Alex Lavin and Philipa England
Felt at home
By Tessa Burwood.
Two sisters from Erdington are felting their way to creative success with an unusual online business.
When you're paying the bills, raising young children and running a household, pursuing a hobby- and even turning it into a sustainable career- can seem out of the question. Two sisters from Birmingham are doing just that, and having a great time in the process.
Esme and other felted dolls
Phillipa England studied Art Foundation at Bournville College of Art, and Jewellery and Silversmithing at Birmingham University. Although she wanted to follow this as a career, time and money constraints got in the way, as is so often the case, so she retrained as a nurse, and worked in the NHS for ten years before becoming a parish nurse for her church.
With her husband on long shifts, and three small children to look after, Phillipa's quality of life was suffering, so when her parish nursing contract ran out, she decided to take the plunge and throw herself back into designing: "Tensions were running high; it’s a lot more relaxed around here now!"
An ancient art
It all started when Phillipa's sister bought her a felting kit for Christmas in 2007. Felting is among the most ancient methods of fabric construction. There are archaeological examples from as far back as 6,500BC. The fuzzy fabric is even the stuff of legend. It is said that St. Clement and St. Christopher stuffed their sandals with wool to prevent blisters whilst fleeing persecution. On removing their sandals, they discovered that the wool had been meshed together by their sweat and movement, leaving them with felt socks!
Although Phillipa and her sister Alex do not go so such extreme lengths to make their felt, what started out as a Christmas gift has quickly become a daily concern for them both: "The Christmas period was taken up reading and "playing". Now we find ourselves here…"
The creative process
"Here" is Phillipa's home in Erdington, which doubles up as a workshop for the sisters' online business, Felt at Home, which also has an online blog and a Myspace page. Phillipa describes her house as "full of fluff…this is the chaos I call heaven!" Before my visit, I was warned to "be prepared for the mess", and Phillipa wasn't kidding. Her beautiful front room is taken over by the many felted creatures that spring from the sisters' fertile imaginations. "Housework is on hold, there is often wool in the dinner and the ironing is done on a need-it-the-next-day basis!"
The sisters use the "wet felting" process to constructs their creatures. Soapy water helps to agitate the wool fibres and bind them, locking their scaled surfaces together. Whilst Mongolian tribesmen use horses and rollers to make massive felt pieces to create their yurts, the England sisters' production is on a much smaller scale, and their emphasis is on decorative attention to detail.
Making a felted people purse head
Going for a spin
Merino wool fleece is carefully layered on a flat surface, or over a polystyrene mould, and rubbed with soap through net curtain fabric before going for a spin in the washing machine, to really bind the fibres together. The basic felt shapes which result from this process are then cut and embellished to create the final pieces. It's quite a time consuming process, but Phillipa and Alex's hard work is clear from the beautiful results.
Eldest sister Alex Lavin, who Phillipa describes as her "fellow felter", has kept her day job as a family support officer, and has two children of her own- William, 9 and Thomas, 16. So, with five children between them, you could be forgiven for wondering how the sisters manage to juggle childcare with running a creative business from home. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Phillipa and Alex say their "little people" do a lot to help. Phillipa's ten year old Olivia is always bringing her friends home to show them "mummy’s creatures", and they are even involved in the creative process.
Take Dorothy, for example, a 2" tall blue monster brooch: Phillipa's 6 year old daughter Lili helped to design the monster, so it seems Felt at Home is turning into a family business. Phillipa's husband has his own creative input, although not in a way he would expect: "A good way of gauging whether we're going to sell something is my husband," she laughs, "if he says to me, "that’ll never sell," it usually gets bought the next day!"
Each creation has its own name and personality, for example Dorothy is "very approachable and you can tell her anything…she's good at keeping secrets." This has turned out to be a big selling point for the creations.
Alma the mermaid People Purse
The brooch design originally came about after a commission from a paediatrician in Elkin, North Carolina, who shuns the more traditional doctor's white coat in favour of fun, child friendly clothes. She bought several monster brooches from Felt at Home's online shop, and when she wore them to work around the hospital, she received an inquisitive response from the children she was treating: "All the toddlers wanted to touch her, and one of them asked me what her name was. I was glad I knew!" It seems fitting that the two sisters, both trained in nursing, are still helping to care for hospital patients in their new line of work, as their fun creations go some way to take the children's minds off their illness- as they say, laughter is the best medicine.
People purses up close
The sisters' biggest market is in the USA, where handmade dolls and toys are highly sought after. They have sold wholesale to a shop in San Francisco, and customised creations such as their best selling "People Purses" go down a storm. Clients will email in pictures or photos of a person, which the sisters use as the basis for their one off designs.
The emphasis is always on unique pieces; "I'm not one for making loads of the same thing," says Phillipa, "It gets boring." Her favourite part of the process is searching out exactly the right materials and accessories for each piece, be they miniature books for a librarian People Purse called Genoveve, commissioned by a lady from Reno, or just the right shade of brown to recreate Princess Leia's famous hairstyle in felt form.
Alex and Philipa with their creations
The worst part of the job, says Alex, is having to let go of their creations: "When we package them up and tissue paper and boxes, it's very hard to put the lid on and post them off!" If business continues to grow for Felt at Home, that's something both Alex and Phillipa will have to get used to.
last updated: 25/04/2008 at 16:25