That Textile Touch

On a windy, end-of-June day, Kate Williams sits at a small table under a spreading lilac tree in LePage Park.

Nearby, Dennis Victor Allen is singing Murray McLauchlan’s “Farmer’s Song” to the noon-hour audience at Arts in the Park.

Williams seems almost oblivious to the music as her right hand bobs rapidly up and down, plunging a flattened, triangular needle repeatedly through a hank of colourful raw wool into part of an old black sweater that has been shrunk and felted.

“There’s another even older sweater inside there, and that will be for the padding,” she explains. “I try to recycle things if I can.”

Her table is laden with samples of recent creations—a tea cosy, a pair of gloves with blue felted shells, a beret with decorative appliqués, a brace of brightly-hued birds.

A toasty-looking pair of knitted-and-felted red boots is weighted with rocks against the wind.

As Williams works, a pink and purple moose comes to life beneath her needle.

“I think this is going to be another tea cosy.”

For the long-time art teacher and board member of the Yukon Artists @ Work co-operative, today’s project continues a passion that began more than half a century ago.

“When I was very little, my grandmother lived at our house, and I could sew long before I could read and write,” she says.

“I’ve been sewing since I was three years old, I think. By the time I was 10 or 11, I was making my own clothes, using a sewing machine. Not all my own clothes, but quite a few.”

In her teen years, Williams realized she wanted to make “textiles and sewing and art” her life’s focus.

After securing her teacher’s certification in arts and crafts in Wales, she emigrated to Canada and taught in Saskatchewan for a year before moving to Ross River in 1969.

For 31 years before retiring eight years ago, Williams taught art at the elementary, junior high and high school levels in Yukon schools.

Along the way, she studied textiles at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and earned a degree from the University of Oregon, although not in her chosen field.

Her fluency in Welsh didn’t count as a second language in Oregon, so Williams used some previous math credits to get a degree in science, rather than fine arts.

While her career involved teaching various art mediums, including painting and sculpture, her preference for fibre arts is obvious as she outlines the three distinct techniques of “felting” to make fabrics denser and more weather-resistant.

Wet-felting involves layering raw, carded wool in alternate directions—usually three to five layers, sometimes as many as seven or eight—then “shocking” it with soapy hot water, followed by cold water.

Rolling it in fabric, over and over in alternate directions, “agitates” the small scales, or barbs, in certain animal fibres to bind together and form a cloth that can be cut without unravelling the way a knitted or crocheted fabric would.

“I was in Mongolia about 10 years ago looking at how they did felting… and it’s the same process,” she says of a family making fabric for the nomadic dwelling known as a yurt.

“Traditionally they used to tie it behind a horse and drag it rolled up [in a canvas cover] across the tundra. But when we were there, they tied it on the back of a jeep and drove it round.”

On other travels, Williams learned to weave carpets at an upright loom in Nepal, and bought “a pair of boots and a big felted hat” for a river trip in Morocco, even though she had spent the winter making similar garments here in Yukon.

Wet-felting, she says, appeals to students, because it allows them to “get messy” playing with soap and water, and produce a fabric within a lesson or two.

The second technique is to “felt” something—such as those red boots—that has previously been knitted or crocheted, using either a top-loading washing machine or an old-fashioned scrubbing board to shock the fibre.

The third is the “needle-felting” technique Williams is demonstrating at Arts in the Park, which turns the craft of felting into an art form.

As her finely-barbed needle plunges repeatedly, the boldly-coloured moose grows stronger against the black, felted backing.

“The nice thing about needle felting is you can do it anywhere, really, whereas the wet felting you have to be in a place where you can have soap and water and make a mess.”

Of her week-long stint as visual artist at Arts in the Park, Williams simply says, “It’s quite pleasant. It’s nice to be able to talk to people.”

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