Virginia Winder: A felted flower garden near a river by the sea
In the last of a series on nature-focused artists, Virginia Winder meets a woman who has found a new life near a river and the sea. She is one of many who will be open for the Taranaki Arts Trail on June 10 and 11.
Flowers as bright as a cloudless autumn day have sprouted in Susan Imhasly's felting studio at Oakura.
Poppies and roses bud from long felt necklaces, colourful blooms sprout from finger rings, pretty petals blossom from felt balls and more long-stemmed flowers are arranged in glasses.
"Felt is very playful," says Susan, who is inspired by nature. "I always have organic shapes that I see."
She is the owner of Twinfelt, aptly named because she has an identical twin sister, who is also a felt artisan. Together they have a Facebook page and a blog, but have wildly different styles.
Both did a three-year degree course in felting in their home country of Switzerland and then moved to New Zealand – Susan to Taranaki and Sabin to Wellington.
In her Surrey Hill Rd studio, Susan has created a slice of heaven. Today it is drenched in sunshine, her works glowing in the light, the sound of the Oakura River rushing in the background.
When the Swiss family moved on to the property four years ago, Susan and her daughter, then 11, decided to boogie board down the river to the sea.
"I thought it would take about one hour," she says. "It took four to five hours. My husband was waiting for us. We didn't have any food or water and we were freezing. My daughter doesn't want to do anything like that with me again."
But Susan has not been put off by water. She has learnt to surf, plays beach volleyball and on coastal walks constantly finds inspiration for her work.
"What fascinates me the most is the horizon where the sea is. Sometimes it's clear and on grey days it's not," she says.
This has led her to work with black and white, inspired by the dark sea and the bright sky.
In her land-locked country of birth, she lived in a mountainous area, a long distance from a coast.
"Back in Switzerland I was looking for a medium I could express myself without limits," she says. "With felt you can do everything. You can be a painter, a sculptor, a fashion designer or an interior designer."
In her studio are plastic bins and cubby holes filled with natural wool. "It comes fresh from the sheep, not a lot is added to it."
She also works with silk and other wools, including alpaca, mohair, angora, yak and camel. She even has her own Gotland sheep, which live on a property close by.
The pelt of one is placed on a couch-bed and its wool is remarkably similar to Susan's own springy hair, although the sheep's coat has grey in it. "In 30 years I hope to have that hair," she smiles.
This wool has also been used for a slightly macabre creation. She took part in a project with a lot of other artists, who all had to create something around the idea of the skull. "I wanted to make a cute sheep from far away and when you come close you think 'oh, it's a skull underneath – it's so ugly."
But the rest of her work is uplifting and eye-catching.
"Felt is a healthy product. It doesn't harm the environment, which was very important to me," Susan says.
"It cleans your air, it's fire-proof and self-cleaning. If you have a garment made of wool you just hang it out in the fresh air to clean."
While it all sounds simple, felting is time-consuming and requires a lot of physical strength and patience.
First, she lays out the wool on a table in the middle of the airy studio. It's important to spread out twice the size needed for a project because when you add water and start rubbing, it will shrink.
The aim of rubbing is to cause the scales of the fibre to open up. They start to untangle and then with more rubbing, they will interlock to create a strong fabric.
"It's like a bag of pinecones – when you shake them they lock into each other. The same with the fibre."
Susan says felting is the oldest way of producing fabric, a method she teaches in workshops in her studio.
She uses felt to make slippers, hats, vests, jackets, hats, apple wrappers, vessels, her floral creations and combines it with silk in a technique called nuno felting to form scarves.
"I always make tests before I start projects because each wool shrinks in a different way, some more, some less."
The dyes used are all non-toxic and if Susan wants advice on colouring techniques, she calls her sister. "She's like the dyeing guru."
Her silk work links directly to the garden. Using an eco-print technique, she first prepares the silk by dyeing it, often in a soup of onion skins that turns it various shades of yellow.
Then she goes for a walk around the garden to collect fresh leaves, which are placed on top of the silk. "Then you fold it and wrap it around a stick and then you steam it for a few hours and then it's Christmas time. You cannot wait to open this parcel."
When she unwraps the silk, the smell of the leaves waft up and there, on the fabric, are their imprints in brown, orange, yellow and grey.
"It's a great project to do with your children," she says.
On a bench, she shows leaf-imprinted pieces by her son Juraj, 12, and daughter, Yulan, 14.
Her family wholeheartedly supports her creative work, and Yulan gives valuable feedback on projects and also photographs them.
Susan spends a lot of time thinking about her work, but her loved ones understand that too. "I really find myself in a different world."
However, felting is not an all-round focus for Susan, who knocks off for two months in summer to hang out at the beach.
She also lives by the sun.
The house and studio, which she designed, are solar-powered, so she tries to do any boiling of material in the day time.
Felt is a warm fabric, which is perfect for making slippers. She's made strawberry-inspired ones for her daughter and in the cooler months, Susan slips her own feet into felt creations, which she wears from morning until bed-time. In summer she's goes barefoot.
For her son, she's promised to make a special seat so he can sit comfortably beside the fire. "I know exactly what it will look like," Susan says.
"I want to have things that don't exist yet and thanks to felt I can create them."