograph)

Valley News Correspondent
Saturday, January 06, 2018

Neysa Russo’s felted wool tapestries, rugs and other home decor items are intricate in design, but she insists that the actual process of felting is quite simple. If you’ve ever washed a wool sweater and then put it in the dryer, you’ve likely seen the results of felting: the garment shrinks and the fabric becomes stiff. A similar combination of soap, hot water and agitation creates the canvas for Russo’s artwork. Then she uses special barbed needles to apply different colors of wool to the fabric.

Russo, of Corinth, offers felt-making classes at The Spinning Studio in Bradford, Vt., and at fiber art festivals around the Northeast, markets her own line of kits and has written two how-to books on the subject. (Her latest, Felted Fiber Menagerie, exploring the technique of three-dimensional felting, is due out in February.)

She also contributes to Rug Hooking magazine and works part time as the Corinth assistant town treasurer.

An exhibit of Russo’s work, “Mostly Medieval,” is on display at the Blake Memorial Library in East Corinth, 676 Village Road, where she will present a talk and a demonstration on Monday at 6:30 p.m. The exhibit will be on display through the end of January.

In an email Q&A, Russo discussed the art of felting and why it captured her imagination. The exchange has been edited for clarity and length.

Question: Can you talk about the process of felt making?

Answer: Felt is made the same way today as it has been since ancient times. Every strand of wool has scales, visible under a microscope. As you apply pressure, the strands of wool slide around until the scales catch on one another, the agitation forcing them to become entangled. The wool begins to shrink as the fiber strands tighten, and eventually the wool becomes a durable and dense fabric, which is felt.

Q: What drew you to this medium?

A: My designs are accomplished much more quickly in felt than in many other forms of needlework. I’m able to achieve more detail and larger scenes in a fraction of the time, compared to needlepoint or cross-stitch. Because all the supplies are so accessible and the process so simple, it has allowed my design ideas to flourish.

Q: How did you first get started?

A: My mother, Robin Russo, showed me how to wet felt and then showed me the special needles. She is a renowned fiber artist and a teacher of many textile mediums. I have dabbled in other art forms (painting, drawing, knitting, block printing, marbling, Kumihimo), and those years of experience taught me the fundamentals of design composition and color coordination.

Q: What inspires your work and gives you creative ideas?

A: My designs are inspired by ancient embroidery and woven motifs, knitting patterns, Middle Eastern rugs and medieval textiles, pottery, carvings and engravings. Just one theme, like St. George, sampler designs, horses or angels can begin a journey of a year or more. Google is a great modern resource. If I need to know how a dragon looks as its neck twists around, thousands of illustrations exist to demonstrate that position. I also use a small artist’s mannequin which I can pose, to see how the human body might look performing various actions; for example, when playing a guitar or riding a horse. The perspective is often awkward and the design shapes are rudimentary, but they come together to create the beauty of everyday life. 

Q: What themes do you pursue in your designs?

A: Guardian animals at The Tree of Life, protectors of the Holy Grail — lions, dragons, deer, horses and birds are often used in my work. I have an ongoing exhibit called “Artis Equus” that features equestrian tapestries, depicting the movement and ornament of the horse. Right now, I’m working on an outline for a third book that involves using storytelling in your tapestries to create folk art scenes. With people and animals as inspiration, there’s never a lack of ideas.

Q: How can people get started if they want to try felt making?

A: Making felt is simple! Very little equipment is needed, and some of the supplies you may have right at home. As with any art form, the more you practice, the better you become. My kits are geared toward ages 8 and over because of the sharp and fragile nature of the barbed needles, but younger students may enjoy wet felting.

Taking a workshop is a great introduction to making felt. My website, www.thespinningstudio.com, has the supplies you need to get started and lists events in the area where I will be teaching.