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The amazing felt animals that could help revive the British wool industry

PUBLISHED: 00:00 16 May 2016

Collie

Collie

Archant

Heather O'Leary is creating animal magic from her Trefriw home with her amazing sculptural needle felting as Janet Reeder discovers

Brown bearBrown bear

In just a few years Heather O’Leary has created a burgeoning business in a needlecraft technique that had hardly been heard of in the UK a decade ago.

And she is not only getting the creative community into the art of sculptural felting with her beautifully designed kits, she is also on a mission to help rescue our native wool industry.

‘What I am trying to do is breathe new life into the British wool industry,’ says Trefriw-based Heather who is originally from Derry in Northern Ireland.

‘I have so many stories of crofters who burn the wool or use it to line their barns. What I want people to realise is that our wool is better for sculptural needlecrafting and we have a wonderful tradition of sheep farming in the UK which should be supported.’

Heather at workHeather at work

Wind back to 2008 and when Heather’s mother passed away following a long illness she embarked on a number of craft courses as a way of dealing with the situation.

‘Sculptural needle felting happened as a kind of spin off of that,’ says the 50-year-old mother of Aiden, aged 16 and 13-year-old Molly.

‘I tried it and loved it. I had always been around wool. I had been knitting since the age of five and my mother kept goats and sheep and had a business knitting sweaters, so I would knit these quite complicated Icelandic sweaters for various shops and my mum’s customers in Austria when I was about 12.

‘But knitting never engaged me in quite the same was as this. I also think that it was my way of getting back to her.’

Blacknose sheepBlacknose sheep

While the technique is popular in other parts of the world such as Denmark, the USA and Japan, it was little known in the UK until recently. Flat pieces of felt are made on an industrial scale using a plate filled with barbed needles that agitate the woollen fibres. Sculptural needle felting uses just one of those needles to make three-dimensional shapes and the results can be amazing.

Heather started creating animals using the technique as the natural colours of native fleece lent themselves beautifully to her wonderfully animated subjects.

‘ I only sculpt wildlife as a lot of needlework end products can end up looking twee and tacky she says.

‘My designs are very natural and therein lies their popularity. Plus it is a hugely therapeutic thing to do. Some people see it as a modern form of taxidermy, as you can get a realistic, anatomically correct product. Equally, you can leave the figures looking quite naive and impressionistic.’

Arctic FoxArctic Fox

Heather started selling her own figures at Bodnant Craft Centre at Tal y Cafn and it was from there that she decided to launch her felting kits under the Craftwerk name.

‘Bodnant has given me the confidence to launch this as a business,’ she explains.

‘I had started a master’s degree in neuro psychology at Bangor and loved it - I thought I would either carry on teaching or do something completely different and Bodnant gave me the confidence to do the latter.’

In February following an appearance at two spring craft shows, the orders began pouring in for her kits. She is now supplying Chester Zoo and this month they will make their debut in selected John Lewis stores then be rolled out to John Lewis stores nationwide later in 2016.

Husband Martin O’Leary, the ‘love of her life’ and the main reason why she has lived in North Wales since 1996, has been a big support too.

‘He works in computer aided graphics and is also an engineer, so together we’re a bit of a powerhouse,’ she says with a laugh.

‘Even as a child I was artistic. I have always been crafting and in some way creative,’ she continues.

‘But I have never been happier. I am the author of my own destiny now.’ w

Craftwerk, Pandy, Trefriw, Conwy, LL27 0UJ

07808 18 2541 www.craftwerk.co.uk

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