Danielle Sadowski in her North Chelmsford studio with her mom’s Chihuahua, Chewie.Photo Credit : Linda Campos
We are joined in the studio by assorted critters: wild, domestic, and anthropomorphic. In fact, the two life-size red squirrels facing off on a birch stump are almost unnervingly real. Whereas the anxious gray mouse, wringing his tiny paws? He’s clearly escaped from a Beatrix Potter tale gone wrong. The moose and the polecat are obvious works in progress, personalities waiting to emerge, but the chickadee is poised to deliver a bright-eyed chirp and take off.
Almost all of the creatures crowding this room are the product of nimble felting needles wielded by Danielle Sadowski of Farmhouse Felts, which is housed in the Nova Studios arts collective in North Chelmsford, Massachusetts. The one unfelted exception—a small, alert Chihuahua named Chewie, on loan from Sadowski’s mom—is firmly his own creation.
“I’ve always loved animals,” Sadowski, 35, tells me, as she teases strands of wool from earth-toned clouds of fluff, like plucking cotton candy, and prepares to wrap them around a wire leg belonging to a hound. “I was the kid who always had dogs or hamsters, or if the neighbor didn’t want their cat anymore, I’d be like, Mom?” Five of her seven ferrets are rescue animals, as are two sugar gliders—nocturnal marsupials that resemble flying squirrels—named Chunky and Monkey. “It’s a zoo at home,” she says. “I had a really hard time saying no for a while. But I finally had to put a cap on it, you know?”
Instead, she’s creating a felted menagerie. And from the start, seven years ago, when she attempted her first chipmunk, it was “an addiction.” The self-taught fiber artist progressed from a kit that included all materials (“It turned out horribly”) to a fox kit (a little better), and before long she was itching to step away from prepackaged projects and design her own animals. “Mice were my wheelhouse,” says Sadowski, who quickly gained a following with her cavorting Christmas mice in topcoats and crocheted scarves, bearing gifts of tiny pine cones. As her felting techniques improved, she began crafting wilder wildlife, as well as people’s pets, delivering startlingly accurate figures of beloved animals for clients as far-flung as England.
It’s all in the needle.
From the moment Sadowski decides what she’s going to create—be it a gray wolf, a pouncing fox, or a little dog with an overbite—the magic happens where the needle meets the wool. First, she twists and shapes aluminum wire to build the armature that serves as the animal’s skeleton, allowing her to animate the pose. Once she’s captured the proportions, she’ll wrap the wire in a base layer of springy fiber, called core wool. Her particular supply is a blend of common wools such as Corriedale and Dorset, and “it’s magic,” she claims, securing the fiber with a few well-placed jabs of a felting needle lined with tiny barbs.
Larger-gauge needles work larger areas of wool as she sculpts the basic shape; these give way to smaller needles as she adds colored wools, gorgeous alpaca or merino, and then begins detailing the face, legs, and torso. Each needle stab leaves its mark, compressing, contouring, sculpting. She molds tiny wet noses out of wax, bakes little clay teeth and toenails, wires miniature fingers. But even so, they’re “pretty much a blank” until she adds the eyes.
That’s when they come alive. What starts off innocuously as a pair of white beads begins to respond to layers of color added with alcohol markers, and a 3-D glaze that adds shine and magnifies details. In the final stages, she’ll add wax softened with lanolin and mold it around the eye. “It completes the eyeball,” she says, “and the personality really starts to come out.” So much so that sometimes, she admits, “they’re hard to let go of.”
She shows me one last small figure, a work in progress, the beginning stages of another little Chihuahua. Hidden in the wool, waiting to come out, is Georgie, her 13-year-old companion since the early days of first dating her husband. Georgie died the day before we met, and we’ve been talking at length about our pets, voices often quavery, about what they mean to us, how they catch our hearts, like those tiny barbs going into wool. Making a mark. This one she’ll keep; this one is Georgie. farmhousefelts.com