Artist Katrin Eagle on bringing traditional art to the 21st century
PUBLISHED: 15:26 09 January 2017
Katrin Eagle is no ordinary artist, as Sandra Smith discovered. Her works are stitched, not painted, as she brings a traditional art into the 21st century with spectacular results
I had planned to open this feature with a cornucopia of texture-inspired syllables. Let me be specific. Meaty, grainy words were my target, words encapsulating the depth and appeal of layered surfaces that are irresistible to touch. And what did I come up with? After an hour or so of brainstorming, my best offerings failed to surpass: rugged, coarse, bushy, and irregular.
Individually none of these options encapsulate the inviting tactility of texture. Together, perhaps, my inadequate collection teeters towards celebrating the essence that provokes a longing to explore with senses other than sight. But only just. For my literacy merely skims the surface despite a yearning to elevate Katrin Eagle’s wool art beyond two dimensional language to the multi layered theatre it depicts.
“I create paintings with wool,” this Petersfield-based artist declares. “I loved drawing and painting as a child but at grammar school I was steered towards academic subjects and worked in medical research. As my children grew up I designed and made children’s clothes which I sold at craft fairs. Then I returned to studying to formalise my art qualifications, including a Higher National Diploma Stitch and Textiles course in Glasgow. I stumbled into wool by accident; then I just evolved. From painting and drawing, and experimenting in interpreting photographs, I started reproducing landscapes in wool.”
The resulting images are packed with intensity. Indeed any traditional artist would be challenged to produce more strata or gradation via a paintbrush than those witnessed in Katrin’s portfolio. Old Oak is a prime example. The bark is uncannily authentic whilst background muted tones expose the sort of subdued landscape reminiscent of a winter’s day. In addition, an absence of leaves, rather than diminishing the tree which generates such life, instead highlights a network of tapering branches. Winter Tree’s natural tones similarly replicate undulations of rind against the season’s sparse density.
In a small bedroom, surrounded by her favourite medium, the 53-year-old shares details of her work. Before long we have explored far more than wool sculptures, which I’ll address later, for this devotee of heritage craft skills sources her own fleeces which are washed, spun and dyed, processes accommodated within and outside the family home.
“Fibres vary according to breed. I buy whole fleeces, paying from £5 to £35 each. I just look for people who have small flocks. It’s nice if I can check them out beforehand; you can’t pick out wood shaving if the sheep has been shorn in a barn. The first clip is always good as the lamb coat is longer and softer. I’ve bought fleeces from rare breeds such as Portland Down. Also Jacob, whose long fibres are easy to spin and produce a two colour yarn. I might process three or four fleeces each year. It’s a very satisfying thing to do.”
The lengthy, laborious preparation begins when a fleece arrives as a smelly parcel in a bin bag. After unravelling, the fleece is laid out on a groundsheet in the garden. Edges plus areas around the legs and tail can’t be used and entangled hay is removed before the remainder is broken up into large handfuls and soaked for 20 minutes in bowls of washing up liquid infused hot water. Soakings are repeated a handful of times until the water is completely clear. At each stage water temperatures must be consistent in order to avoid shocking the fibres. The wool is spun in a large salad spinner to remove water and loosen fibres before being laid out to dry.
“Then I pick out any straw and card the wool in a table top drum carder, wound by handle, which combs the wool so it ends up weighing around two ounces and wrapped around the drum as a batt.”
At this point the wool may be dyed. In a bowl Katrin adds powder dye, covers the container with cling film and microwaves for 10 minutes. The batts are then dried outside and carded again as dyeing can result in some matting.
“Sometimes I mix dyes,” she explains, “to produce variegated yarn.”
Katrin owns two spinning wheels, a modern one she uses for demonstrations at craft fairs and a “fairy tale spinning wheel” purchased from a junk shop which she spent several weeks repairing. The mechanics, she insists, are the same in both models.
“Spinning has had a revival. People are slowing down and getting simple pleasure from feeling fibres and looking at colours whilst spinning. The point of hand spinning is to bring in texture. I tend to spin to an uneven weight, somewhere between double knit and Arran.”
Scarves and shawls are created from Katrin’s hand woven wool. Alpaca wool is also favoured since it appeals to those who cannot wear wool.
“Alpaca wool is more slippery to spin and very soft. I weave in a cotton thread when spinning.”
But let’s return to her enticing range of wool art images. Katrin’s pictures are generally developed from photographs or sometimes paintings, when working on commissions. She talks me through the method.
“I take a 2” thick piece of foam overlaid with felt, like a canvas. Onto that I lay loose pieces of dyed wool. Once I’m happy I start stabbing the whole surface with a felting needle. I use a single or cluster of four or five which I stab across the surface to make the wool attach to the woolly backing. Wool hairs are covered in follicles and when pressing the needle into the fabric you’re making the tiny wool hairs lock together. Gradually they bed down into each other. The final piece is felted fabric with the applied needle felted wool. A needle felting surface is quite sculptural.”
Katrin confesses to developing attachments to her original creations, whose sizes vary from 4” square to a couple of feet long. She also sells print versions as cards along with posters and place mats.
Other influences incorporated within her work are Estonian textiles, embroidery and design. Her parents were born in the Baltic republic and mixing cultures has become a natural progression for this creative individual who has fashioned a range of tea towels, coasters and mugs based on folk art designs and celebrating six British sheep breeds.
Not that she is precious about keeping skills to herself. Quite the contrary. An engaging personality and eagerness to inspire regularly motivate others to discover more about these ancient crafts and their value in modern living, so don’t be shy when approaching her stall at Makers’ Market in St Peter’s Hall, Petersfield, on Saturday, December 3. Or head to funky Petersfield homeware outlet, Stuff, an independent shop which prides itself on sourcing intriguing homeware as owner, Lynn White, enthuses: “We like to sell unusual and original artwork and Katrin Eagle’s pieces are proving very successful!”
Katrin deserves to take some credit for the growth in popularity of wool art. Yet I suspect she’s too absorbed in the potential of creativity for such self indulgence.
“This is a very satisfying thing to do. I love wool. It’s such a wonderful, versatile medium. Every time I work with a new fleece, something new happens.”