The Etsy Blog

Short Stories: Felt Masks

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

Here at Etsy, we believe that the story behind an object is often just as fascinating as the object itself. Short Stories is our series dedicated to telling the tales behind extraordinary pieces found or created by Etsy sellers. Here’s mask-maker Gladys Paulus.

During my years studying painting at art school in the Netherlands, some fellow students and I started up a small performance art group. I spent many hours sketching outlandish costumes and headwear. In felt, I have found a medium that allows me to translate my ideas into reality. As I am self-taught, it took some years (and two children!) to work up this point. My ultimate aspiration is to closely collaborate with artist-driven performance, dance or theatre groups. In order to demonstrate the versatility of the medium and to give a glimpse of what’s possible, I started making animal headpieces.

I have been quietly fascinated by tribal dress and masks for a long time. Dutch-Indonesian by birth, I was introduced to the visual impact of masks, costume and puppets at a young age. In Indonesian culture, masking, shadow puppetry, dance and storytelling still play an important part in the ritual of daily life. Perhaps it is in my blood, too, and has finally found a way to express itself.

To make felt is to accept a certain level of unpredictability. However much you plan in advance, the way the fibres react and interact is often a complete surprise. This unpredictability is part of its attraction to me, and it reminds me to keep a flexible attitude. When I start a new piece, I begin by visualising myself making it step by step. I plan any technical aspects such as the shrinkage rates, the shape of the template and considering which wool is best suited to the project. Different wool breeds produce felts with totally different characteristics, ranging from incredibly solid and dense, to light, ethereal and gravity-defying. I often mix different local and rare wools to achieve really exciting textures.

Once I start laying out the wool fibres, the technical aspects fade into the background and instinct takes over. The masks start out life as a flat piece, which is wet felted around a resist. Once the resist has been removed, I start adding details like feathers or ears. The whole piece is then felted until “hard” and sculpted into shape by stretching and rubbing until I am happy with it and my arms are sore.

Wool’s obvious associations are with warmth, protection and comfort. When the felt starts to take shape under my hands, emerging from the wool, I feel intense contentment. Felt is the most ancient form of textile (it dates back to Neolithic times) and I love that I am part of something bigger, an ancestral lineage.

I want people to be surprised and delighted when they find out my creations have been made out of such a humble material. There is an educational element in that, too; faced with climate change and increasing energy scarcity, now is a good time to highlight the environmental credentials of wool.

All photos by Gladys Paulus.

More Short Stories

Have you created or come across an object with an extraordinary story that needs to be told? Email us!