A good yarn: Painting with wool

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

Erin Kavanagh-Hall

Therese Quinlivan has been an artist for “such a long time [she] can remember ”- but these days it is less likely that she will create her latest masterpiece with a brush and palette.

Instead, her preferred materials are New Zealand wool and very sharp needles – and some pieces of sea glass that she could take home from the beach.

Featherston-based Therese is the smart pair of hands behind The Magpie’s Nest, an online store that specializes in needle felted artwork, from adorable miniature teddies to sprawling landscape paintings.

Working in her new studio, a converted grain shed on the grounds of her and her husband John’s 140-year-old property, she creates paintings that can easily be plucked from the French Impressionist era, blood-red poppy fields and sheep-strewn slopes, sunset skies , Seagulls over a calm harbor and lighthouses over capricious oceans.

All images are made entirely from wool fibers sourced from sheep in Central Otago Romney and Corriedale, which are usually hand-dyed using natural vegetable products.

“I’ve always been artistic and loved to paint – so I figured there’s no reason I can’t make pictures out of wool.”

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

“I think I could do the bulldozers in Ngawi next – they’re pretty wonderful.”

Needle felting – which first came onto the market in the 19th century as a technique for making insulation, carpet underlay, and ultimately tennis balls – is done with roving, a thick, fluffy wool fiber that is usually spun into knitting yarn.

During the needle felting process, the roving is shaped into the desired shape and repeatedly pounded with a barbed needle that compresses and condenses the wool fibers to make felt.

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

Three years ago her husband John suffered a head injury after being hit by a falling crossbar while installing a ranch scraper and recovered for 18 months.

During recovery, John needed “absolute rest” and was allowed very little stimulation. So Therese took up needle felting to stay active and vigilant while keeping John company.

“I taught myself on YouTube – I thought I could too, that’s how children learn nowadays,” said Therese.

“Since John was so sick, we weren’t allowed to turn on a bright light, turn the TV too loud, or visit a lot of people – our evenings were very quiet.

“So I would sit down with John and just go over my projects. It was very beautiful.

“I was obsessed – it was a fantastic stress management tool, and in the end I would have nice things to show.”

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

Their business failed in 2015 after Therese and John lost most of their property in a large house fire.

However, the fire sparked Therese’s creativity. While restoring her home, she developed a passion for second-hand shopping, which led to the creation of a number of steampunk-inspired works of art.

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

“I would bring home old bicycle chains, watch pieces, doilies and jewelry and turn them into art.

“That’s where the magpies’ nest comes from – like a magpie, I’m a bit of a treasurer!”

Shortly before John’s injury, Therese was taking classes at the Wellington City Library when she met a woman who made needle felting – who would feel better after a busy day at work by “aggressively pricking” her job with a needle.

In a time of need Therese turned back to the craft and produced needle felt teddies, rabbits, poison mushrooms, Christmas decorations and wall hangings as well as “norfs” – tiny, charming creatures that she described as a “cross between gnomes and dwarfs”.

After she and John moved to Featherston in 2019, she kept feeling and headed towards her woolen landscapes. She started with A5 size greeting cards and then moved on to larger images that fit in box frames.

All of her pictures are created by building layers of felt fibers to create a structured, three-dimensional effect – with different colors and tones that create the illusion of light and shadow.

Her magpie-like stockpiling tendencies have also come in handy – as her landscapes often contain items she gathered while walking on the beach or in the woods.

“I’m a real beachcomber. I will come back with pieces of driftwood with interesting patterns, sea glass, stones with pretty colors, and leaves with cool looking skeletons.

“My husband has forbidden me to bring back more than I can carry!

“I plan to use algae at some point – when I can figure out how to deal with the smell.”

She says her favorite scenes are seascapes thanks to her nostalgia for Wellington Harbor.

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

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

“The special thing about my work is that it cannot be produced or printed in series – every picture is unique.

“Even if I wanted to mass-produce, I couldn’t. In the way the yarn is dyed, each color is slightly different, so no two images are completely alike.

“You probably won’t buy one from me and find it on someone else’s wall!”

Therese has also started teaching needle felting classes at the Featherston Community Center and will soon be starting classes in her home studio.

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