Tuesday, December 27, 2011


I finally made my first trip to Australia to visit my sister Polly!

Sulpher Crested Cockatoos on Linda's deck, Russell Island, QLD
from Polly's deck

I admit, I did not expect to fall in love with Australia.  But I did.  I fell in love with the sounds of the rain forest chorus in the morning, possums thumping on the tin roof, the deafening din of cicadas that would stop as abruptly as it began, the squawking of wild turkeys and the quarreling of galahs.  

How it All Began
Robin & Polly, Coolangatta Airport
Pretty-faced Wallaby from the kitchen
I did a stint at California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, California in 1972 while Polly and Geoff Stirling were living in San Francisco.  They recently moved there from London, and I took full advantage of the opportunity to spend nearly every weekend with them.  I'd hang out with Geoff and the other street artists at Union Square as he sold Polly's leather bags and earthy hand dyed dresses while she moonlighted as a cocktail waitress at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, saving up for their move to Australia. When she'd left home for college I was seven, so there was little opportunity for over familiarity to erode my idolatry of her.  Polly and Geoff moved to Australia that Spring.  She eventually left leather work behind for a new love, feltmaking, and never looked back.  She raised her family in Australia, and it became her homeland.

The rest of our family cultivated a sort of love-hate relationship with Australia.  We proudly learned the lyrics to Waltzing Matilda and Click Go The Shears from our Aussie in-law GeoffFamiliarity with Australian animals and culture became part of our collective knowledge, thanks the children's books Polly sent.  My favorites were Wombat Stew, Possum Magic, Koala Lou and The Magic Firesticks.  
the Carpet Snake I never saw

deceased Huntsman in the studio (before clean up!)
There was no shortage of shocking tales shared about Australia's exotic side.  Geoff's Mum spotted a carpet snake dangling from the rafters over their wedding table.  A python shed its skin in the toy box.  The undomesticated “kitchen lizard” pawed at the door to go out.  A guest tried to captured a spider on the bedroom wall but couldn't fit its legs under the the drinking glass.  If I had been able to afford the trip when my kids were growing up, I'm not sure my motivation was keen.  For all those years we saw Polly and  her family way too infrequently (at six year intervals for ages), and when she did come home- our mother got fiercely patriotic.  Australia had stolen her first born.
guess who and where?

I Booked It
Inspired by Polly's felting workshops, I gradually became a felt maker myself.  Not exactly following in her foot steps, but dancing close behind.  Finally my own kids were on their own, and I started to get serious about making the trip down under.  I screwed up my courage and booked my ticket, along with our sister Susan, and we rendezvoused with Polly in Sydney on October 20.

Polly's Kitchen Lizard (actually a Skink)
Fruit Bats (Grey-Headed Flying Foxes)
This trip far exceeded any expectations I ever had.   It took a few days before I was relaxed enough to meet the kitchen lizard, and I never stopped being watchful for snakes, but I was proud that the big Huntsman Spider on the ceiling didn't rattle me, and the colony of huge, chattering fruit bats dangling from a fig tree in the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens were adorable!  I was delighted to see the mark of a snake track (small) in the red sand in the Center.   
snake track

The whole place was one giant excitement for me.  Every sound, every sight.  Birds, bats, pods, bark, blossoms, branches, trunks and Roo Bars.
Roo Bar on Geoff's car


Wild Turkey Studio with Coleus

a naughty Wild Turkey
Teaching at Wild Turkey Studio

A week after we arrived I gave a two day Art Felts workshop at Polly's Wild Turkey Studio in Lilian Rock, NSW, Australia.  I was really nervous about teaching around Polly; fear of failure or something, but it was a wonderful experience.  Polly, Sue and I pitched in and cleaned up the studio for the event.  It was the first time I've been in a studio that can be invaded by Turkeys.  For real!  We had to cover the wool I laid out for the class, or the Wild Turkeys would get into it and make a mess over night.  
I brought USA produced wool batt to Oz, hmm....

My students were joyous at being able to spend a few days felting, and spirits were high.  Their familiar affirmation was of appreciation for the opportunity to have exclusive time to be creative.  A couple of students took off in directions that diverged from the topic.  That wasn't unusual, and I found my sense of humor to finesse the situation, and managed to cajole more experimentation with my suggestions.  I needed to feel useful!
Sachhiko laying out her felt
Sachiko's Art Felt Skirt?
Our good friend (and advanced feltmaker) Sachiko Kotaka was in my class. I organized felting workshops for Sachiko to teach in the US in the summer of 2010.  I know her well enough to expect her to do her own thing.  I could guess from the odd shape of her felt that she had an ulterior motive.  As fiber was flying beneath her fingers, she'd respectfully keep reassuring me that she was, indeed, listening!  When she wrapped her finished “art felt” around her waist, my suspicions were confirmed.  You can't keep a good felter down, nor should you! 
Carol laying out
Bronwyn laying out

My teaching suggestion are just that, but it is an interesting juggle when you find yourself cajoling a student to try it your way. Usually I tell students that I am teaching the way I make felt, and that I will be extra fussy with the details. If they are beginners, I suggest that in time they will find their own way. I joke that techniques I might cringe at may work perfectly well. If they continue to do things the same way, in spite of my corrections, I might ask if they want me to keep correcting them. I want to determine if the lesson just hasn't sunk in, or if they are choosing to do it differently.
felters going to town with their wool
My lovely niece, the fabulous felter Myfanwy Stirling dropped by!
Sachiko & Susan felting, Polly visiting

Sue and Robin wetting down
As everyone knows, I learned how to make felt from Polly.  She was my biggest supporter when I decided to rent a studio and she gave me the best advice: just keep working.  There is no short cut to learning.  I've done that, and it is interesting to see how differently we do things now, our methods have both evolved.  It is essential to find what is comfortable for your own body when you work.  I know I have a different teaching style from Polly.  She is more laid back, I'm more detailed.  Maybe more wordy.  Her approach is the opposite of compulsive.   But boy does she have energy, and endless creativity.  She is very inspired.
Polly's friend Robin stopped in during at the start of day 2

Sachiko- show and tell
Robin and Robin
embellishing and relaxing day 2
hand stitching, day 2
Carol's piece, partially done
Art Felt became a play mat for a toadstool pony house

Carol was beautifully inspired by a trip to Morocco
Sporting one of Polly's shibori dyed nuno dresses over my jeans!

Felting Moved to the Back Burner
A top priority for my visit had been to spend time felting and dying with my sisters, but it didn't work out. We did discuss technical aspects of garment making, I took notes and I tried on some of her pieces (fun!) but there just wasn't enough thinking time for me to actually felt there. 

 Sue did get Polly's help to start on a garment, and I took notes and photos, but I just can't work well under pressure.  I need lots of thinking time...

Sisters at Sunrise at Uluru

What we did instead was to pack up Polly's car for departure right after my students left, drove to Brisbane where we meet up with our dear friend Linda Fairbairn (of Journey Jottings) and the four of us flew into Yulara at the Red Center of Australia.  Then we drove a camper bus half way across Oz to Cairns near the Great Barrier Reef.  It was a spectacular spur of the moment ten day side trip.  All four of us we were in awe of the sensuous landscape, no words or photos can begin to do it justice. 
Stanley Chasm, West Mac Donnell Ranges, Northern Territory

Sue and Linda sketching in the Chasm

 sketching in the Chasm, with hand made walnut inks from Nimbin

We are HERE!
Linda with her Journey Jottings map of Central Australia

seed pod

Talk about inspiring! Wow!  I'll be writing more about this later...

my happy feet on the red sand


  1. What an amazing full on explosive experience Robin -
    Lush and arid landscapes, fabulous flora, fauna, sounds, shapes and textures...

    And I love the hand stitched detail on Carol's Moroccan inspired felt work.

    Till next time? ;)

  2. Oh, Robin, what a generous sharing of your fantastic adventure to Australia and the obvious love that you and Polly share, despite being so many miles apart. Hope this will be the first of many visits.

    Lucky students who had the pleasure of taking your class...The resulting creations are gorgeous!!!! Love Carol's piece...she must have been over-the-moon happy with that. Sachiko's wrap skirt is fantastic, too (I think this is the first time that I've seen a photo of Sachiko.

    Thanks so much for sharing Robin...What a great way to start the morning.


  3. WOW Robin....what a life experience.
    Pix are gorgeous....The work is wonderful.
    And the best.....you did it with your sisters!

  4. What a marvelous adventure, and the fact that you have familial memories makes it sweeter. Are you planning your next trip already?
    Great post Robin, great photos!

  5. Lovely trip...thanks for sharing with us. It made my morning.

  6. What a perfectly, wonderful trip and memory. How special to do it with sisters and in such a special place. We love Australia and NZ and always count the days until we can return for even longer and more exploration. Glad your students pushed themselves. It looks like they listened
    :-) Their work is just lovely. And...we are watching and waiting to see what happens with that seed pod! val

  7. Your writing about your trip & the photos are amazing. If there were awards for blog posts, I would vote this one the best of 2011!

  8. I want to be a Blakney sister! Thanks for sharing your trip here. The photos are fantastic. The one of the bark makes me think of your felt colorways. All the colors down there are so rich. I would love to experience it some day.

  9. wow, what a trip :) fabulous photos and i bet you have wonderful memories from such a special family time. best wishes for a fab 2012!

  10. I appreciate your positive comments! It felt odd writing biographical stuff, I wanted to put this trip in context. Australia truly is a treat for visual people like fiber junkies- everything seemed so very exotic. I was always surprised at every turn!

  11. What a stunning post. I thoroughly enjoyed that. You manages to combine felting family and travel making it all fascinating. I only came here to find out more about Ziggy!


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