Felted Hearts with Anne Vinsel

We get a lot of phone calls here at NEFS: customers with technical questions over my head that Trish gracefully answers; product questions that, one year later, I can finally answer with confidence; such as, “WHERE IN THE WORLD ARE YOU?!?!” ; and more. I expect our customers to be intelligent and creative, and Anne Vinsel is no exception. She has used needle felting for a most fascinating project, and so I decided to write a big, fat blog post about her story and her innovative use of NEFS supplies! She was as generous with her time as she is creative with her work, so I hope you take the time to read her story!

Until recently, Anne was trouble shooting in a medical photography and residency program at a large medical center.  She’s “dissected, photographed body cavities w/organs, etc.” In her spare time, Anne has been felting off and on for many years.  She was most unfortunately introduced to the process when her mother washed her cashmere sweaters in hot water, “even after I begged and pleaded.”  A true artist, she did want to throw such soft material away, and so she started making anatomically correct door decoration hearts for Valentine’s Day presents.  (“It’s ok,” she says. “My friends are mostly medical and they thought it was hysterical.”)  Since then, every year she makes door hearts using different mediums, “from litho crayon on three-d etching paper to knitted to oil or encaustic on panels.”  She now sells between ten and a dozen a year, to coworkers from cardiologists to cardiothoracic surgeons, pathology lab people to secretaries, and to a neurosurgeon who was “disappointed I didn’t do brains, janitors, etc.” They are popular around the office: “People bring their office friends and neighbors, and the people who do handwork are very curious about how I’ve done this or that. They knock on the door and ask questions, or order, or just compliment me. It’s fun.”

Anne heard about NEFS in an avenue worthy of our age: she googled “needle felting equipment and supplies” and liked that we were a “serious and also more art-oriented and less crafty and kid oriented, more my sensibility, than the other sites.”  In addition, she was attracted to our use of local sheep, because she had been using wool from local corriedale sheep.  She is also so allergic to polyester and other artificially made molecules that she loves our wool, cotton, silk, and bamboo. She uses our olive oil soap (so gentle that she doesn’t have any allergic reactions), has no rashes from our needle felting foam, and  loves the glass washboard for fulling. She says, “I am a materials snob and like working with things that feel good. Your wool is well suited to my projects. Your stuff is lovely to work with, and your customer service is kind of amazing. I originally called Trish just to ask her what she would recommend for a top coat on the first needled heart, and look what happened!”

With a most exciting request from a relative, Anne began needle felting anatomically correct hearts.  They wanted to teach trainees how to do medical stitching after making incisions with sharp scissors or scalpels, and the anatomy of hearts lent themselves to needle felting, because they “have tubes/vessels, concave and convex surfaces, [and] they’re a good size to practice on if you do them 150-200% natural size.”  Also, they can be needled together and “re-used [like] a self-healing cutting mat.” There are other ways to practice (computer simulations or even using bananas!), but none is as unique as the actual human body. Her customers also like to give her felted hearts as toys to their children who are interested in medical school: “They can play with something that isn’t as icky as a beef or pig heart, but still learn to suture. It is kind of a parent-kid bonding teaching situation.”  Hearts are close to her heart (pun ABSOLUTELY intended).  As she says, “I’ll never forget watching my first open heart surgery, and seeing the heart pink up after it was taken off by-pass. As close as I expect to get to some kind of miracle of life experience.”

Like so many artists before her, Anne turned to NEFS for some advice as her projects became more advanced.  Now, people reach out to her around Thanksgiving for orders– “they take longer than pies!”– And she wondered what to use for the top layer rather than NEFS’ core wool.  Now she’s excited for the clean finish of bright white C-1.  People also appreciate natural colors, her “bad-boy friends” prefer black Daisy, and the rest want a “Valentine-red.” One cardiologist even wants white ones with pearls for bridesmaid gifts!


            So why is needle felting her medium of choice? According to Anne, it “works like reconstructive surgery… Partially felted roving or batting acts a lot like human tissue, which has the texture of thawed out chicken breast or steak, depending on which part you’re talking about.”   Humans are probably more or less turbeefens, if that makes any sense. So one thing I do is build large vessels on easily accessible parts of the heart, for example make pulmonary veins on the front surface of the heart (they belong on the back), then snip them off when they’re almost done and move them to the more crowded back. I stole the idea from reconstructive plastic surgeons who will make an ear on a patient’s belly to keep the connection with little feeder blood vessels, then when it’s time for the next operation they will take the ear off the belly and put it on the head.”  Organs in the body would be hard to mimic with a flat material, but needle felting is perfect for the organic shapes.  By needling at different angles, she doesn’t need to cut, paste, or dart as she otherwise would.  Anne is interested in accuracy but also abstraction, and so her hearts are useful for medicine but may not be entirely accurate.  “I’m not crazy about total accuracy and perfect proportions, don’t think of them as scientific models. [But] if you look at a bunch of plaster models, they’re all stylized too.”

At the end of her email (which was packed with so much information that this blog post took longer than usual to write!), she writes, “I’m off to roast a chicken now, hmm…a roasting chicken in felt, life size, would work for Thanksgiving on the door, wouldn’t it, and it would be fun to figure out how to do those crazy little bumps in the skin!”  Spoken like a true felter, no?


For some inspiration, here are her future projects, taken directly from the source!


–hearts that open like clam shells and close with a button and loop, so people can get into the chambers, valves, etc. If I had a collection of antique watches that wind, I would keep them in a heart, tick tock.

–possibly a heart with parts’ names embroidered, for learning purposes (aorta, etc.)

–hearts with open vessels that go all the way through, so you could drop a ball bearing in the aorta and massage it around and have it come out the inferior vena cava, also for learning purposes. sort of interactive learning toys for the med student in your life.


P.S. Why hearts and what else is in store?


“I like hearts because they have a combination of strong form at the bottom branching logically into tubes up top. It reminds me of wrought iron, where you split things. I do have friends who favor lungs/bronchi ( have one of those going in your core wool with a really beautiful dark grey over it, which everyone who sees it says, “Oh, I get it, black lung!”), plastic surgeon organs like noses and ears, nephrologists and endocrinologists like kidneys. I have a friend who does facial reconstruction after cancer or trauma and he is very intrigued. We will probably collaborate on something soon. My hospital has almost 20k people and we have 73 residency programs so I don’t expect to run out of ideas soon. One loose goal is to make one of those Visible Man/Woman type dolls (lifesize or bigger) with organs and maybe wet felt a beautiful black sheep body bag to carry them in. Unzip the bag and lay the parts out on a table to learn how everything fits together. That should keep me busy for a while.”



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