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New studio felt right

Robbin Firth holds up an example of her felting. Photo by Rebecca Rudolph1 / 2
Robbin and Harry Firth, right, are excited about having a studio in Seasons on St. Croix Gallery, managed by Ruth Misenko, left. The gallery is located on Second Street in downtown Hudson. Photo by Rebecca Rudolph2 / 2

For a local fiber artist and a woodcraftsman, moving from their living room to a new studio space was scary but felt right.

Fiber artist Robbin Firth said when she received an email offering her a studio, she ran up and down the driveway.

"Harry, you won't believe this -- Ruth just offered me a studio space," she reminisced laughing. "It's a big step, but it's a dream."

Harry Firth, her husband, was supportive of her decision to quit working her full-time job and open the studio. He said he thought this opportunity would bring more visibility to his wife's art and to HeartFelt Silks.

HeartFelt Silks is their company name that umbrellas his woodworking hobby, which created the felting tools that have now gained international attention, and her fiber products, ranging from hand-dyed silk scarves to felt tapestries.

Instead of just selling through their online presence, they now base their business out of the studio. Robbin is planning to hold classes to teach different fiber projects as well.

She likes "sharing what she knows with other people," said Seasons on St. Croix Gallery owner, Ruth Misenko. "She really loves to teach."

One of these fiber classes with be a felting class, where the tool Harry made will be the unique aspect.

Felting with rocks

When his wife started felting as a hobby, Harry would walk in find her on the kitchen floor rubbing her felt with makeshift tools, including rocks, back massagers and lids.

Robbin had abandoned the traditional process because she thought this idea would work better.

"Traditionally, they would have rolled it up, and rolled and rolled and rolled," she said, "maybe 100, 200, 300 times, depending on your piece."

Then one day, Harry offered to make her something for her to use, so she could stop using these different household and landscape items.

He said she laughed and said "I'm fine," but he headed out to his woodworking bench anyway.

"I didn't want to try," she admitted, "but I tried and I started wondering, I wonder if you did this..."

After a few years and many attempts, they have a patent pending on five felting tools that are available for sale internationally.

Each tool is handcrafted, meaning Harry chops, selects, glues, routers, churns the wood and applies three coats of finish to each side of the tool. The finishing process alone takes five to six days for each piece, he said, so each tool is unique.

The five tools are available in different "native wood," he said, like hard maple, ambrosia maple, black walnut, black cherry and butternut.

Even with international success, he said woodworking is still just a hobby for him.

The "knitting" gritty

The reason Robbin was on the floor rubbing fibers together with a rock started 20 years ago when she learned to knit. After her first run-in with fibers, she discovered felting.

She said when she first started felting, she liked the "element of surprise" felting had.

"You're starting out with a larger piece and when you combine water, soap and friction, the piece takes a new form," she said. "You can manipulate it with your hands."

As a result, "Each person's project is going to be different," Firth said, "even with the same kit."

From that interest, it "just kind of grew," she said. "I never wanted to copy or follow anybody. I just wanted to keep playing until I figured it out and liked my own techniques better than others."

For instance, she liked rubbing the felt instead of rolling it.

Because Robbin is self-taught, meaning she did not go to college for an arts degree, "you kind of break some boundaries," said Ruth Misenko, the gallery owner. "There are many wonderful artists that take that route. She just chose a different route."

That is how Robbin ended up on the floor of her kitchen with a rock. She said she was probably rubbing the fibers with her hands and thought to herself that something with more ridges would be better, so she grabbed a rock, but eventually used the wood tools her husband makes.

"People started asking what I'm doing, and I showed them," she said, "they were amazed and they wanted a few pieces to sell, and that's how it started."

The tool can make a project that would take hours take less than half the time, she said. "(It)makes the process less tedious."

One customer in Germany "took the tool to teach at nursing homes," Robbin said.

She was "thrilled" that the tool had made felting accessible to all generations of all abilities.

There have been "nonbelievers, of course," she said, but as soon as they try it, they become believers.

The couple has also received backlash from "traditional" artists, they said, because they are straying from the way felting has always been done. Robbin pointed out that these artists had the tools as well.

All natural

The goal of HeartFelt Silk is to stay "all natural -- natural fibers and natural woodwork together," said Harry.

To utilize the most natural fibers, they bought a machine "you don't see too much" that can turn alpaca and llama fur into felt, she said, which is traditionally difficult because "Their fibers don't felt as well."

Along with sticking to natural fibers, Robbin is picky about the quality of the materials, like the fibers, that she uses, Misenko said. As a result, they are good quality products.

Robbin and Harry both like the handmade aspect of the felting tools. Although the wood tools could be made with plastic and then mass produced, Robbin said, "That takes away from the whole meaning of what we were trying to do, of being creative and offering something of quality. We want it to be the creative process."

The grand opening to showcase the Firth's creative process at Season's on St. Croix Gallery will be in the afternoon on Saturday, June 29.

Misenko said she is excited for their customer base and people in the area to meet the Firths and see what their talents are.

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