Felt art: Going crazy for gnomes

HOUSTATONIC — It started with a bead store, a fiber festival on a fall weekend and an amiable, improvisational pair ... of gnomes. Across 10 years, a hobby and a gift has evolved into a home-grown business, a nesting dragon, a forest of talking trees and a way of life.

On a midwinter night coated with ice, sisters Jennifer and Melissa VanSant are celebrating a decade of Going Gnome, their joint enterprise in needle felting: creating little people — and the world they live in — out of wool.

It started with improvisation. The VanSants had opened Off the Beaded Path together in 2004. They sold jewelry supplies, pendants and buttons on a corner of Main Street. And on quiet moments behind the desk, they worked with their hands.

Jennifer took a class on needle felting 10 years ago.

"It was like relief sculpture," she said in their studio in Housatonic, surrounded by baskets of carded wool in forest green, crimson and the yellow-orange of jewel weed petals.

She learned to create designs in felt on a felt background, and the instructor told her needle felting could also form free-standing figures. So, she invented one.

Coming home, she made her first gnome, a felt little man with a tall hat and a bushy beard, and gave it to Melissa as a gentle inside joke. The VanSants had grown up with Wil Huygen's book, "Gnomes," illustrated by Rien Poorvliet, and as children they had loved his stories.

Huygen and Poorvliet are Dutch, and they tell tales of the Kabouters, little people who live underground and sometimes in houses, like brownies and hobs and kobolds. The book talks about them as frankly as Charles Darwin sketching an orchid or a Galapagos turtle and explaining where and how they live.

In Melissa and Jennifer's hands, gnomes are quiet and attentive folk. They come from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, though they have traveled across the ocean. They share tea and seed cakes with Hobbit-like enjoyment or stroll in the garden on a summer night and let the mint leaves keep off the rain.

They have brought the VanSants good fortune over the years. Melissa made Jennifer a gnome, and they began to make more in quiet hours at the shop.

The craft is simple and forgiving to beginners, though it can become endlessly complex. Roll or fold raw wool into a shape and poke it with a felting needle, and it will compact and bind together, Jennifer explained in a workshop at One Mercantile. The needle has notches that press the wool fibers together.

Felting goes back centuries, she said, but needle felting is new. In the days of woolen mills, machines with hundreds of these needles created vast sheets of wool felt. A few decades ago, a couple in Vermont first picked up a needle as a sculpting tool.

Demonstrating, Jennifer wrapped gray wool to shape the body and head of an Emperor Penguin chick. Pressing rhythmically with the needle firmed it. Layers of light, and then dark, wool formed the shading on the chick's face and head. She molded the baby bird like a clay sculpture, adding thickness here and tapering there.

In the early days, she and Melissa began to invent new sculptures, she said — new gnomes, red mushrooms, grinning rock monsters. People saw them shaping hats and beards, and they saw the cheerful little folk in the shop and asked about them. Melissa and Jennifer began to offer the gnomes, along with their beads, and then they began to spread the craft.

They invented their own kits for some of the first figures they had made themselves. They stocked needles and wool. And they planted the seeds of a following.

Within a few years, the needle-felting had outpaced the beads, and the business was growing so fast that the VanSants closed the bead shop to go completely gnome.

Today, they create three or four new kits every year, Jennifer said, and people collect them. Going Gnome has a drawn together a growing base of artisans in the region.

Jennifer and Melissa make increasingly large and intricate works of their own. The world the gnomes live in fills their workshop with talking hollow fir trees, mushroom houses, a snowy owl carrying a wax-sealed envelope and a sprawling Smaug with 13 dwarfs and one Bilbo.

They travel to festivals around New England on the look out for new colors and textures of wool — Teeswater for a tight curl, Border Leicester for brightness, Merino shading softly between dark and light. A thick coffee-and-cream brown became the shaggy beard for a new kit and kabouter, Belsnickel, a plain-spoken fellow as earthy as a gardener.

The wool comes from sheep grown and raised the U.S., Jennifer said, mostly from New England farmers and local companies who card and dye it as well. She and Melissa will occasionally dye their own to get a specific color, she said as she ran a hand through a curling heap of deep, bright red.

She and Melissa teach workshops, many for beginners, but some for an increasingly advanced crowd. For some time, the VanSants have been the only needle felters to teach at the Sheep and Wool Festival in Rhinebeck, N.Y., and Vogue Knitting Live in New York City.

Their playful invention grows and sends out offshoots. They make custom kits for students inventing their own sculptures, Jennifer said, and they recently ran a five-week tutorial on dragons.

What began as an inside-family joke has become a family tradition.

"Our parents let us use the studio space," Jennifer said, "and our kids critique the designs."

And now, the gnomes are making their way home. When someone from Norway first brought one back to Scandinavia, Jennifer said, then she and Melissa knew Going Gnome had really made it all the way.

If you go ...

What: Owl dry-wool needle-felting workshop with Going Gnome

When: Two-day project, 6 to 9 p.m. Feb. 26 and 27

Where: One Mercantile, 8 Castle St., Great Barrington

Information: one-mercantile.myshopify.com

About Going Gnome: going-gnome.myshopify.com


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