Ashevillean Lisa Klakulak travels the world. When she comes home, she pushes the limits of what can be done with felt.
by Melanie McGee Bianchi . photos by Zaire Kacz
On her next trip, maybe Lisa Klakulak can help out Princess Beatrice. If you recall, Beatrice was the beleaguered Brit sporting the much-mocked, wacky-but-tacky hats and fascinators at various royal events this spring. If she could just get her hands on Lisa Klakulak’s felted headgear, she might regain some semblance of aristocratic dignity.
But while Klakulak’s work may be fit for a future queen, it is far from staid. In fact, the 36-year-old Asheville-based artisan has stretched the outer limits of what can be done with felt—making jewelry, wall sculpture, handbags, scarves and coverings for vessels and mirrors. Every piece is intricate and textural, sometimes futuristic-looking and colored with naturally derived dyes (cochineal, madder root, indigo). Her inventive, brilliantly hued pieces have unexpected embellishments, such as the aster-blue topper that ends in a flurry of geometric tails.
You might describe what Klakulak does as “slow wool.” Whereas many felters start with the industrial felt you find in craft stores, Klakulak starts with raw wool—most of which she’s gathered from sheep at the Serendipity Farm and Studio in Suffolk, Virginia. When you start with pre-dyed felt, “a lot of the artistic decisions get cut out,” she says. Soaking wool in natural dyes is intensely laborious, but it gives her tremendous artistic range. The type of wool in felted objects in also important. Soft Merino works best in a piece that will hang close to the body, for example. She uses coarser wools to make rigid objects like handbags.
A felter and fiber artist for more than a decade, Klakulak doesn’t churn out quick production pieces. And now, after felting by hand for so long, she’s starting to feel the effects in her thumb joints. “I’m not interested in making 30 scarves that sell for $150,” she says. “I’m more interested in making four scarves that are $700—more like collectibles or ‘wow’ pieces that are pushing the medium.”
Though most of her work is wearable, when she sits down to create it, she sees herself more as an artist than a fashion designer, meditating or expressing what she’s experiencing personally. “I don’t have anyone in mind when I work,” she says. “I make things from a need to get ideas out of my head.” Likewise, she prefers to sell pieces directly to customers rather than through a gallery or website, so that she can hear the person’s story and how they’ve connected to her art.
A self-described “gypsy world traveler,” she is frequently inspired by textures and color combinations she sees in trips to Mali, Senegal, India, Russia and other worldwide ports. When VERVE caught up with her this summer, she had just returned from teaching at a major conference in Denmark and was heading to Chicago to chair a workshop in felt art. In August, she drove to San Francisco for a show by the American Craft Council, and she traveled from there to Mendocino, California, to teach felting workshops. This fall, she’ll give the keynote speech at the Taos Wool Festival.
Klakulak got a bachelor’s degree in textiles from Colorado State University at Fort Collins, and shortly after, she moved to Taos, New Mexico to work as a dyer for a wearable art gallery and fiber supply house there. An assistantship at Penland School of Crafts was what drew her to the East Coast, and she stayed in the area for a three-year residency at the Appalachian Center for Craft in Smithville, Tennessee. During that time, Klakulak was felting up to 16 hours a day, finding her artistic style and making wearable work.
The deep craft tradition at Penland and other craft schools, like John C. Campbell Folk School and the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, was what convinced her to stay. She moved to Asheville in 2006 and now spends a significant portion of her time teaching felting classes at all three schools. All the while, her creations have been honored at festivals around the country and featured in publications like Southern Living, Surface Design and FiberArts.
And yet she faces the same obstacle that snags many Asheville-based high-end crafters: an art-loving population that’s culturally supportive of new work but generally too young or financially strapped to invest in fine pieces. Few of her pieces ring up at less than $300, and many cost as much as $2,300, depending on the hours she invests. One scarf might cost $280, but another with more complex dyes could easily cost $700 or $800.
She frequently sells to people who take her workshops—often women between 40 and 70—or to her students in Northern Europe, where felting is an institution. She’s started looking into building a studio and workshop space onto her North Asheville home, so that she could bring felters to Asheville rather than traveling so often. “The clientele,” she says of the Asheville area, “is not here.” Happily, her heart still is.
To see more of Klakulak’s work, check out www.strongfelt.com.