This spring, Jo Hesse (’12), a Hartsbrook alum with a history of involvement in community rugmaking projects at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton and Bombyx in Florence, collaborated with the high school for a felt rugmaking project drawing on centuries-old Turkish traditions.

In 2016, while studying painting and textile design in Stuttgart, Germany, Hesse discovered this style of rug-making. After graduating from Hartsbrook, Jo traveled to Germany to explore the possibility of becoming a Waldorf teacher, but eventually switched to a fiber arts program during her studies in Stuttgart. Mehmet Girgiç, a renowned expert in the field, was a mentor she sought out as she made multiple trips to Turkey to master the art of felt-making. 

We approached Jo to see if there might be an opportunity to collaborate at Hartsbrook on a project, and Jo was excited to lead! For this project, the 12th grade would spend a week designing and laying out the wool for the rug, and then the 9th grade would make that wool into felt during the second week. 

Feltmaking has a rich history in Turkey, Iran, and other Central Asian countries, as they were among the first regions to domesticate sheep. The rug is made upside-down, laying out the pattern first, then covering it with a background color. “Doing it that way minimizes distortion in the final product, ” says Jo.

Jo explains, “The black shapes are prefelt, which is very minimally felted wool. “You can make sheets of different colors of prefelt and then cut them up to create inlaid patterns in the finished felt.” For this rug, the 12th graders used a traditional no-waste method that Jo learned in Turkey to create the ornamentation. The original square of prefelt is cut into strips, which themselves can be cut into little squares, triangles, and parallelograms, where you then begin dividing and subdividing the rug field. “This approach lends itself to improvisation,” says Jo. “It’s a bit like collage, you try a piece in one spot, and if you don’t like it, you pick it up and move it somewhere else.”

Next, the rug is covered with a solid and even layer of undyed wool, incorporating a fringe made from Hartsbrook’s own sheep’s fleeces.

A hand broom is used to disperse the water in small drops to wet the wool, but prevent it from getting too wet.

Next comes the “kicking” process, where the rugmaker applies pressure all over the rug, helping the fibers interlock so that they’ll bind together. Jo explains, “Felt rugs are always made inside a “mother rug.” This could be another felt rug, a reed mat, a plastic one like the one I have, or even a canvas.”

“The mother rug is like a mold that holds the wool until it has started to fuse into fabric,” says Jo. “Once the wool is “dreaded,” you can take it out of the mother rug if it is a smaller piece, but for bigger rugs, and especially if you have a lot of people working together, it’s easier just to keep working inside the mat.”

The 9th grade took ownership of the next part of the process, rolling the rug. A ceremony was held, inviting parents to help “kick” the rug.

“We used drumming,” which Jo notes is not a traditional part of the rugmaking process, “to create a rhythm and keep everyone synchronized.”

“I had the idea to bring in hand drums and invite people to jam while we were “kicking” the rug, when I was doing the Community Rug at Bombyx, a music venue, community center, and practice space for several local bands and music groups including River Mountain Taiko, Young At Heart and the Bombyx Brass Band.”

“I had worked with Bennett Konesni of the Worksong Project and a group of seventh graders in Maine, and had been amazed at how galvanizing singing together while working was. So I tried my own version of it at Bombyx, with the Taiko group, and with volunteers who came in for the Community Rugmaking. Since many of the 9th graders already took percussion, we decided to incorporate drumming in this project too. And they definitely had a lot of fun with it!”

Parents and faculty joined in to help kick the rug before the big reveal. “In some countries where felt is made annually, whole villages get together and go around to each family, taking turns making felt for each other. It can be a tedious process to make a big piece of felt, and it lends itself to having many people,” says Jo.

Finally came the grand reveal of this collaborative effort between 9th graders, 12th graders, families, faculty, and Jo’s leadership.

When the rug was unrolled, it revealed a complex pattern that was created by the 12th grade and then preserved on a wool rug by the 9th grade.

Congratulations to all on your exceptional hard work! This rug will be auctioned at our Farm to Table event in the fall.

If you’re interested in the rugmaking process, below is a video from the project Jo completed at Bombyx in Florence, which details the whole process: