Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Visit with Yuli Somme - Felt Maker - at Her Studio Workshop, Bellacouche, near Dartmoor

Tucked behind a large stone wall, in a 15th c barn at the edge of Dartmoor in Chagford, Devon is the studio workshop of Yuli Somme, felt maker.  Trained as a weaver, she worked at Coldharbour Mill Working Wool Museum as a researcher until, in 1988, Yuli had the opportunity to see an exhibition of contemporary felt making that altered her focus in fiber arts. With a MA in Textiles, her work concentrates on sustainability while holistically educating and reconnecting men, women and children to their environment.

Felt Feet and The Wool Stack

When my dear friend, Jackie Bone, who is also my husband's niece, first emailed me to see if I knew of  Yuli Somme's work, I admitted that I had not, so I did a bit of online research.  Jackie had seen a program on Yuli on television and hoped we might be able to arrange a visit. First I watched a short video tour of Yuli's studio workshop, Bellacouche.

Entrance to Bellacouche in Chagford, Devon, UK

A second joy filled video highlighted her Felt Feet project with teachers and children.  

And a third video, filmed by Devon Open Studios in 2011, demonstrated Yuli's gentle presence, as well as another collaboration project, a felted tree of life, that she has created at various times with children, as well as adults, this time with staff and patients for new hospital wing for patients with dementia.  As Yuli described to us, she works on location with the project's participants felting the naturally dyed wool into birds, flowers, leaves, etc. Back in her studio workshop, she sews and needle felts the colorful bits into one solid piece, ready to be hung and displayed. When working with children, she also deconstructs colorful fibers for the children to apply to their artwork to emphasize the importance and possibilities of repurposing materials that usually go into landfills. For more information about the Felt Feet, or Yuli's other felt projects to make with children or adults, titled The Wool Stack, or to buy educational videos and wool kits, check out her website, Bellacouche.

Jackie and Yuli discussing wool

Since Jackie owned a farm with a variety of animals, including sheep, she and Yuli had a very interesting discussion about the current wool market in the UK.  Taking time from her busy schedule, Yuli graciously offered tea or coffee before she gave us a tour of her studio workshop. What a wonderful space! Much was the same from the video, except now, her husband also has his pottery studio on the ground floor in the area she had stored her bolts of wool. Yuli described how she picks the wool that she personally oversees as it is lightly felted into massive bolts that she now stores in the open rafters above her work space.

View down onto Yuli's work table from the storage rafters and skylight above
Yuli explaining a felted cloak that now hangs from a rafter
Wonderful projects and bits of felt stored overhead
A felted chest of drawers filled with treasures for sale
Lovely things to touch and open 
You may see me wearing one of these hats next winter

Leaf Cocoon

Although I found the Felt Feet and other educational projects interesting, it was Yuli's current work, Leafshrouds, that intrigued me. What began as an invitational exhibition in 1999 called Treading Lightly that focused on the ethical and environmental practices within craft, the experience caused Yuli to reconsider how we humans are disconnected from the cycle of life. Many people have never seen a dead body, although most of us have been touched by the death of a loved one. Yuli researched the history of natural fibers used for burials in the UK, and wrote a paper about her research that was published by Plymouth College of Art.  

Since I teach about the artist, Joseph Beuys, in my classroom, I was taken by a Beuys' quote from Yuli's paper, "People today no longer have a sense of the essence of things, be the meaning of life or the meaning of relationships in the world." Our bodies were made to be biodegradable, yet we do all we can to preserve (why?) and protect the remains. Where I live in Madison County, Illinois, for example, the body is embalmed by chemicals, sealed in a metal coffin, and buried within a concrete bunker.  Or the body is cremated, in which the overall process is also not good for the environment. 

A shroud in process

A sample shroud stuffed with blankets. We were allowed to examine the construction.

Today at Bellacouche, which means beautiful resting place, Yuli makes felted burial shrouds to order, for adults and children, used to wrap the body in strong, but softly padded felt for woodland or natural burials that are legal in the UK.  The large bats of wool used for the main parts of the shrouds come from local sheep farmers and are industrially felted in the UK under Yuli's personal direction. The pieces of felted wool used for details are naturally dyed before Yuli hand sews and needle felts the details. Finally, local tree limbs are cut into small pieces and attached as "buttons" for closure. For more information about the construction of the shrouds, view Leafshrouds, on the Bellacouche website. For more information about the sustainability of wool and the development of the locally felted wool fiber used by Bellacouche, read Yuli's paper mentioned above. 

Jackie watching Yuli work

I want to once again thank Yuli for allowing us to watch her work, and for giving us a tour of her studio workshop. We not only purchased a few wooly things to take along, we also took her advice and visited, Proper Job, the community recycling center outside of Chagford. 

In a cluster of buildings, sheds and compost bins that make up Proper Job, filled with furniture, clothing, ceramic fixtures and textiles, Jackie found some lovely mix-matched china. In another building, I discovered six pieces of handwoven Malian cotton "mud cloth" (for the price of a latte) that someone had donated to the center. Even more reason to return to Dartmoor!

One more thing to go in the suitcase

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