Michelle Provencal makes her mussel shell ornaments from wool. Can you tell which shells are real and which are felt?
An artist reveals how she felts her realistic shells and whimsical sea creatures.
As told to Tina Fischer
Photographs courtesy of Michelle Provencal
I started felting because I wanted to try something outside my comfort zone as a designer. My career has been in product design for companies like Pottery Barn, Anthropologie, and Coach — designing décor and accessories. I wanted to take a new (to me) material and see what I could do with it. Needle felting isn’t easy, but it’s totally accessible, and I like that. I watched a few tutorials to understand the tools, materials, and basic techniques. I learned I can sculpt wool like I might any other material, then use the same material to apply color, almost like painting. Once I started, I didn’t want to stop.
I grew up summering in Maine and loved collecting shells. Mussel shells were among my favorites. My felted mussels begin with ivory-colored wool, which I sculpt into the shape of the shell. Next, I layer on colored fibers, just a few at a time, adding finer and finer details to achieve a realistic effect. I keep a group of shells on my worktable, referencing elements of each. In the end, every shell I make is unique, as they are in nature.
Finally, I add sequins and beads. When you find a wet shell on the beach, the depth of color is incredible, made even more beautiful by the sparkle of the water in the sun. The embellishments are a nod to this and create a rich contrast to the dry wool.
The wool is from all over, chosen for color and ease of felting. My favorite base wool comes from New Zealand. I use Maine wool whenever possible. I’ve also been gifted beautifully hand-dyed wool from a friend in the Hudson Valley.
My trims come from years of collecting. I use both vintage and new beads, sequins, and ribbons. Some handed down from my grandmothers, some I’ve collected at vintage markets and in my travels overseas. My first job was for a milliner in New York City, which introduced me to the resources in the Garment District. I still buy most of my trims there. Learning to felt has given me an avenue to create my own designs in a meaningful way, from an authentic inspiration. I love people’s reactions when they see the mussels and realize they’re not real. They search out the one that speaks to them. That sense of discovery and delight makes me happy.