By Robyn Scherer – Sculpting is an art form that takes time, skill, and an attention to detail. Usually, people think of sculpting as an art form using clay or stone. However, there are other media and methods that can be used, such as wool. This has led many to discover how to felt wool and create beautiful wool sculptures.
For Teresa Perleberg, of Bear Creek Design and Felting in Fort Ransom, North Dakota, wool is the preferred medium. “I never knew I could sculpt until I found the wool. There are no seams and no sewing. I just look at photos and start making it. You go with it, and there’s no measuring,” she said.
She continued, “I love the texture of the wool and how easily it blends together to make the animals come to life: I continually look for ideas for my sculptures—in the wild, in pictures and in my own pets and farm animals.”
She provides the majority of the wool that she uses from her own flock of Romney sheep, which she originally got into eight years ago, on her daughter’s eighth birthday. “She wanted a lamb, so we got two. Then I decided I wanted some too, so we got two more. We got them for wool purposes,” she explained.
The family was already involved in crafting with wool. “We were already knitting and I was thinking about spinning. As I was trying to learn how to spin, my daughter was with me and someone gave her some felting needles and wool. When she went to bed that night, I started playing. I stayed up until three in the morning and loved it. I kept at it and I love to do it. I have really enjoyed it,” Perleberg stated.
By connecting with a group called the Wooly Women, Perleberg first learned how to raise sheep for wool, how to spin and how to felt wool. “The Woolly Women have had all sorts of tips, as they do for my sheep. They have been great,” she explained.
Wool User to Wool Grower
Perleberg runs a flock of around 50; the majority of those are registered Romney sheep. “We wanted something that was good for spinning, as well as were easy to handle. I grew up with sheep that weren’t easy to handle, and it wasn’t a good memory,” she recalled.
She added, “The Romneys are smaller and easier to manage. These were nearby in my state, and I was able to visit with the woman I bought them from and learn about them. I wanted the kids to be able to show them as well.”
Her kids still show them, and she sells some of her ram lambs as breeding stock, as well as keeping a few back for family consumption. They also own a handful of Blueface Leicesters, which they purchased to have curly wool. However, with the popularity of her felted creations, Perleberg has been expanding her flock.
“I have kept all the ewe lambs since the beginning—to grow the flock—and now we’re even saving the wethers for their wool. I’ve had a lot of people contact me about wanting ewes, but we don’t sell any right now,” she explained.
Felting Uses Lots of Wool
All of the wool she harvests is used in some way or another for her felting pieces, or for the felting kits she sells. She uses the nicer wool on the outside, and the lesser quality wool, such as that from the belly or legs, as the internal structure on her felted pieces. Here’s the general process of how to make felted animals and other creations from Teresa’s experience:
“I make little balls out of the belly wool and leg wool in the washing machine. You put it in nylon stockings and put it in hot water, and it agitates the wool and forms little balls. Depending on how long you wash it, it can be really hard. I use this for the main structure of my pieces,” Perleberg stated. The next step is to thread these balls together to start forming the basic shape.
“Once I have a basic shape, I add the roving where I need it. The felting needles have little barbs on them, and they keep pulling the wool in. It just keeps pulling it in and not out,” she said.
She added, “You have to use the felting needle and stab the wool into place. To get it hard enough, you have to stab it thousands of times.”
This process can take several days, depending on the size of the piece she is working on. “The larger animals I’ll spend four to five days on in the afternoon. I don’t have all day to do it. You have to keep poking the wool until it’s just right. The taller animals have wire in the legs so it’s more stable, so I felt around those,” she stated.
She learned to use the wire from past experience. “I’ve learned as I have gone. The first ones I didn’t use the wire, and they gave out later—after a year or so they collapsed. I never had any formal instruction, so a lot of this I’ve learned from doing it,” Perleberg said.
She has sculpted a wide variety of animals and objects. “I sculpt mostly realistic animals, but I’m developing more and more whimsical animals from my own imagination. The devotion of time spent on the face of the animal really brings the overall expression to my piece of art.”
“To truly appreciate my work, one needs to understand the process of needle felting and the time that’s necessary to create such detail out of wool,” she stated.
She added, “I get an idea by looking at animals. I take photos or find photos from all different angles, so I can see all the detail.” Part of that detail comes in different colors: “In my Romney sheep, I have the gray and black, and some brown. I also use wool dye in all the different colors to get what I need,” she explained.
Some of her pieces use knitted as well as felted wool. “I spin yarn for the snowman hats and scarves. I do quite a bit of spinning, as my daughter loves to knit,” Perleberg said.
Selling Wool in Felting Kits
In addition to creating her own pieces, she has also created kits with needle felting supplies that she sells. This allows others to recreate some of her pieces of art. “I sell felting kits for beginners and they have everything someone would need to start felting. They include instructions that I wrote and photos of each step. The snowman kit is my most popular,” she explained.
She started making kits after teaching classes and realizing there was a need for it. “Most of my income is from the kits, especially around Christmas. I did that on the sideline because I was teaching classes. And since then, it has really taken off,” she said.
She added, “I like selling the kits because I can’t make the art as fast as I’d like to, so it’s good to have the kits.”
She continued, “I am really into photography because great pictures really help sell things. I also joined some teams to help promote my products, and I’m able to keep my shop full.”
When she first learned how to felt wool, she never could have imagined it would have taken off like it has. “I didn’t see it going where it is today when I started. I’m 30 miles from nowhere in the middle of North Dakota. Being able to advertise and have the internet has been amazing. In the beginning, it was so small, and having online access has really changed things,” Perleberg said.
She’s really enjoyed both creating her pieces of art and her Romney sheep, which provide her the medium she loves. “The Romney sheep we own provide me with my favorite medium. It gives me great pleasure to know my pieces are now part of several private collections in places throughout the world,” she said.
Good luck learning how to felt wool. Who knows, when experimenting with felting wool, projects you create might just turn into a new business!
Originally published in sheep! September / October 2014 and regularly vetted for accuracy.