Artist Finds Her Calling Wrapped in Felt

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Booties, bedroom slippers, hats, crafts and the smooth emerald green surface covering expensive pool tables: these are the typical consumer uses associated with felt, which also figures in industrial applications.

Yet, in regions of central Asia, the dense fabric is popularly used for clothing and even housing.

Helga Yaillen’s felt creation possesses the texture of a sculpture.
Helga Yaillen’s felt creation possesses the texture of a sculpture.

For fiber artist Helga Yaillen, it’s a staple of high fashion of her own design. Delicately textured, multi-colored wraps, jackets, tunics, skirts, dresses and hats all made of felt are snapped up daily from her booth at the Sawdust Art & Craft Festival. “Some of my clients own as many as 20 of my garments,” she explained. “It’s a dream come true, I get to make all my own clothes as well,” she said.

An artist who emigrated from Germany in 1963 and a Laguna Beach resident since 1989, she cast about for a new medium four years ago after “getting burned out on painting.”

Now 73, she then felt compelled to reinvent herself and hit the internet for instructions on how to learn making wearable art. “I found felt serendipitously and then bought books and took classes and became completely hooked. It’s something I want to do for the rest of my life,” she said.

Her medium does not come off the shelf in bolts. She fabricates the fabric, attaching dabs of delicate merino wool to a silk foundation, rolling the combination between layers of plastic sheets and manipulating it by pounding, adding alkaline elements, heating and pounding it again, and then washing it repeatedly by hand. Once the elements have fused, she dyes the fabric and cuts and sews it.

“Felt has so many possibilities. I can do everything from scratch, making the fabric and designing the garment. It’s become my passion,” she said. “I’m in my garage at least at six every morning.”

Yaillen’s unique creations will be part of a second performance of “Cut,” the 4 p.m. fashion show at the Sawdust Sunday, Aug. 23, spotlighting the designs of eight artists exhibiting what is currently called “art to wear.”

Runway shows under the eucalyptus trees date back to 1975 when styles veered toward peasant blouses, long skirts, and ornamentation, reflecting the culture of the times, remembered festival president Jay Grant.

Textile artists in the Sunday Sawdust show, from left, Olivia Batchelder, Michelle Lance, Reem Khalil, Helga Yaillen, Diane Valentino and Sue Winner. Photo courtesy of the sawdust Art Festival.
Textile artists in the Sunday Sawdust show, from left, Olivia Batchelder, Michelle Lance, Reem Khalil, Helga Yaillen, Diane Valentino and Sue Winner. Photo courtesy of the sawdust Art Festival.

“I remember that first fashion show and the buzz that preceded it on the grounds. Everyone was so proud that we had the caliber of artists that could make such beautiful clothing,” he said. Even so, showcasing fashion became more sporadic after a few years, replaced by other entertainment after interest waned, he said.

Earlier this year, he approached festival exhibitor Michelle Lance about reviving the show. Lance, 48, a dancer and fashion designer with a penchant for revealing swimsuits and diaphanous chiffon skirts and wraps, went to work.

She handpicked her own designs along with those of Olivia Batchelder, Reem Khalil, Michelle Lance, Beth Leeds, Sue Winner, Helen McNamara and Yaillen.

“I make things I love and I wanted to reflect that energy in the show,” she said. A former Ballet Pacifica dancer and graduate of the Laguna College of Art and Design, she had put herself through art school by working as a seamstress. A mother of three, she is married to film maker Roark Gourley.

Planning to use young, energetic and lithe models, Lance asked designers to create between three and five outfits, with one being “unforgettable, totally over the top.” The artists last month also participated in a week-long wrap festival centered on textile art and workshops that also included a gala fashion show.

Fashion clearly finds a home among the art. The Festival of Arts’ seventh annual fashion show of garments made from recycled and repurposed materials drew a huge audience last weekend.

Meanwhile Yaillen’s newfound medium lures her to little known travel destinations and unexpected adventures such as a felt symposium in Kyrgyzstan, invited by the Resource Center of the Central Asian Crafts Support Association. Some of its members had toured the Sawdust and discovered her work, Yailled said. “I am excited to go and study the ancient techniques of felt making of nomadic people. I might even get to stay in a yurt.”

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