(Photo by Linda Arntzenius)
Feltmaker Piroska Toth
I first saw Piroska Toth’s one-of-a-kind hats, scarves, and bowls at last year’s Arts Council of Princeton’s “Sauce for the Goose Holiday Sale.” When we met for this interview, she was in the middle of unpacking and airing her collection of felt rugs that had been stored over the Princeton summer while she returned to her native Hungary. Although her father works in wood and her mother is an expert cook, Ms. Toth said that the passion for crafts she developed after becoming a mother surprised even her. With her husband Zoltan Szabo, a mathematician at the University, Ms. Toth has lived in Princeton for 13 years. The couple has three children — son Levente, 13, and daughters Veronika, 11, and Hanna, 8. Now 39 and open to the pleasures of cooking, baking, and hand crafting, Ms. Toth is making a name for herself with hand-produced felt items that will be featured in this year’s contemporary crafts show at the Montgomery Center for the Arts later this month and in Hopewell’s annual fine craft show in November. Her work will also be on sale again this year at the Arts Council.
Felting is a traditional craft in Hungary and I had met some feltmakers there when I was in college but I didn’t see myself doing crafts at that time. I trained to be an Italian teacher, but I have never practiced that as a profession even though I love the language and the culture. I work part-time for the University League Nursery School in the mornings with three year-olds. In the beginning, crafts were simply a nice addition to my afternoons and evenings.
I got interested in this particular craft because all you need for felting is your hands, soap and water, and the material, which is washed and carded wool straight from the sheep, either in its original color, or dyed.
In Hungary, the work is more like that of central Asia and Mongolia. In America I got to know feltmakers working and teaching in a more contemporary style, combining materials and making felt that is more drapable. Working in this medium you can discover new techniques and new combinations of materials. You discover uses beyond the original functional clothing, rugs, and the thick coverings used for yurts, or “gers” as they are called in Mongolia.
I start by laying out the wool, thick or thin, depending on the finished product. For rugs and big pieces I use something to roll it in. For small pieces I just work on a flat waterproof surface. My dining room table usually. When the wool is laid out I sprinkle it with soapy water and start massaging it gently — a very calming technique that a lot of people who are challenged or think of themselves as not being proficient at crafts, find very soothing. Felting is a very easy way to create something. A beginner has to be talked through the process but it is easily learned. Wool fibers catch on to each other, just as if you had put your wool sweater in the washing machine at too high a temperature, and you end up with a very strong felt. That’s when I start working it harder, rolling it up, putting it in hot water, and shaping it. Then there are lots of finishing techniques. When I make three-dimensional pieces, I put the wool around a shape. I might form a hat around a shape or by inserting a piece of plastic to form a hollow form which I can then shape, or put on a hat block, or on your own head. Hot water sets the shape. Once something has been felted it cannot be unfelted, but you can still manipulate the shape, by ironing for example.
Another characteristic of wool is that the fibers can migrate through other materials with an open enough structure, silk chiffon for example. I buy silk in New York’s fashion district where there is a lot of choice and good prices too. Since I don’t have a lot of storage, I try not to have too much material, but I need choices for my students and to spur creativity. Creating a silk and wool combined piece is like painting. I lay out the silk and play with the colored wool and then I decorate it with other silk pieces, such as carded silk. I work a lot on a piece to make it durable. Depending on the design it might take me three or four hours from start to finish.
I like to finish a piece once I’ve started, so I like to have a stretch of time in which to work. Also, I hate to make the same thing over again. Sometimes I’m asked to reproduce an item and I find that impossible. I like to create new things. I can do similar colors, similar shapes, but each is unique. Rugs intrigue me because of their size and because you have to make them really strong. Making them is hard physical work. For a rug, I like to draw a design in advance but with smaller pieces such as scarves, I prefer free association of the colors and how they interact. In felting, the colors meld as you layer them, so it is like painting. I like to play with the shapes and the colors and the materials and I also like to work on a large design that requires some advance preparation. It’s a versatile craft and it’s never boring. There is never a dull moment.
I love to design and spend time with a piece and so my goal is to have a studio where I can devote more time to feltmaking. Another goal is to do more community felting with people who have never done felting before. We spend either a long day or a weekend creating one big piece together. I like to involve people, especially children, who have no boundaries, no fear. Once you start working on an idea, the more the merrier, I think.
People don’t always realize how a piece is produced and might simply be attracted by the colors. I like to be out there and talking about the technique.
A piece is never finished. I tell people, if you don’t like the shape, reshape it. When I teach I try to give my students ideas about what they can do in the future. And I get a lot of ideas from them. Sometimes when I come home from a class, I feel inspired and start working immediately. It pleases me when students branch out on their own and look up internet sites, buy materials, and start experimenting on their own.
There is a renaissance of felting nowadays and I am really happy that the Western world discovered it. In Hungary where I got to know the hands-on technique about ten years ago, it’s still a little more traditional than here. My first project was a small purse that I made at a workshop there. I liked the idea that I could make something in three or four hours. It took me several more years before I got into feltmaking more seriously and then I discovered classes in New York State and a class in Princeton at the Public Library.
You can order everything online, but twice a year I go to sheep shows, one in New York and one in Maryland, one in the fall and one in the spring. I buy wool straight from the sheep farmer. In America, I find, there are a lot of tools for speeding up the process. Gadgets can be fun, but I am a purist, I like to do everything by hand.
I am very grateful to the YWCA for accommodating my teaching there, and to the Princeton Adult School where I am now teaching a four-week class. People in Princeton are very enthusiastic. I have also gone into the Montgomery lower middle school to work with sixth graders on small projects, and at Community Park School making larger pieces. My first show and sale of work was at the Montgomery Center for the Arts, two years ago. This year along with the most popular wearables (hats and scarves, which sell for between $70 and $120) I am going to show rugs.
In addition to the Contemporary Crafts exhibit and sale at the Montgomery Center for the Arts, from October 27 through November 4, Ms. Toth’s work will be included in the 33rd annual fine craft show, “Transformations,” at the Hopewell train station on Friday, November 9, from noon to 9 p.m., Saturday, November 10, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, November 11, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. An opening reception on Friday, November 9, from 6 to 9 p.m. is open to the public. The show will feature handmade clothing, paper, jewelry, glass, ceramics, fiber arts, painting, fashion accessories, and more.
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