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Felt artist Chantal Cardinal creates chairs, sculptures, and elegant wall hangings from self-sourced wool fibers

felt artist Chantal Cardinal
Chantal Cardinal prepares her fibers with a hand-operated drum carder. Photo by Charlie Smith.

Visitors to Chantal Cardinal’s studio immediately see a large chair suspended from the ceiling. But it’s not created from polyester or other synthetic fabrics. Instead, the former Montreal resident made this piece entirely by hand, using wet felting to bind wool fibers to create hand-made felt.

“When I first opened my studio here, I basically wanted to have people sit down and start a conversation,” Cardinal tells Pancouver.

The felt chair has been in this Arts Factory workspace in East Vancouver since the 2017 Eastside Culture Crawl. With a smile, Cardinal notes that it’s been tested on hundreds of people of all shapes and sizes.

felt chair
People of all shapes and sizes have sat in this felt chair.

Like other felt artisans, Cardinal makes functional and wearable products. Through her design company, FELT à la main with LOVE, she also creates elegant works of art. These include colourful wall hangings, which offer an added benefit of absorbing sounds.

“There are no limits to my artform,” Cardinal says. “So, I can do sculptural work. I can do flat or three-dimensional. It can be as big as a chair for somebody to sit in.  Or it can be really tiny, like jewellery.”

Several years ago, Cardinal won a Vancity public-art commission for the Surrey Centre branch. She created her colourful felt piece, Collective Hands Blooming, from wool that she had sourced from a sheep farm in Abbotsford.

It marked a turning point. She went from buying rolls of processed wool to visiting farms and attending fleece auctions and sheep shearings to source fibers.

“It’s a lot more work,” Cardinal states. “But it’s so much more rewarding and you connect to where the material comes from.

“I help with the skirting and sorting of the fleeces and sometimes even wrangle the sheep for the shearer, but that’s my husband’s job as he comes to help.”

Cardinal moistens fibers to make felt

She brings the wool back to her studio on Industrial Avenue and spreads the fibers on her large working table. Then she rolls it through a carding machine, creating beautiful batts that can be converted into felt.

“Basically, to felt, I need to open up all these connections,” Cardinal states. “Once I put it through the carder, it’s all nice and combed in the same direction.”

Using water, agitation, and wool fibers, a magical process binds fibers together in what’s called “wet felting”. Adding a bit of dish soap helps the process.

“The more you agitate the piece, the more it shrinks into solid ‘material’, even if it it’s super-thin,” she explains. “It’s super-strong because it’s not a weave or a knit. Even if it has a rip, it doesn’t fray.”

Cardinal can mix her choice of colours, depending on which acid dyes she applies.

felt
Chantal Cardinal likes including brilliant colours in her felt artwork.

She points out that different breeds of sheep offer up different types of wool. For example, Gotland sheep from Sweden have beautiful curls. Icelandic sheep also produce wool that felts really nicely. As do Romneys, which are common in B.C.

One of her biggest public projects is a brilliant 300-square-foot window installation in 12 panels that she’s designing for the ACT Arts Centre in Maple Ridge.

“The opening night is June 12 at 7 p.m.,” Cardinal says.

felt
This colourful piece offers a sneak peek of a large felt installation that will be at the ACT Arts Centre in Maple Ridge. Photo by Charlie Smith.

From wardrobes to felt workshops

Cardinal never thought about becoming a felt artist when she was living in Montreal. In those days, she was a competitive soccer player. Professionally, she worked as a fashion designer and costumer in the film industry.

She only discovered felting when she walked into Funk Shui on Granville Island to ask if she could share studio space. The owner, Jessica de Haas, offered her a job.

“I’m used to making garments and I’m used to working in films and anything that has to do with wardrobe,” Cardinal says. “And in this case, you make your own material. So that was a little fascinating.”

She left after a year to open her own studio because she wanted to spend more time experimenting with fibers. In 2020-21, Cardinal offered workshops for more than 200 schoolchildren in Richmond as a result of an Artist in Classroom grant.

In addition, she participates in the Create! Art Festival, which is put on by the Eastside Arts Society.

“I do a lot of workshops here in my studio, but I also do a lot of workshops in the community,” Cardinal states.

Furthermore, she loves working on collaborative pieces with other artists. Examples include felt lighting projects and a second felt chair, made with a furniture upholsterer.

felt
Chantal Cardinal met banana-fiber weaver and Kavalan tribe matriarth Yu Ying Yen during a 2023 tour of Taiwan.

Lessons from Taiwan

Felt is believed to be the world’s oldest fabric, existing in Türkiye in 6500 B.C.E. This nonwoven cloth has also been used in Central Asia for thousands of years, including as a building material for yurts.

Last year, Cardinal travelled with two other Vancouver craft artists on a tour hosted by the National Taiwan Craft Research and Development Institute. She says that in Taiwan, she was “blown away” by the work of amazing artisans, including bamboo, banana, and bulrush fiber weavers.

Some of these Taiwanese artists’ work is now on display on weekends in the Island Tribute exhibition at Ocean Artworks on Granville Island. It’s part of this month’s LunarFest Vancouver celebrations.

“The processing of banana fibers, bamboo, or bulrush is highly labour-intensive, akin to the meticulous process I undertake to prepare my own wool for felting”, Cardinal says. “I feel like my work will be influenced by the processes I’ve been introduced to in Taiwan.”

To learn more about Chantal Cardinal’s work, visit the FELT à la main with LOVE website. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

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The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.