Tending The Herd

Claudy Jongstra is scared of sheep. Funny, given that the animals are so timid they’ve been known to lie down and die of fright. It’s even odder since she has made her career around them, reinvigorating the ancient technique of felting—using heat and friction to make a dense nonwoven fabric—and even raising her own flock. But out here in the damp fields of north Holland they run from us. Her partner, Claudia Busson, gets the sheep to pose for the camera. She shakes a cup of food, calling out in a singsongy voice, “Schaaa-pen, schaaa-pen.” The Dutch word for sheep, schapen, spreads out long and lovingly. As the animals approach Jongstra bristles, stepping back instinctively while the older of the couple’s two sons, Eabel, clings to Busson. Still Jongstra smiles gamely at her flock.

During the last five years felting has become cool. It’s been deployed across slippers and bowls and cushions, but Jongstra has been the designer pushing the material to its limits. She makes felts with delicate organza and merino wool, silk, raw linen, and shaggy sheep hairs. She can turn felt into translucent textiles and elaborate patterns. “There’s just such a wonderful transformative quality to them,” says Matilda McQuaid, textile curator at the Cooper-Hewitt. “They can either look so fragile or as if they’re just off a sheep’s back.”

Indeed Jongstra’s fabrics are transcendent. One wedding dress had a bird felted into the material. This is not easy because felt is made by shrinking its raw material, and the bird had to be shrunk—not sewn—into place. For the shutters of Amsterdam’s hip new Lloyd Hotel, she created a cherry blossom pattern that descended over several stories. And for Rotterdam’s Kunsthal in March she made a sort of plaid from wool and brown yak hair. Hung in the café like a tapestry, the material softened the edges and improved the acoustics of Rem Koolhaas’s glass-and-steel building.

Jongstra’s most popular felt mixes silk, curly Wensleydale wool, and the long hairs of her own flock, Drenthe Heath. When Murray Moss first saw the material at the Milan furniture fair six years ago, he thought it was the hide of some fantastical wildebeest. He’s now giving Jongstra a show at the Moss Gallery in New York in September, and her innovative fabrics are in the collections of the MoMA, the Cooper-Hewitt, and the Stedelijk Museum, among others. The textile company Maharam plans to distribute her felt; Michael Maharam is creating a new business model just so he can sell the bespoke fabric.

Wind-whipped curls circle Jongstra’s face. She wears lipstick in a haphazard way and has a ruddy complexion, as if she’s spent all her days on the moors. She stands in the middle of the field in blue fleece and gum boots, a black skirt skimming her knees. Like a postmodern Bo Peep, the 42-year-old designer is surrounded by nearly 200 rare sheep. Most grown sheep aren’t particularly attractive—they’re fat, scraggly, and dirty, shedding their coy, cute looks at the lamb stage. But the Drenthe Heath breed is indigenous, endangered, and adorable. Just what makes them scarce makes them handsome too. Native to the Netherlands, they’re too small for meat, and their hair is too long and shaggy for spinning. They’re only good for the environment and Jongstra’s felt.

We cross the field toward the flock, and she leans in to ask what I think of the design world. Jongstra raises her voice so her words won’t dissolve in the wind. The question is a litmus test. She has just returned from the Milan furniture fair, and when I tell her I don’t think the world needs another expensive new chair, she nods enthusiastically. The clouds speed across the bright blue sky, and she says, “Yes, yes, yes, there is this big dazzle and display with no substance. I wanted to show how you can have an influence with small things.”

Rural Friesland, where Jongstra and her flock live, is worlds away from the Milanese world of clacking heels, fancy parties, and the quick succession of kisses planted on cheeks. She has a split existence with two studios, one in Amsterdam, the other behind her house in a tiny village, and she rides the line between technology and the handmade. Dualities are integral to her work: fine and rough, city and country, design and craft.

Jongstra has always been something of an outsider. Unlike many Dutch designers of her generation, she didn’t emerge from the ranks of Droog but worked on her textiles independently. She started out in fashion, studying it in school in Utrecht and graduating at the top of her class. After several years in fashion and a year of experimenting with felt, she was offered a job with John Galliano but didn’t take it, and instead decided to continue on her own. Today Jongstra can hold as convincing a conversation on noninvasive farming techniques and how her sheep’s hoof structure impacts the dikes as she can on aesthetics and design. She spends much of her time educating local farmers about sheep and the environment. As she puts it, she’s on “a mission.”

Jongstra started raising sheep with her childhood friend Karin Welters in Utrecht. Welters came from a family of traditional shepherds, and the two women talked a farmer into letting them use his land just outside the city. They started off with a handful of sheep and began investigating indigenous breeds. The herd grew, and Jongstra moved to Friesland. Welters is now the flock’s shepherd, and Jongstra has 200 of the remaining 1,000 Drenthe Heath in existence. She still buys wool from other sources, but she’s committed to the idea of owning her own raw materials and helping the breed to survive.

According to myth, the first felt was made thousands of years ago when an old man got blisters while walking. He wrapped stray bits of sheep’s wool around his feet, and the friction, heat, and sweat created the first felt. It’s still made basically the same way—minus the sweaty feet. Adding hot water to the wool fiber opens up the structure, while rubbing and soap bind the fibers together. It’s a simple process, but in Jongstra’s hands it becomes nearly alchemical. She has transformed felt, industrializing the process while keeping the textile’s handmade feel.

Jongstra started exploring the cloth more than a decade ago after she saw an exhibit of traditional yurts. “The material was so beautiful and authentic, with these big patterns,” she says. But after experimenting, “it seemed so sober and basic, just made of wool. I thought you could add more glamorous materials without losing its authenticity.” Thus Jongstra added in silk and linen. It was not easy since the materials don’t naturally combine with wool to make felt, but she got them to bind. She made samples with her new technique and invited Ingeborg de Roode, a curator from the Stedelijk Museum (then a curator at the Dutch Textile Museum), for a studio visit. Jongstra wanted to see whether her experiments were any good. De Roode shocked her by placing an order. She wanted large-scale pieces, so Jongstra had to figure out how to produce enough fabric to fill the order.

With engineers in Utrecht, Jongstra designed a felting machine—a small steel box less than a foot across and only a few inches high that re-creates the different hand movements used to make felt over the past 6,000 years. The machine’s actual workings are a closely guarded secret, but the device can rotate and agitate, increase or decrease pressure, and move faster, slower, or harder. According to her brother, Roger, who helped develop the machine, they keep tweaking it for different effects—say, “back and forth with a slight rotating twist.” Now nearly 80 percent of Jongstra’s production is mechanized. It’s still labor intensive because they must move the box across the fabric by hand, but it works better than some of the other methods they’ve explored. One version of the machine used a huge flat plate. It was supposed to be big enough so they wouldn’t have to move it, but it produced felt with none of Jongstra’s trademark texture.

Bags of sheared Drenthe hair are propped by the door of the workshop behind Jongstra’s house. The raw wool smells musky and heavy, sweet with oil. Muck and mud and grass are still stuck in the fibers; for natural colors it all goes straight into the felt unwashed. Inside, three women—wet and soapy in aprons and long black rubber gloves—thrash at a damp felt destined for Murray Moss’s exhibit. In the last stage of the felting process, they lunge at the fabric and push it across a long flat table.

Initially the raw materials are laid out on the table. It’s the most important stage: you must get the pattern right. Since the technique is based on shrinking, you need to determine the exact contraction quality of each material used and then place each element carefully so you don’t get a lumpy mess. Once laid out, hot water is misted over the top. The spray starts to bind the materials together, and they shrink about an inch. Next comes the machine; here the fabric shrinks another 30 percent. Finally the women come in to rough it up. According to Roger, felt makers in Kyrgyzstan would finish their felts by rolling the fabric up, tying it behind their horse, and riding around with the felt bundle dragging behind them all day. The next day they’d reroll it in the other direction and drag it around again. Compared to that the women here seem positively gentle.

Jongstra’s Amsterdam studio is just off a canal in the center of the city, on a street too narrow for cars. Climbing up the three flights of stairs steep as ladders feels like entering the seventeenth century. Inside, peach tulips are on the cusp of blooming. Dangling overhead is copper wire twisted into what looks like an abstracted fish spine. It’s a version of a lost Dutch lace-making technique called guimpe that Jongstra is reviving for a project with architect Jo Coenen. Her assistants paint watercolors of abstract guimpe patterns. Heads bowed in concentration, the two girls look like twenty-first-century Vermeer figures in their thrift shop chic—layered leggings with metallic leg warmers, gold lamé sweaters tied around their waists like skirts, and hair pulled back into ponytails. You almost expect Scarlett Johansson to walk out from behind a rack of felts wearing clogs.

Jongstra, her curls all atangle like the day before out in the fields, picks up a piece of scarlet guimpe. She’s surrounded by dozens of versions of the lace. There are dainty ones no more than an inch wide made from raw silk and chunky designs of black-and-white wool. Others are woven between branches of twigs, the fork in the wood serving as a frame for the lace. There’s even one that looks like orange brocade where the lace has been felted into wool. When Jongstra showed them in Milan, Dutch design maven Li Edelkoort, a trend forecaster and head of the Design Academy Eindhoven, tried to buy the guimped twigs right on the spot.

Coenen wanted to connect the massive new public library he’s building in Amsterdam to the city’s seventeenth-century past, so Jongstra started researching guimpe. She re-created the technique by looking at old manuals and searching for illustrations in libraries. In the age of Vermeer the lace adorned the underclothes of the rich. Jongstra holds her hand to her throat to demonstrate, extending her neck long. The guimpe was small, no bigger than an inch, she says, but they made it to hide the neck. “They thought it was too sensuous.”

She points to the model of the library. In its lobby amid the miniature people, small-scale versions of guimpe drip down from the walls into the space, making Jongstra’s felted surfaces three-dimensional. She giggles with a sort of secret glee about how it’s “interrupting the architect’s space.” Jongstra pushes her hair back and explains, “When I started with felt everyone thought it was old-fashioned—it wasn’t cool at all. You can get insecure if you’re the only person doing it, and it was hard getting major architects to take the felt seriously.” It seems only Coenen does. He compares her felts to medieval tapestries, explaining that modern architecture needs that sort of warmth and softening. For years Jongstra’s felts were just placed into finished buildings like window dressing. Now they’ve become part of the architectural process, fitting for fabric that comes from yurts.

Chunky ochre felts hang on racks next to sheer indigo ones. There are countless versions piled neatly on the floors, under desks, and on work surfaces, but Jongstra has only a couple pieces of clothing made from her material—and not for lack of trying. Donna Karan used her felts for a couple of seasons; Christian Lacroix and John Galliano made couture coats with them. They were even used for costumes on the first episode of Star Wars. “It’s all been great,” Jongstra says. “But fashion’s always onto the next thing—it’s not for me.” That is why she works with only one fashion designer, Alexander von Slobbe. Jongstra’s felts are central to his collections, and his combination of industrial stitching and bespoke tailoring suit her fabrics and ideas. When a documentary was made about Von Slobbe for Dutch television, they filmed part of it in Friesland with Jongstra’s sheep. That was the only other time she’s let the press see her workshop.

Up in Friesland, Eabel holds out some food for the sheep. They gambol toward him and he shrinks back, gets brave, and approaches them again. Jongstra smiles and turns to me. She says that an architect in Vermont has offered to raise more sheep for her, but she’s not interested in making as much fabric as possible or even lowering its cost to make it more accessible. “You can buy anything anywhere today, but this,” she waves her hand around her at the bare fields and trees in the distance and the sheep. “It’s not about being trendy but making something for the long run. You see, this care for the materials, for the sheep, it takes time. You can’t buy it by the meter. It’s about providing your own raw materials. It’s not just about design but being involved in the source and the balance here.” Eabel skips up to Jongstra and reaches for her hand. He walks back to the car between Jongstra and Busson swinging their arms.

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