LeBrie Rich of PenFelt Studio in her studio. Photo by Shannon O’Connor

Longtime PTM friend and organizer LeBrie Rich proves just how much can be done with a needle and thread––or in her case, multiple threads matted together to produce felt. As the owner of PenFelt Studio, LeBrie leads felting workshops and designs felting kits. She’s also a multidisciplinary savant, adept at fiber arts, collage, performance art, illustration, and more. LeBrie uses hand-felting as a starting point, then incorporates stitching, appliqué, and other textile techniques to achieve her desired look and function. Recently, she’s been crafting hyperreal replicas of American grocery store food in felt. “I’m kind of obsessed with our food system, corporate seduction, and what it means to be human in an era of industrial sameness,” says LeBrie. A felting purist, LeBrie is not!

How has PenFelt been affected by the outbreak of COVID-19?

The way I make my living is by teaching workshops. Welp, they’re all canceled! So that’s been interesting. I miss my students and lost a bunch of income. So I had the idea of making how-to videos for people to felt along at home. I’ve done one, and people have been sending me pictures from all over the country of their Good Morning Mushroom projects! So it’s been challenging, but also rewarding in surprising ways.

Do you anticipate that this outbreak will require you to restructure your business in the near future? 

I started an online shop for felting supplies for my students. This is something I’ve been resisting for about 10 years because it felt like too much work. And it WAS a lot of work to build it, but honestly I actually enjoy filling the orders and communicating with people, finding out what they’re making, etc. So it’s been a source of connection and that’s been surprising.

A week ago I sewed a bunch of masks for my family and my neighbors, and on that same weekend 3 separate people walked by my house (when I was on the front porch) and said, “aren’t you crafty? Can I buy fabric masks from you?” I threw together a quick webshop to keep the orders straight and (this is a huge surprise to me) I’ve sold about 50 or 60 masks. I’ve also given away a bunch to people in my community who are always contributing. In an Instagram post I offered to share my pattern and materials research to anyone who wanted to sew their own. About 30 people inquired about that. It feels great to be able to offer something that’s actually useful during this time.

That’s a real advantage of being an agile, one-person operation: as a need or an opportunity comes up, I can pivot quickly and address it. And let’s be honest: I am also a collector of craft supplies from thrift stores so there’s no sign of me running out of mask making materials (and I haven’t bought anything new)…

 How do you hope to continue to provide your goods and services to your local community as this crisis develops?

I’m going to keep making how-to videos and accompanying supply kits. I really want people to keep crafting and to keep feeling like their creative work is important during this time. Because it is!

Author:

Sebastian Zinn has a B.A. in Comparative Literature with an allied field in Art History from Reed College. Since graduating in the Spring of 2018, he has been working as a freelance writer and editor covering a diverse range of topics, including visual and performance art, fashion, literature, film, music, healthcare and economics. He is currently producing social media and blog content for Portland Textile Month.