Over the coming months we’ll be interviewing friends and colleagues of The Crafty Kit Company to learn more about their lives and love of crafts. This week we spoke with artist Alison Rumbles, who first inspired our founder, Jo Lochhead, to begin needle felting, and has designed several of our favourite kits, such as our Wild Scottish Hare. Read on to learn more about Alison, how she creates her lifelike needle felt sculptures, and her top tips for needle felt beginners!
Have you always been interested in crafts, and when did you begin needle felting?
I’ve always loved making and creating, and studied Painting and Drawing at Edinburgh College of Art. I was wet felting for around 15 years, but as I found that it was damaging my hands I decided to try needle felting around 9 years ago. I never attended any needle felting lessons or workshops, and learned by experimentation, approaching it like you would any form of sculpture.
How would you describe your work?
I'd say that I'm an artist who sculpts in wool, which I love because it is so versatile! I create bespoke needle felt sculptures of dogs, foxes, and other wild animals to commission. Around 8 years ago I began sharing my creations on Instagram, and the response has been fantastic. I now have a waiting list for commissions, though I will always try to help if they are a gift for a special occasion. I wouldn’t describe what I do as a job; it’s a passion, so it really does feel like I’m living the dream each day.
Could you describe your working day?
I begin work at 7.30 am, when I walk down to my studio, which is in a little green shed at the end of my garden, in Haddington. During the day I work on dog sculptures, usually with my Collie dog, Tilly, at my feet, or outside in the garden in summer. I can become so engrossed in my work that I have to set alarms to remind myself to get up and move once an hour - otherwise I might still be there five hours later! In the evenings and weekends I work on other animals, such as foxes, hares, and birds.
How long does it take to create a sculpture? Could you tell us a little more about the process?
Every sculpture is different, and the approach I adopt depends on whether I'm creating a portrait of a specific dog, or a hare, for example, when I'll be looking at several different sources. In both cases, getting the animal’s anatomy right is very important to me: I’m a perfectionist, and will keep going until I’m happy with my work, even if that means starting all over again several times.
For dog portraits, I work from photographs of the individual dog, combined with a study of the anatomy of the breed.
I begin by searching for an image of the breed’s skeleton online, and mould the wire over this on my iPad. I then place pipe cleaners over the wire armature, and build the wool over this, using anatomy guides and canine reference books to make sure that I recreate the muscles correctly.
After I’m happy with the form, I use the wool to add colour, beginning with the head to capture the personality of the dog. I might spend 3 to 4 hours just working on the head, using a toothbrush to add texture, and air-dry, polymer clay to create the nose. My top tip for sculpting dog noses is to use the edge of a spoon to mould it, as it gives you very smooth edges. I used to place my finished sculptures in the oven to fire their noses, but quickly changed my method when one caught fire!
Even after all this time I still find needle-felting magic: you begin with a ball of fluff, and end up with a personality.
What other hobbies do you enjoy when you are not needle-felting?
I love listening to audiobooks through headphones while I'm felting, particularly crime thrillers, and have solved several mysteries while I work! I sometimes worry what I might look like to anyone who saw me in the studio, jabbing wool animals with sharp needles, and laughing at audiobooks that they can’t hear...
I also love nature, and enjoy walking here in East Lothian, and in the Highlands, where we have a home that used to belong to my parents, which was built by my father. Before he passed away he left a message for each of his children, and mine was to try to really make a go of my work. I lost my mother two years after my father, and she also encouraged me to buy my studio shed, which was from The Posh Shed Company (and was a bit of an investment). A few months after her death, I bought it while waiting for a flight in Copenhagen airport (without telling my husband what I’d done!), so as I work here I feel like they are both with me, encouraging me.
What advice would you give to needle felt beginners, or anyone thinking about starting needle felting?
Needle felting is so relaxing, once you’ve got past any nervousness about starting, it really does feel therapeutic. I know from my fitness tracker that needle-felting lowers my heart rate, and once I start I really do become engrossed in it - it’s the perfect mindful activity.
I’d also say don’t worry about making mistakes - there are no mistakes in needle felting, and you can undo anything that you’ve done - I frequently do! Everyone’s creations are different, and you will learn by doing.
When you're felting over an armature, you'll always reach a stage where your sculpture looks like a dinosaur, rather than the animal you’re trying to create - keep going, and you’ll get there! And remember, every sculpture will be better than the last: I’m still learning, and every day feels like a school day to me, with the chance to learn something new.
One final warning: for a Zen-like activity, needle felting is extremely addictive - you will become hooked!
Enjoying our blog posts? Join our mailing list to receive every new post straight to your inbox!