It was one of those atmospheric afternoons that can occur in early autumn.  A light mist lent soft focus to the sun as it picked out the greys, greens and russet browns of the Yorkshire fells.  Stone cottages huddled cosily alongside tumbling becks. This was sheep country and I had driven across the high moors to meet Andrea Hunter, a local artist who ‘painted’ in wool.  Her studio adjoined her cottage home in the hamlet of Hardraw, just a mile or two across the fields from where Hawes hunkered down in upper Swaledale.  I climbed the flight of stone steps to a small upper room under a sloping roof of thick slates.  The room was lit by a large window that looked out across field and hillsides dotted with sheep.  It was almost certainly built for weaving. 

 

Andrea was sitting in front of her drawing board;  a statuesque woman in her mid thirties with ringlets of auburn hair that tumbled like a fleece onto her broad  shoulders. She seemed so much part of the country; I could imagine her striding the moors in dark coat and boots, at home with the long haired sheep that foraged the hillsides.  Her strong face broadened into a wide grin as I walked in, lowering my head in the doorway.  She enquired about my journey in a broad Yorkshire dialect and we chatted about the route and the weather, gauging the safety of our communication.  I soon discerned that Andrea had the easy open confidence of someone at peace with herself and her environment and so I began to ask about her work. 

 

‘I don’t use wool to make things,’ she told me, ‘I am an artist.  I use it as a medium to ‘paint’ pictures and then I fix the pictures by felting the wool’. Anthea had  discovered the art of drawing with wool through hours of solitary play on her parents sheep farm.       

 

I asked her to show me and she strode across the room to collect the piece she was currently working on; dark trunks of trees against a light background. ‘Felt’, she explained ‘is what happens to wool when it is heated in water.  There is nothing very difficult about it.  I take two pieces of lightly felted white wool; one with the grain going in one direction, the other with it going in the other direction – like the wrap and the weft.  This is my paper.   Then I paint with the wool.’  She pointed to the skeins of various shades of coloured wool on the shelves by the door.  ‘I would love to work with the wool from local sheep, but it is too coarse.  I get my wool from a flock of Merino sheep on the Falkland Islands.   It comes over in big bales and is dyed at a mill in Bradford.  So this, in effect, is my palette.’  She brought a skein of wool over to show me.   ‘This wool is not spun.  It is just parallel fibres.  That way you can tease it out.’  

 

‘So I moisten the ‘paper’ with a spray of soapy water and place the wool on top, teasing and spreading the fibres with my fingers.  If I am making a background, a sunset, I use the wool in the same way as a watercolour artist would use colour washes, teasing out the colours and spreading and blending them over the surface.  The good thing about this is that I can adjust and alter the picture as I go along without having to rub out or paint over.   I use a light spray of soapy water to hold the painting in position.  Then when it is done, I felt the layers together.’   

 

I asked Andrea what happened during the felting process. She replied with the practiced skill of a teacher. ‘Hairs are made up in layers, so the surface of each hair is made of overlapping scales.  When you apply compression and heat to these fibres, the scales interlock forming a mat.  This is ‘felt’.  And once a felt is formed it is impossible to take the picture apart.  So when I have finished a painting,  I moisten it with soapy water and cover in with bubble wrap.  Then I roll it tightly round a cylindrical wooden baton and roll it backwards and forwards.  This compresses the layers and generates heat through friction.  It takes about twenty minutes to fix the painting, but the trick is to do this without the picture moving.  That’s where the spray of soapy water is so important.’  

 

I looked around the room.  All of her work evoked the atmosphere of The Dales;  the thistle heads, the cotton grass, the horses, the hares and of course the sheep.  ‘I like to do sheep because – well – they are what I grew up with.  I know sheep.  I know how they move, how they stand and look.  I know where they live, the moods of the hills and dales.  I can recreate the wildness of the moors and the strength and hardiness of the beasts.  And there is no better medium than wool for doing this.  I prefer to work in black and white because the natural colours evoke the drama of survival better than anything else.’ 

 

Andrea Hunter and her work are part of the landscape of Swaledale.  Apart from the time she studied art at Bretton Hall, then part of Leeds University,  she has lived in Hardraw for all her life.  It is in her blood.  Her parents had a farm here.  She married a local shepherd.  She has raised her children here.  The Dales are expressed in her appearance; her hair the dark fleece of the moorland sheep and clouds scudding over the fells; her face the no-nonsense honestly of dalesfolk.  She emanates the strength and peace of a contented soul and transmits this in her work.   

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