Inside the Feltmaker's Studio
“Art isn’t a pursuit, it’s just who we are,” or to put it another way “Every human being is an artist”. It might seem tenuous to quote the aspirational US clothing brand Anthropologie alongside acrimonious German artist Joseph Beuys (you can decide which maxim belongs to who) but perhaps less so in the East Sussex studio of felt-maker Barbara Keal, where ancient alchemy and painstaking ritual are easily translated into simple-life style, artisan homesteads and hats.
Actually Keal’s felt creations wouldn’t look out of place in a Beuys installation. Made from sheep’s wool, plus water, soap and friction, felt has been used for clothes and shelter since 500CE when Herodotus described travelling caravans as felt tents on wheels. Observable both in nature and natural clothes stores, felt even makes itself on the backsides of sheep, where the wool is rubbed fine by movement and moisture. It’s the magic stuff in Barbara, and Beuys’s, arsenal.
When we arrive at the pointy-roofed clapboard workshop on Vipers Wharf, Barbara Keal is wearing long flowing skirts and munching on a small stick of bread and a hunk of cheese. She shares the studio with her husband Richard, a woodworker, who brings out milk for our tea in a baby’s beaker.
Sylvanian family-style, there’s a blossoming kitchen garden. White blooms – narcotic flowers from South America – lean over the path, itself straddled by two rusty poles, scavenged from a naval lunatic asylum. Although it’s scorching hot, the womb-like studio is cool and looks, unsurprisingly, full of wood.
We’ve been warned in advance that the Keals are working on a large-scale installation commissioned by a big client. We may or may not be allowed to take photos in the workshop. On entering, it’s clear that the Keal’s installation is the workshop. The towering wooden structure, part-maze part-menagerie, is the size of a large stable and fills the entire space. Richard Keal the woodworker is good at making-to-measure.
In the midst of it, Barbara’s leviathan hats and headpieces stand on towering plinths, more Minotaur than A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Hidden drawers hold off-cuts, and pretty odds and ends. Cabinets are flanked by untreated bark inlays with handmade hooks and hinges, immaculately inscribed. Secret doors reveal nursing chairs and baby stools, cut straight from the tree. It could be a goat’s dressing room.
It is, we find out, all in aid of Anthropologie’s Thanksgiving window display at their 5th Avenue New York store. The label’s buyers spotted Richard’s furniture at a craft fair, paid the workshop a visit, and commissioned the husband and wife team there and then. The Keals came up with ideas for smaller pieces (the Americans loved all of them, Barbara says) before deciding on a walk-in installation constructed entirely from wood and felt. Now almost finished, it’s not only a house for the pieces, but also a sellable piece itself. And it’s soon to be shipped out wholesale.
While Richard works, Barbara shows us the hats. Up close they look like real animal hides – if they were styled by Vivienne Westwood. Cut on the bias, they’re solid and heavy like a real animal’s head. The fabric of the thick felt itself is astonishing. Dyed charcoal, heather, and rust, in parts it’s matted like a brillo pad, in others silky smooth, and it’s surprisingly quick to produce. “I like to work fast and furiously,” Barbara says, “rolling out the wool, dousing it with water and then teasing out the animals from the material.”
The horns on some hats come almost bendable and the ears practically articulated, sometimes with a willow branch frame, or reeds and sticks woven into the fabric. Others snake down to neck and shoulders, with ragged edges. Looking like a half-finished sweater, these pieces are a testament to the work in progress, flagging up the gap between the raw material and the finished articles remarketed in stores like Anthropologie as one-of-a-kind knitwear.
Unsurprisingly, whether it’s because of the weight or the work in them, these furry shaggy things tap into people’s inner daemons. “It’s amazing the effect they have on people,” Barbara says. “They look in the mirror and they’re transformed. Some people actually cry when they try them on.” Maybe that’s why Kanye West bought a bunch of hats and flew Barbara out to his LA mansion. Fur coats aside (Barbara did not approve) he knows a good prop when he sees it.
Barbara herself began her career as a performance artist. “My teachers told me that my biggest asset was myself, my presence,” so as a student she walked every day from Notting Hill to Wimbledon School of Art. A pilgrimage to Rome ended sourly when the Vatican refused to accommodate her seven-foot staff. How did she get over the Alps? “We walked right over them. On our first night in France we slept in the middle of a roundabout”.
She once made herself a 120 square foot dress, big enough to enclose several people in a woollen cave. But with two young children, she needed an income. Smaller, wearable pieces, perfect for wedding presents, could be run off in a day and requests for hats came in quicker than she could make them.
Now she still sings into handmade clay pots, whose foetal-shapes distort her voice into melodic wails and will be installed, like everything else, in Anthropologie HQ.
The Keals will be travelling to New York to see the installation in the flesh, despite having vowed never to fly. If the urge to finish all the fixtures and fittings by hand has trumped their carbon-conscience, at least their in-store presence is likely to keep their product firmly tied to its shaggy Lewes roots.
It’s strange to imagine the Keals pottering about in a 5th Avenue store, their lives transplanted into a ten-foot window. Strange too that our obsession with lifestyle means we don’t just want craft, we want to buy into the life of the craftsmen. The installation will probably sell loads of dresses.
Unlike the felted soaps, the Keals don’t come in pretty packaging. Whether they meant to or not, Anthropologie have just necessitated an unashamedly irregular piece of performance.
Image credit: Tom Medwell