From Turkey with love: Rug-making project at A.P.E. Gallery draws on centuries-old traditions

  • Using what’s known in Turkey as a çubuk, Jo Hesse brushes wool for a felt rug at Northampton’s A.P.E. Gallery. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Felted rugs made by Jo Hesse of Northampton on display at the A.P.E. Gallery. She studied techniques in Turkey for making felt rugs.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • At Northampton’s A.P.E. Gallery, Jo Hesse brushes wool for a felt rug she is designing, with help from others, as part of a community project and workshop at the gallery. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jo Hesse, Eva Fierst, and Kent Hesse step on and roll a felt rug at the A.P.E. Gallery. Pressure from people’s feet helps bind the felt into a tighter weave. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Felted rugs made by Jo Hesse of Northampton at the A.P.E. Gallery. Hesse calls handcrafted rug business The Ram and The Worm.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jo Hesse, Eva Fierst and Kent Hesse step on and roll a felt rug encased in a sleeve at Northampton’s A.P.E. Gallery. The pressure helps bind the felt into a tight weave. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Felted rugs made by Jo Hesse of Northampton on display at the A.P.E. Gallery. She studied techniques in Turkey for making felt rugs. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Daughter and father bonding: Jo Hesse and Kent Hesse check the progress of a felted rug they’ve created, with some community help, at the A.P.E. Gallery. Below, Jo brushes wool for the rug, which will be auctioned off for charity. STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jo Hesse places wool on a felt rug she’s creating at the A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A closeup view of the felt rug Jo Hesse, with help from her father and community members, is creating at the A.P.E. Gallery. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 7/2/2021 9:09:32 AM

It was publicized as a rug-making workshop, but this part of it looked more like a unusual kind of exercise or sport.

At Northampton’s A.P.E. Gallery, three people stood on top of a thick, rolled-up plastic mat, using their feet to press down on it and roll it slowly across the length of the gallery floor, balancing atop the mat like 19th-century loggers sluicing timber downstream to sawmills.

Then Jo Hesse, her father, Kent Hesse, and Eva Fierst, a friend, unrolled the mat, revealing an inner rug made of felt — colorful clusters of thick sheep’s wool — which they flattened out by hand and sprinkled with a little water. Then rug and mat were rolled up together again, the three people climbed back aboard, and they slowly rolled the material back across the gallery floor, pressing with their feet.

Jo Hesse, who lives in Northampton, has been making felt rugs and wall art for about four years now, using traditional techniques for the process that she learned in Turkey. Since June 20, she’s been overseeing the creation of a new felt rug at A.P.E. in a combined exhibition/workshop that’s part of the Northampton gallery’s ARC program (Activate, Research, Create).

Hesse, who’s 26, first came across this style of rug-making in 2016 when she was studying painting and textile design in Stuttgart, Germany. A 2012 graduate of the Hartsbrook School in Hadley, Hesse had gone to Germany to learn about possibly teaching in the Waldorf school system, of which Hartsbrook is a part. After initially studying art in Stuttgart, she switched to a “handwork,” or fiber arts program.

It was then that she became intrigued with the process of making felt rugs, she said. From there she made several trips to Turkey to study the technique with Mehmet Girgiç, a renowned feltmaker who’s been recognized as a Turkish “Living Treasure” by UNESCO and the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

And Hesse also enlisted her father, a physician, in her work, which she does under the name of The Ram & The Horn. Making felt rugs is a physical job, she notes, one that, except for the smallest rugs, requires more than one person to do the work. The rugs shrink about 40 percent as they’re made, she said, “so they can start out really big, and you need more than one set of arms, legs and hands to work them.”

Felt is a fabric made of densely matted animal fibers; much of it is wool, though camel hair, silk and other fibers can be part of it, Hesse says (her earlier rugs incorporated a fair amount of silk). When the fibers are sprinkled with water, tiny scales on each hair open up, Hesse says; then after they’re agitated and pressed together by people standing on them, the fibers bind together, creating a tight, sturdy texture when the fabric dries.

She says there’s a long tradition of feltmaking in Turkey, Iran and other countries of Central Asia, where sheep were first domesticated — and that tradition, the polar opposite of mass production and industrial techniques used for so many modern products, including rugs, is a big appeal to her.

“There’s a real intimacy in working with materials in this way, in feeling you’re part of this tradition,” she said. She also enjoys the meditative quality of the work, something that arises from what she calls the “rhythmical physicality” of rug making.

At A.P.E., Hesse, with her father’s help, has been crafting a large, colorful rug with additional assistance from visitors to the gallery, who were invited to select colors from big piles of scrap wool Hesse had brought in and mold them into patterns. The finished rug — the one the two Hesses and Eva Fierst had been stepping on — will be auctioned off, with proceeds going to the Northampton Survival Center and the Western Mass Food Bank.

On the wall at A.P.E., Hesse has also hung many of her other designs, from one with angular white and black geometric shapes that could pass for abstract chess pieces, to another that resembles colorful tiles set on a stone surface.

Hesse has led other feltmaking workshops in the area, and she thought A.P.E. would be an ideal place to work on a larger project and draw in some members of the public. About 10 people, including some children, have taken part in making the community rug so far, she said.

In fact, the title of her project is “Social Fabric” — and there’s still time to take part in it, up until July 9. For more information, visit apearts.org/current.html. You can also learn more about Jo Hesse’s work at theramandtheworm.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.




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