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Sewing Charlotte’s Skinnfell: Background

Note: After I finished the skinnfell for Charlotte I explained it to her here. This is a bit more background about making it. 

At our Scandinavian Weavers Study Group meeting on Sunday, I mentioned I was planning to make a small skinnfell, and someone asked, “Where do you get your fleeces?” I don’t really have a place to buy them.  It’s difficult, as fleeces suitable for printing need to have smooth, unbroken back sides, and if fleeces are not prepared with that in mind, they often have random printing or punctures, or holes or bumps caused by insect bites on the sheep. Also, the skin needs to be supple and relatively thin to allow sewing, and many times ill-prepared fleeces have thickened areas, so difficult to get a needle through.

washed versus unwashed Ikea fleece

At the meeting, someone said Ikea, bringing scoffs from another person.  I agree with that, to a certain extent.  Ikea fleeces are industrial sheep fleeces, so uniform. But they are usually very clean on the back sides, and they are supple and easy to sew. In my book, they make perfect starter fleeces for learning the techniques. (Or, they could be considered an inexpensive gateway drug, should one come to be addicted to making skinnfells with super-expensive beautiful fleeces.) The drawbacks are that in their uniformity they lack character and the beauty of uniqueness, and they are NOT washable.  I bought some Ikea fleeces and tested that.  Even if they are just rinsed, the backs becomes bumpy and stiff and very ugly.  It’s as if it brings out lines of a resiny substance. The fleece changes character, not in a really bad way.  I made a pillow from one washed piece.  The fleece became yellower and a bit more curly. It feels dense and sheep-y, compared to the unwashed fleece, which feels smoother, more on the continuum to the feel of rabbit fur.

I hadn’t made a skinnfell in a long time, and thought that my granddaughter Charlotte would enjoy one made of two small Ikea fleeces, and personalized for her. It was a good opportunity to remember and review the techniques. I originally learned from Britt Solheim, a Norwegian instructor who taught at the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in 2011. Here, Britt uses a pane of glass when initially trimming the fleece.  The glass weighs down the fleece nicely, and you move it to the position where you can get the most square inches from the fleece.

I trimmed two, lengthwise, along one side, to sew together.  I decided to leave the wavy edges (where the legs come out, you know) on the outer sides…just because. If you are making a square or rectangular piece, you can add small pieces to the edges.

When sewing, you use a leather needle, which is sharpened on the pointed end.

Normally, after the fleeces are trimmed and sewn together (fur sides touching, with a basic whip stitch), the seam is covered with a strip made from the waste part of the fleece that has been shorn to a smooth piece of leather. The outer edges of the sheepskin are bound in a soft leather strip, often in a contrasting color. For this little skinnfell, I decided to use a felted red wool strip, both down the center seam and around the edges.  I would never have used it on an “heirloom” piece, but this is a piece intended for everyday use by a four-year-old.  It’s not going to last forever. It’s just meant as a fuzzy piece of love, an alternative to a birthday toy, something that will help Charlotte learn about sheep. Design-wise, the band down the center is too wide–but it does have her name on it.

I used my friend Jan Mostrom’s Norwegian blocks to add some traditional printing, with some gray metallic fabric paint. I like to print lightly.  You can see that the paint heaviness isn’t exactly uniform, but that emphasizes the hand-made quality.

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