I am exhilarated to welcome to Ashes & Milk fiber artist Ashley Helvey, creator of organically textured Wool Felted Rugs. Ashley is inspired by traditional felting techniques and uses a sustainable approach to procuring raw wool.
Above are the Wool Felted Rugs that Ashley Helvey created especially for Ashes & Milk.
Nikko: I am familiar with the process of felting wool but a lot of people have no idea what is involved from start to finish. Can you tell me about how you obtain the wool material and about the process of creating your rugs?
Ashley: I source all my wool from either local or organic farms. Living in San Francisco, I happen to be close to a lot of farms that are not USDA certified, but practice organic ways of raising sheep. Visiting farms and meeting the people and animals involved is a nice way to begin my process. When I worked with plant-dyer Sasha Duerr to create the Sheep and Weeds installation in Oakland, I used a mixture of pure California sheep wool that I sourced from one of the only wool mills in California, Yolo Wool Mill. In addition to farms being organic, some even call themselves “predator-friendly” which ensures that no lethal controls are used on the sheep’s natural predators. It’s very important to me to support this way of farming because it brings integrity and quality to the fiber and to my work.
Above is a sheering of raw wool taken from one sheep. The highlights of light-brown on dark-brown are natural fluctuations of color that are caused by sunlight.
Ashley: As the oldest textile in human history I was immediately drawn to the organic nature of the felting process, which begins with a sheep fleece that has been skirted and washed, put through a picker, and then through a carder to create large, brushed batts. With the batting I create layers upon layers of wool, intentionally crossing the fiber enabling it to entangle easier. The wool is then wet with hot, soapy water, which causes the scales on the fiber to open up and slip into one another when agitated. To agitate it, I roll it up onto a large PVC pipe and pull it either manually or, in the case of the larger pieces, pull it with a tractor back and forth. After the piece has somewhat entangled I then begin the fulling process, which is basically rubbing it back and forth against a washing board to further felt it.
Ashley agitates the wool by rolling it up in a PVC pipe and pulls it back and forth with a tractor.
To ‘full the wool’ Ashley gets to work on her hands and knees.
Nikko: Also, I couldn’t help notice that you often work outside in really beautiful places. Do natural settings affect how you work with wool or influence the style of your work?
Ashley: I am very fortunate to have a boyfriend whose grandparents operate an olive oil ranch (Regina Olive Oil) in Napa County, which allows me to work in such a beautiful environment. I would definitely agree that this influences the way I work. I have become very dependent on the weather and have developed a sort of relationship with the environment. The process itself becomes reliant on these different components, causes and effects, and the work in a sense is a result of the interconnectedness of the entire process.
Creating the Gray Wool Felted Rug – Small.
Nikko: When I look at your textile pieces within a space they remind me of sculptures or installations. How do you describe your work as a medium and what is your favorite way to present it within an interior space?
Ashley: Yes, I like to think of my work as installation-based because I am not really producing a product, I’m engaging in a process. Within interiors, I think the medium brings a very raw, primal, and exposed beauty to a space that makes you kind of want to curl up in a ball, it’s very womb-like. This is actually how I feel when I am felting. I use the repetitive motions of fulling the wool as a meditation to practice consciousness and bring my mind home.
Ashley created a large wall-hanging as an installation at Iko Iko in LA.
Ashley: I also really enjoy creating site-specific work, which again is challenging because it is dependent on so many different elements. In my most recent installation at Iko Iko in Los Angeles, DEPENDENT-ARISING, I created a large wall-hanging that was introduced to the space by my friend Cameron Mesirow of Glasser with a song [ shown above ] she wrote that was based on ancient Scottish waulking-fulling songs. In Mongolia and Tibet people sing prayers to bless their gers or loovuz and the people and spaces it will live with. There is definitely a spiritual element to my work and I try to convey that in the way it is presented, whether it’s singing a song or preparing a feast of lamb ragu and sheep cheese raviolis to honor the sheep.
Nikko: What are you plans for the future?
Ashley: I am very passionate about collaborating with other artists because it adds a different perspective to my work and keeps things fresh. I am currently working with Creatures of the Wind to create textiles for their Fall 2010 collection, as well as working on more costumes for Cameron Mesirow’s band Glasser. Other projects include collecting bison moltings with artist Alison Pebsworth for a research project documenting lost America and building a sleeping tent for a music gathering in Ukiah, California.
A long term dream of mine would be to raise sheep and process my own wool like my wonderful mentor, Dutch felter Claudy Jongstra. I would love to see the process all the way through from the sheep to the finished piece!