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A good yarn: Painting with wool

Therese Quinlivan at work in her studio. PHOTOS/ERIN KAVANAGH-HALL

Erin Kavanagh-Hall

Therese Quinlivan has been an artist for “as long as [she] can remember” – but these days, you’re not as likely to find her creating her latest masterpiece with a brush and palette.

Instead, her materials of choice are New Zealand wool and very sharp needles – and some pieces of sea glass she couldn’t resist bringing home from the beach.

Featherston-based Therese is the crafty pair of hands behind The Magpie’s Nest, an online shop specialising in needle-felted artworks, from adorable miniature teddies, to sprawling landscape “paintings”.

Working from her new studio space, a converted grain shed on the grounds of her and husband John’s 140-year-old property, she creates images that could easily be plucked from the French Impressionist period, blood-red poppy fields and hillsides dotted with sheep, sunset skies, seagulls perched above a serene harbour, and lighthouses rising above moody oceans.

All images are made entirely from wool fibres – sourced from Central Otago Romney and Corriedale sheep, and usually hand-dyed with natural plant-based products.

“I’ve always been arty and loved painting – so I thought to myself ‘well, there’s no reason why I can’t make pictures out of wool’.”

“The lighthouses are definitely inspired by Palliser and Castlepoint – I wanted to do art that was relevant to Wairarapa.

“I’m thinking I might do the bulldozers at Ngawi next – they’re pretty wonderful.”

Needle felting – which first made an appearance in the 1800s as a technique for making insulation, carpet underlay and, eventually, tennis balls – is done using roving, a thick, fluffy wool fibre, usually spun into knitting yarn.

During the needle felting process, roving is moulded into the desired shape, and jabbed repeatedly with a barbed needle – which presses and condenses the wool fibres together to make felt.

For Therese, needle felting started out as a form of much-needed therapy during a family crisis, and became a passion and obsession.

Three years ago, her husband John sustained a head injury after being struck by a falling cross beam while installing a ranch slider, and spent 18 months recovering.

While in recovery, John needed “absolute peace and quiet”, and was allowed very little stimulation – so Therese took up needle felting to help herself stay active and alert while she kept John company.

“I taught myself on Youtube – I thought I may as well, that’s how the kids are learning these days,” Therese said.

“With John so ill, we weren’t allowed to put on bright lights, or have the TV turned up too loud, or have many people over to visit – our evenings were very quiet.

“So, I’d sit with John, and just stab away at my projects. It was quite lovely.

“I became obsessed – it was a fantastic stress management tool, and I’d have pretty things to show for it at the end.”

Therese, originally from Essex in England, has had a varied career before retiring. While living in Wellington, she worked in the community housing sector, taught community arts and craft classes and, with John, ran an organic gardening business.

Their business folded in 2015, after Therese and John lost most of their possessions in a major house fire.

However, the fire sparked Therese’s creativity. While restoring their home, she developed a passion for second-hand shopping, which led to creating a range of Steampunk-inspired artworks.

“While renovating, I did a lot of upcycling – and I became the op-shop queen, the Trade Me goddess,” she said.

“I’d bring home old bike chains, clock pieces, doilies, bits of jewellery, and turn them into art.

“That’s where the Magpie’s Nest comes from – like a magpie, I’m a bit of a hoarder!”

Not long before John’s injury, Therese was taking classes at Wellington City Library when she met a woman who did needle felting – who would, she said, feel better after a hard day at work by “aggressively stabbing” her work with a needle.

In a time of adversity, Therese again turned to craft, churning out needle felted teddies, bunnies, toadstools, Christmas decorations and wallhangings, and “Norfs” – diminutive, charming creatures, which she described as “a cross between gnomes and dwarves”.

She continued felting after she and John moved to Featherston in 2019 and progressed towards her woollen landscapes, starting off with A5-sized greeting cards, and then moving on to larger images to fit inside box frames.

All her pictures are made by building up layers of felted fibre to create a textured, three-dimensional effect – with different colours and tones used to create the illusion of light and shade.

Her magpie-like stockpiling tendencies have also come in handy – as her landscapes will often include items she has scrounged during a walk on the beach, or in the woods.

“I’m a real beachcomber. I’ll come back with bits of driftwood with interesting patterns, sea glass, stones with pretty colours, leaves with cool-looking skeletons.

“My husband has banned me from bringing back more than I can carry!

“I’m planning on using seaweed at some stage – if I can figure out how to deal with the smell.”

She says her favourite scenes to capture are seascapes, thanks to her nostalgia for Wellington harbour.

But her flower fields, sheep, vintage caravans, native birds, macrocarpas at sunset, and cats sitting in the moonlight are also proving popular.

Since moving to Wairarapa, she has sold her work at the Wai Art Sale, Greytown Country Market, and Martinborough Fair, and also does commissions for individual customers.

“What makes my work special is that it can’t be mass-produced or printed – each picture is completely unique.

“Even if I wanted to mass-produce, I couldn’t. The way the yarn is dyed, each colour comes out slightly different, so no two pictures are completely the same.

“You’re not likely to buy one of mine, and find it on someone else’s wall!”

Therese has also started running needle felting classes at the Featherston Community Centre, and would shortly be starting classes at her home studio.

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