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  • Andrea Durnell

Debts of Gratitude.

I am asked a lot about how I got started felting. There are so many answers to that. A lot was happening all at once, but I'll try to choose a logical thread and follow it. I actually never had any intention of selling hats or dolls and spent many years doing so reluctantly!

I have had a lingering interest in textiles, particularly old ones, for decades, even as a college student studying marketing and French in Montana. I spent a lot of time lingering over patterns, doodling my own, playing with color, and researching graduate degrees that might take me that direction. The French degree set me off on several bouts of lengthy travel with a year of studying abroad in Tunisia (which ended up being longer because I found a few odd jobs to allow me to stay, then traveled extensively with my backpack in Europe) and Peace Corps in Togo, West Africa, cut short by a motorcycle accident which is a story in itself. Every place I traveled to, I brought home a textile of some sort. Rugs, scarves, woven cloth. But, life happens, and grad school didn't.

This textile craving continued during my time as a Study Abroad Coordinator at University of Denver and later on in Admissions at Montana State University before I met my husband (I was already making some dolls at that point, more than 30 years ago). I traveled a bit in Latin America during those years, again with my backpack, particularly in Guatemala. I had an interest in the back strap looms that were so similar to the West African looms I had become familiar with in Togo, which were quite different from the looms in the Berber regions of Tunisia which had captivated me there (Go to Kairouan if you are ever in Tunisia).

One of my travel techniques was to visit open markets in any villages I stopped in (small villages always appealed to me more than any of the cities, and the street food is always amazing), befriend a "grandma" by helping her or asking her questions, which inevitably would earn me an invitation to visit or wander around with her, at least. I would show up with fruit or some other local favorite and often be treated to lessons in cooking something interesting or viewing an ongoing project with fiber. While I saw a lot more weaving than I did felting, (and a lot more cooking than anything else) there were techniques to make or use felt almost everyplace I went and it stuck in my mind.

My first mold was a Stetson crown and I loved it because it made me think of Montana even after I had left the state after marrying my husband. I liked it for its sculptural beauty without giving much thought to its use as a tool. Set this idea aside for a few paragraphs because, as all this was transpiring, I was also making clothes for the dolls my mom was making and selling.

This evolved into me making my own dolls and, in the process of deviating from my mom's style into my own, I began making them structured hats. Some of them were felt because it seemed like an easy thing to do. I cobbled together memories from several countries, used my sculpting abilities (at that stage, I was sculpting in clay rather than carving wood) and made some fairly dreadful attempts! But, one person who bought a doll with one of my hats, about 15 years ago, asked me if I could make her a hat. I told her I would try, but made no promises. I suppose I owe her a debt of gratitude!

Around the same time, a friend from our time living in Michigan sent me a truly massive quantity of pelts sheared from some exotic sheep his ill friend could no longer care for. I had no idea what to do with them in their raw form, but I began doing some research because they really inspired me and I was thrilled to receive them (gratitude, once again!). I learned how to clean them and card them and played around with some dyes. It was all a bit rough! The house smelled like a hot, steamy barnyard for days on end. But, I hauled out the old Stetson mold and used some of that carded wool to make a hat. It really wasn't great, but there was something about it that I liked well enough that I wore it out to coffee one day.

The lady behind me in line asked, "Where did you get that hat?" I laughed and told her I had made it. She asked if she could try it on and I let her take it to the bathroom behind us to look at it. She came out and said she wanted to buy it. I laughed again, a bit incredulous, telling her I didn't sell them. We went back and forth a few times, then she pulled out a wad of bills far larger than I felt I deserved. Stunned, I took the hat off my head and made the exchange, feeling a little like I had "fleeced" someone.

But, I got home, made another hat, plus an extra just to try to improve on my technique. I wore it to the same coffee shop, not with the thought of selling it, it was just convenient. (Was it?) Again, there were women behind me in line who asked about my hat and wanted to try it on. I didn't let them buy that one, but it put the idea in my head that maybe it wasn't a bad hat after all, so I made a few extra hats, put them in a basket and went back to the coffee shop. I feel like I owe this coffee shop a debt of gratitude because I sold several baskets of hats while I waited for coffee or read my paper over a period of months. It also worked at other coffee shops. I thought it was hilarious and didn't take it seriously as I quietly accepted cash for hats from my over-sized chair while women dashed in and out of the bathroom with my basket, trying to make decisions before their coffee order was up.

Then the ladies in yoga class started asking to see my hats and I started taking them there. I probably also owe a debt of gratitude to my yoga teacher because I am sure I sold 30-40 hats after class in her studio.

This went on for several years. I sold a few on trips out of state, in airports, and one in a museum while I was walking around. The hats improved, I acquired a second mold, and a third, larger than my rather small Stetson, and I started learning to change the brims and crowns a bit, widening my selection. I also ran out of the old fleece and bought some roving, expanding my selection of colors and giving up on the messy, time and space consuming dying and carding (although I still have some of that original wool that I pick up from time to time to card).

Meanwhile, the doll orders were still coming, somehow. I also was not trying to sell those, but previous customers seemed to enjoy collecting them, so I continued to send them in batches to my mom's art shows back in Montana and to a wonderful antique shop, for a while. I also changed the dolls to include more carved rather than smooth faces, and began to carve and sculpt a few animals here and there rather than just humans. Eventually, the clay dropped off and the wood took over, and now I carve primarily animals.

Anyone who knows me knows I am a talker. Somehow, as my daughters doctors, orthodontists and teachers got to know me as she grew, I ended up taking baskets to offices and schools, somewhat reluctantly, but since they asked....I still was not ready to admit that there might be something I could do to channel my fun into more. Plus, my daughter kept me pretty busy in those years. But, I was smart enough to keep a few hats on hand when I went out, just in case. (and dolls, in a few cases)

In my spare time, I attended a few art fairs and, at one, met my friend Maureen Lavorgne of The Rams Horn Connection (some might know her as Whimsical Woolies), to whom I also owe a debt of gratitude for believing in me and encouraging me. After a few years or so of knowing her, she invited me to help her out at a show where we collaborated on a booth. I didn't sell any dolls, but I sold almost all the hats I brought! The following year, with Maureen's encouragement, I applied on my own to a few shows, was accepted to one, and the rest is history (although that first show is also a long and funny tale of mishap and adventure!)

Since that beginning, I have acquired a multitude of skills, molds (I have 38 now!), and have refined my techniques. I have learned a lot about life on the road and where I want it to take me. I have put some thought into what inspires and drives me, and, most importantly,

I have relaxed into calling this my day job, mostly because it would be impossible to deny at this point.

Lots of debts of gratitude later, that, in a nutshell, is how my business was born!

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