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Sunday 20 May 2012

Felted Slipper workshop at Stepney City Farm

I'm happiest when I have warm, snuggly feet. I always wear socks at home and even socks in bed! Cold feet are just not my style....so when I heard that SWCraftClub were running a competition to win a place on a felt slipper making workshop, I had my fingers, toes and current buns crossed....and it worked!!!!
Last Saturday I made my way to Stepney City Farm. London has many city farms but this was one I hadn't visited before. Upon arrival I was shocked to discover that the site was surrounded by Crossrail construction which will be a new high speed railway zipping people from East to West London. But more on that later...
Not only would we be making slippers, we got to meet the sheep whose wool we would be using.
When the sheep are first sheared the wool looks like this  - you can feel the soft lanolin in your fingers and whiff that sheepy smell!
Although it was a one day course we didn't have time to do everything - felting is time consuming enough so the wool had already been cleaned and 'carded', and was ready for use.
Our wonderful tutor Caroline started by showing us the properties of wool and even how to spin it by hand.
We then drew around each others feet - leaving a gap of a couple of inches all the way around, and then transferred it to a sheet of plastic.
By creating a template for your own feet it means that every single slipper is the perfect fit. I've dabbled in some felting before, flat, nuno, needle and bead making, but never done 3D felting. Structurally I was amazed by how it came together. We worked on both slippers at the same time.
First of all we pulled small strands of wool off the larger pieces and laid them all over the template. A second layer was applied on top, this time with the yarn placed in a horizontal position until four layers were created with alternating directions; this crosshatch structure allows the pieces to bond together.
Next we flicked warm water on top, there was no rubbing in required, the damp surface allowed the wool to stick together so the whole piece could be flipped over. The edges were then moistened and folded over so there were no strands hanging off. The process was then repeated, the whole piece flipped over again and then again, so overall there were two layers on each side consisting of four layers of wool. The final layer to be applied was the inside of the slipper which again required four layers of wool on each side. I wanted a different texture inside so I swapped to a different type of wool from a different sheep.
It ended up looking like a fluffy collar! It was a packed morning and the actual felting hadn't even begun yet but before I got covered in soap suds, I took a lunch break and explored the rest of the farm.
Stepney is a working farm that's open to the public where you can also buy plants...
...and watch chicks hatching (I so wish I could have seen some of the action but I was a bit early!)
There's a small cafe on site run by Norman Loves Soup who make fresh, wholesome vegan food. I'm not a big fan of soup (it reminds me of having my wisdom teeth out as I overdosed then) but when I saw the beetroot soap, I had to have a mug. I've heard many positive things about beetroot soup AND the colour matched my hair. Needless to say the soup, red pepper scone and chickpea & cous cous salad were delicious and costing just £5.50 it was the perfect lunch! I certainly needed the energy.
Felting works by soap and friction. Warm soapy water does the trick, just pour some washing liquid into a bowl and the foam starts appearing - friction is the tough part. There's no room for half-hearted rolling - the more vigorous the better.
Some would say felting is a good craft to release your aggression as you can stamp on and throw your work around the room. I stuck to the less physical method of rolling and turning inside a woven plastic placemat.
 I then switched to putting it inside a huge bamboo blind and gave it some more rolling...
Two hours later it was fully felted. Patience is key - as is drainage - there is water aplenty. If you ever want a craft to do in your garden, this is the one to take up!
I cut the piece in half, pulled out the plastic template and then turned each side inside out resulting in two fully formed slippers.
Only this pair were rather large. The shaping is the next stage and is possibly one of the most pleasurable crafting techniques in the world!
The slippers need to be moulded on to each foot which can only be done via foot massage so the class paired up to pamper eachother.
I was sceptical of the cold sliminess of wearing a damp, soapy sock, but there was no such problem. Receiving a 30 minute foot massage while wearing a super soft furry slipper is an amazing experience - I'm surprised more beauty salons don't adapt the technique.

Here's Zoe from SWCraft giving her partner a massage.

One slipper down and one more massage. All I had to do was sit back and relax : )
Each pair of slippers were completely unique, moulded to individual feet so that no one else could wear them. This pair belonged to another workshopper.
While this is a sample one made by our tutor Caroline who assured us that it took her many hours to felt it, until it looked and felt so soft. The slippers we made should last a lifetime and she also showed us how to repair them with extra wool if any holes appear and to dye them in natural colours by using onion skins. I had a really lovely chat with Caroline at the end too about how the slippers can change and be adapted over time like how colours and patterns can be incorporated using needle felting techniques so that they are always evolving. I love this concept and aim to do some surface decoration to mine - it sounds like the ideal ongoing 'infront of the TV' activity.

I mentioned Crossrail at the beginning of this post. Although it feels like they are interfering with the farm, plans are afoot that the farm with be redeveloped with help of Crossrail who are funding a Rural Crafts Centre which is still being built. It will support heritage craft industries and as well as offer studio space, will run regular workshops using natural craft materials like the felted slipper making. Felting on a farm is the best location I've ever made in. I enjoyed weaving in a barn a couple of years ago when I did a three month apprenticeship, but felting on a farm where you get to see the animals where the raw materials you are using comes from, is a very special experience - felting anywhere else just wouldn't have felt the same. It's a really fantastic course which ends with having a beautiful pair of bespoke slippers which would be work over £60 if they were for sale.
Before I left I got close and personal with some bees. I have never looked inside a beehive - it was a spectacular sight. Caroline is a bee expert and looks after three hives on the farm, she also assists other urban beekeepers get started.

You can visit Stepney City Farm 6 days a week from 10-4, Tuesday-Sunday. The cafe is open at the weekends and the Rural Crafts Centre will open later this summer. 
Stepney Way, London, E1 3DG.


  1. Wow! What a lovely and heartfelt write-up! Look forward to seeing you again soon! Please keep in touch!


  3. I enjoyed that! What a wonderful way to spend a day. Haven't been to Stepney farm, but have been to a couple of others. If we still lived there I'd be off there at weekend! Great blog post.