Many artists sculpt in clay, metal or wood — Melinda LaBarge is a sculptor of fiber.
A juried member of the League of N.H. Craftsmen, LaBarge didn’t start out as an artist in her career — although her father is a painter and her mother, a quilter who instilled her love of working with fiber.
She first went to culinary and then cosmetology school before working in insurance for a decade. She had always loved to knit when she saw a piece of felted fabric a friend was wearing and had to know everything about this textural Japanese technique, called Nuno, in existence for only 20 years.
“I was hooked,” she said.
Her first class was with Nancy Dorian at Webs in Northampton, Mass., and her first piece was a felted scarf with flowers on it. She made shapes with wool to look like a flower — she called it finger-painting with wool.
She noticed then that medium wasn’t well-represented, so she began experimenting.
“I found the technique exciting because so much is yet to be done with it,” she said.
Her first show was the Dublin Art Fair in 2011, and by February of 2012 she was accepted into the League of N.H. Craftsmen and participated in her first show as a member that summer.
She now has some of her pieces in the League of N.H. Craftsmen Fine Craft Gallery on Central Square in Keene (it opened this spring), where she also works. She also enjoys sharing her technique with others, and she has taught workshops in her felting technique at other League stores in Nashua, Concord and Hanover since 2013.
Her felting technique bonds loose fiber, usually wool, onto a sheer fabric such as silk, creating a lightweight felt that looks delicate but is durable. Her inspiration has come from art history books, nature, geometric shapes and, above all, high-quality clothing. She looks for fabric for her designs at thrift shops and online.
“It can take as long as three years to find enough of a certain shade to use,” she said.
Working in the basement of her Keene home, usually in the company of her two collies, she uses Merino wool roving she dyes by hand (along with the silk she uses) and covers the materials in batches at a time with hot, soapy water, a process that involves friction, adheres the wool to the base material and shrinks the garment by 45 percent.
After rinsing, she irons the garment while it’s still wet, which causes a sheen to emerge that brings it to life. She calls these watercolor pieces.
Another method she uses is called shibori, which involves rocks and marbles tied into the fabric halfway through the felting process. When the garment dries, the objects are removed and the finished product holds their shape in the design.
Right now, she makes ruanas (which is a wrap/jacket), scarves and fingerless mitts and other custom pieces anyone of any size and shape can wear.
It’s important, she pointed out, that she has no personal attachment to her work. She thinks about it adding more beauty to the world, and she wants people to enjoy wearing her textile art.
She thinks of her garments as one-of-a-kind statement pieces that elevate an outfit but are also practical enough for everyday wear — for the rest of the owner’s life.
“I want to make quality, simple, elegant pieces that will last,” she said.
For more information, visit melindalabarge.com.