Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Dulur: Anna Þóra Karlsdottir

Dulur: Anna Þóra Karlsdottir

When settlers first introduced domestic sheep to Iceland more than one thousand years ago, their woollen coats provided waterproof warmth that was crucial for human survival. Today sheep continue to be raised for meat in Iceland but with the exception of lopi, traditional knitted Icelandic sweaters, the coarse wool of the animals’ outer coats are generally overlooked as a material resource. Anna Þóra Karlsdottir is an exception. Working with the coarse outer fleece, Karlsdottir creates textiles that defy the familiar categories of art, design or fashion.

We believe humans may have first chanced upon felt by accident when walking on wool wrapped to protect their feet. Over time friction applied to wool fibres encourages them to hook and lock into each other. The often solid, absorbent textiles created by felting are often used as sound insulation. The large-scale installations of Dutch artist Claudy Jongstra, for example, use wool sourced from rare Drenthe Heath sheep, an indigenous breed she farms in the north of the Netherlands. Along with fur and silk, wool is a protein fibre and energy visible in the tendrils of curling fleece which Karlsdottir, like Jongstra, often leaves intact in her felting.

The wet green landscapes of Wales are a world away from Iceland’s volcanic pastures – but here too exists a long history of sheep farming and wool production. Icelandic farmers differentiate their herds with a cut to the ear, but in Welsh fields sheep are marked with a blotch of bright colour on each animal’s coat. Inspired by these moving colours the Welsh artist Paul Emmanuel, a student of the Young British Artists (YBA) era of Goldsmiths College, has painted unprocessed sheep fleece. Stiffened under the weight of paint, Emmanuel’s works are less about fibre and more about paint. Some look like comical wigs. They are certainly art.

Karlsdottir differs from both Jongstra and Emmanuel. The dulur series hovers between architectural installation and white cube art work. They are not the result of a specialist flock revival, commendable though that may be, nor are they experiments in painting. Instead Karlsdottir’s resourcefulness has imagined an alternative for a material now often treated as a surplus in contemporary farming. A little longer than what we would normally associate with a scarf, these textiles remain related to the scale of the body without proclaiming themselves as fashion. The length – up to 3.5 metres – is the outcome of a process where, Karlsdottir explains, “the wool decides” when the felting will end.

Anna Þóra Karlsdottir compares her translucent pieces to watercolour paintings – soft layers of colour that allow light to pass through – and her more compact felting to the layering of oil paint. Her description is hard to better, capturing the extreme range of densities she conjures from felt. Wool is first and foremost a textile. Colour sits in rather than on the fibre and natural fleece colours are preserved rather than concealed. Unsurprisingly, Dulur, the Icelandic name of this latest series refuses simple translation. Rather than water, they are materials of the air from the original engineering of the outer fleece to repel water from the sheep’s back to their evocation now on the gallery wall as gossamer and opaque colour. An air born aura might come close to explaining the name; cloths of beauty and mystery.

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