“I'd never heard of needle felting,” says Sharon Somers, “until one day in Burlington, there was a woman on Church Street who made these amazing sculptures out of raw wool. When she explained the process, I was so intrigued that I had to go online to learn how to do it myself.”
Thanks to YouTube, she was able to teach herself the art form (“I have so many hobbies and crafty things that I love to do”) and, after she retired (teaching kindergarten for 18 years in Barre City, Vermont, and a decade before that in Chelsea), she started improving. And that is when her friends started asking her to make things for them.
“It was fun when people started actually wanting to pay me for it,” she says. “I'm like, ‘Wow. Okay.’”
“It was when someone had lost their pet dog and wanted me to replicate him that I realized this could be a fun and challenging hobby,” she says. “I was a little leery and nervous, as I wanted to get it right, because this was their beloved pet after all.” So she started by trying to sculpt her own dog, Trusty, who had passed away years ago. After that, she was hooked (and Trusty sits in Sharon’s Waterbury studio to this day).
“I didn’t really get why you'd want your dog,” Sharon says. “Then I did my dog… And then, when I made it, I was like, ‘Oh, okay. I kind of get why people want their dog done.’”
The needle felting process begins with tufts of raw wool that look a bit like airy clouds. She sort of balls up bits of loose wool, then compresses it using thin, barbed needles. “As you pull it out,” Sharon explains, “it kind of pulls the fibers together… then you do it for hours on end,” mixing together different colors and textures of wool to sculpt a realistic result.
The finished animals have a very organic, dense, pleasingly tactile feel to them. If Sharon is making, say, a bird, then she will use Sculpey Clay to make the hard beak, or some wire to hold up the wings. But mostly the sculptures are all wool, all the way through.
An utterly realistic brown guinea pig watches us from a side table, alongside a finished Bernese dog (restored, actually – the owner so treasured the work that she took it with her everywhere and it got a bit “ragged”) and an utterly beautiful Loon. One time, Sharon says, she made a parakeet and left it lying in her living room, and it startled her when she later came through the room, because it was so realistic.
While felted sculptures of customers’ lost pets are the main niche for Sharon’s business, Heartfelts, she says she does other types of things during the holidays as well. Most of her business comes from word of mouth (and via her website), with customers supplying a photo of their beloved lost pet, but a few stores do carry her work.
“As a retired teacher, this has been a fun and sometimes challenging art form,” she says. “The joy it brings to me is knowing the joy it brings to others.”
The Vermont Maker Project