Like many good stories about art and discovery, this one begins in a New York museum. A baby blanket there made of felted wool from old sweaters caught Betsy Russell’s eye. The rest is history. Really. Because 11 years ago it inspired her to hunt down discarded woolens and turn them into things that were functional and beautiful. The word, “re-purpose”? Betsy may not have invented it, but she did perfect it.
“I thought it was a creative way to recycle,” she told us from her home in Canandaigua. “I knew there was an abundant supply of old sweaters in the second-hand shops I love to frequent, so I decided to make a blanket myself.”
Since then, she has accumulated a dazzling cache of woolens by tracking down sweaters at garage sales, the Salvation Army, Goodwill, and the closets of her friends and family. They all go in a hot-water wash and come out woolen felt, the raw material for her designs. Betsy gave us the particulars.
How do you choose the sweaters?
I shop by feel – if it isn’t wonderful to touch, you won’t want to have it next to your skin. (Not all wool is itchy.) Next is color. I just peruse until something pops out. If it’s a rich color, soft and cheap, I buy it.
How do you turn them into felt?
There is more than one kind of felting; the kind I do is called “boiled wool.” I wash the sweaters multiple times in my washing machine, hot wash/ cold rinse. I dry them in the drier. I want the wool to become tight but not too dense. The great thing about felt is the edges don’t fray.
Mittens are practical and fun. They can be completed in a reasonable amount of time and they keep your hands much warmer than gloves. I’ve also made blankets, hats and scarves, and I love to dress bare bears. I call it my recycling business.
What tools do you use?
Scissors, thread and a thimble. I don’t own a sewing machine. I don’t really know how to use one.
What’s your favorite part of the process?
Putting the colors together. I can see when it really works and when it just doesn’t. Mother Nature already has the color and design thing all figured out. I couldn’t improve on that.
This winter, Betsy’s mittens will be available for sale at the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, the Cheshire Union Gift Shop and Antique Center in Cheshire, and her living room.
by Tina Manzer