My article about the delightful and quirky Bristol Wool Fair is published in the third issue of ‘Through Our Hands’ textile magazine.
The Bristol Wool Fair
5 – 7th September 2014, Clifton and Durdham Downs, Bristol
The marquees were an impressive size even from a distance. If you looked carefully, you also might have been able to make out some sheep milling about and being prepared for shearing demonstrations. Getting nearer to the event, the smell of wool and the bleating of sheep were strikingly evident. This was certainly peculiar for the middle of Bristol. And yet, the Bristol Wool Fair was a great success.
The Wool Fair was held over three days on Clifton and Durdham Downs, an expansive stretch of open green space in the heart of the city. It is often used for hosting touring fairgrounds and circuses, but has never before entertained such a big or ambitious art event. It is possible that this was the first arts and crafts fair that the Downs had seen.
The Bristol Wool Fair welcomed different types of makers and artists including spinners, weavers, knitters and felt-makers, and invited various local Guilds to participate across the three days of the fair. This ensured an eclectic celebration of all things “wool” and showcased the rich variety of techniques and arts and crafts objects that this material can produce. There are such creative possibilities available when using wool.
The artists and makers held stalls within the marquees to present their own work (often for sale), to offer technical advice, to encourage people to explore the opportunities available with their Guild, and to advertise any workshops they might be holding within the next few months. The International Felt Makers Association was one of the first stalls you saw and also happened to be one of the most beautiful, being tightly packed with delicate felt scarves, textured rugs, garlands of ornamental accessories and colourful felted patchwork hats.
Creativity was centred round Bristol, with many local art groups, makers and event organisers joining in with the fair. Heartspace Studios, providing workshops and a small gallery space for all things textiles (found on Coldharbour Road, Bristol), had a great presence giving knitting demonstrations and advice, as well as helping fair-goers to think about imaginative ways of using wool by exhibiting work made by some of the Studio’s tutors.
Needle-felt maker Jenny Barnett also had a treasure-trove of a stall, which was made up of her small, highly detailed and expressive felt animals. Her portraits of hares and seals with textured felt-fur coats, fuzzy whiskers and curious noses were particularly full of character. Although she did not offer demonstrations, Jenny did have starter packs as well as more advanced projects to encourage everyone to have a go at needle felting. This captured one of the most important and uplifting aims of the fair: to encourage everyone to be curious and learn about craft skills.
There were hands-on workshops spread over the festival. These included free knitting lessons and crochet flower workshops. Making 3D felt flowers using a wet felting technique was the most popular and regular event, and was run by the International Felt Makers. Each time every participant came away with a beautifully colourful felt flower, and had visibly had fun getting involved with a messy and tactile process.
Demonstrations of spinning and weaving techniques were also popular. One entertaining demonstration was of a century-old sock-making machine that looked both delicate and intricate. Another discussed all the processes involved with making a wool garment, acknowledging that it takes approximately 40 hours to spin enough wool to make a jumper. The daily goose herding and sheep shearing were other lively, and unusual, events. Even the live music and food were wool-themed – the artisan ice cream made from whole sheep’s milk by “Shepherd’s” was a particular culinary highlight.
Wool Fairs, if common anywhere, are more frequent in the countryside. So there was definitely an element of the country village fair on the Bristol Downs during the festival. So maybe this particular Wool Fair could contribute to not only bringing together artists and makers within Bristol and from around the country, but also to bridging some of the gaps between the values and ways of life in the city and the countryside. It certainly helped to see Bristol in a different and refreshing light: a city that is inclusive of a wide range of art, events and entertainment.
The Bristol Wool Fair was also an important and positive project for re-evaluating crafts based around wool. It certainly affirmed that knitting and making things with wool is no longer old-fashioned, archaic or artistically limited. Instead, it is popular, thriving, experimental and fun.
After this success, the Bristol Wool Fair will be back even bigger and more exuberant next year.
Here are links to my previous blogs on issues one and two of Through Our Hands magazine, edited by Annabel Rainbow and Laura Kemshall. They give more information about the background of this exquisite magazine, its editors, and my involvement in the project.