|KATE CLEAVER FROM THE NORFOLK JOURNAL visits a Norfolk workshop where the ancient crafts of felting and dyeing are used to produce highly desirable woollen accessories
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROGER ADAMS
JANINE CORN HAS woven herself into the Norfolk farming community with her skill in one of the most ancient of crafts – felting.
Three thousand years ago, our ancestors made felt from sheep’s wool, dyed it with woad and proudly wore the results around the campfire. Today Janine has developed that art further with her beautifully designed and hand-crafted cushions and throws, all dyed with natural products.
Tucked away at the bottom of her garden in South Creake is her workshop full of the raw materials she uses, with baskets of conkers, jostling for space alongside camomile and that most ancient of dyes, woad – grown in Janine’s allotment in the summer and used for its natural indigo hue. Her business is seasonal, using nature’s subtle and vibrant colours for as long as the plants last. This year she is growing marigold, coreopsis, and dyers’ camomile, woad and dyers’ broom for organic, red, pink and yellows. The conkers will give rich brown shades to her work.
Janine learnt her skills at dyeing in the modern textile industry of Leicestershire but it’s her work’s link to the past that really appeals – dyeing is as ancient a practice as felting and referred to as long back as 3000 BC in China and the Bronze Age in Europe. “If there were sheep, there was felt. It was important for survival and to provide warmth and protection against harsh climates.”
The Mongolians used felt for their ‘yurts’ – portable dwellings which had to withstand the worst of the steppes in Central Asia. “I sense a primeval instinct when I work – it has all the nurturing, protecting and comforting qualities. It is incredible to know that this raw material has changed so little in thousands of years. When I felt, some of the processes have a mesmerising effect and it is very relaxing.”
Much of her inspiration comes from the coast and countryside of this part of Norfolk.
“I love Burnham Overy Staithe and Scolt Island, it is so beautiful and restorative. I have known Norfolk since my childhood, staying at Wells with long summer days at Holkham beach. I could not imagine living anywhere else – although I would like to explore the Scottish Isles one day with its wildness and little primitive sheep.
“My other ambition is to keep a few sheep. I would need a few different breeds but definitely the Norfolk Horn – and the help of a shepherd as there are so many ailments they can catch.” Janine aims to use British wool – and preferably local wool – in her work, even if it is sometimes difficult to handle. “The wool is as characterful as the sheep and the look and feel of the felt gives a real sense of the types of terrain they have lived in,” she says.
“The Herwick from the Lake District has very coarse wool but so much personality – I used to spend a lot of time walking in the fells and really came to love these hardy sheep with their smiley faces.
“In contrast the gentle and ancient Saxon breed Norfolk Horn, which is so elegant, gives a wonderful fine white fleece. This breed gave East Anglia’s worsted industry much of its wealth during the Middle Ages and is on the rare breed watch list.”
Janine has a huge range of hairy fibres of all colours and textures stored in sweet shop jars in her workshop, lined up ready to give her inspiration for her felt designs. As well as cushions and throws, she produces gorgeously-textured purses (which she sells for £10) tea cosies and glass pouches.
I had confused the felting process with boiled wool, which is fashionable at the moment, but a completely different material. I was soon put right by Janine who explained: “The ‘felt’ squares available in fabric shops are not handmade and a poor imitation of the real thing.”
I watched as Janine demonstrated the ancient art to me – wetting and rubbing to create a completely new texture from the wool (see information box). For her main stocks she uses locally produced wool from the Norfolk Horn, Jacob, and Welsh Mountain Badger-Faced breeds, commercially processed into slivers which retain all the great textures and natural shades. Then she uses her home-made dyes to give vibrant colours to the patterns she has designed herself.
Now Janine has applied to set up a new area of business – a fully functional on-line shopping site for British wool products. The site will have an educational side to it, to inform about her area of Norfolk, the history of farming and the woollen industry, sheep and wool dyeing.
East Magazine - crafts space