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Material shows the right pattern

Jane Norrie joins pupils in making felt after visiting a swimwear exhibition.

Undress'd for the Beach is the light-hearted title given to a temporary exhibition currently at Fareham, Hampshire. A historical review of seaside costume, the display shows the way swimwear has evolved over the past hundred years from the knitted woollen over-skirted costumes of the Victorians to the bright bikinis and one-pieces of today's scene.

For the school group I joined of 14 and 15-year-olds from Woolston School, Southampton, the most eye-catching designs proved to be the psychedelic polyester mini-bikinis from the 1970s. Another show-stealing exhibit is a contemporary piece in felt commissioned from textile artist Sarah Brooker. Incorporating design elements from across the 100 year timespan, Brooker's costume links the history of swimwear with contemporary practice.

The exhibition at Westbury Manor was curated by Hampshire County Museums Service who not only commissioned Sarah Brooker to design a costume but also to run a series of felt workshops for schools. Education officer for the Service, Susan Jessop, explained that felt is able to be interpreted in different ways by groups of different abilities. Perhaps more importantly, felt was chosen because its manufacture had just become part of the national curriculum.

The visit to the exhibition, where the students looked at patterns and shapes and made drawings as triggers to ideas, formed the introduction to our one-day felt workshop. The rest of the day was spent back in school. There, 13 mixed ability pupils including two boys, all on the first year of a GCSE textiles course, gathered round to watch a felt-making demonstration.

Felt is made from fine fleece, often from sheep. Reduced to its basics the process involves layering the teased fleece onto calico, "agitating" the surface by adding a cup of hot water and a sprinkling of detergent to bond it together (like cooking said Brooker), then "milling" it, rolling it out with a rolling pin and pressing it with the flat of your hands. This is the time-consuming part of the process and in some workshops pupils do it by treading the material with their feet. At the layering stage the fleece can be blended with "carders", twisted or plaited: it can be neatly folded to give a straight edge or feathered for a more exotic look: mohair, silk, beads, sequins or lustred threads can also be added.

We were surrounded by hanks of fleece in bright primary colours but I found it hard to imagine that they could be transformed into anything worthwhile in the course of a single school day. Judging by their tentative beginnings I had the impression most of the group thought the same way. But the soft tactile qualities and vivid colours of the fleece soon proved beguiling and a hive of activity ensued.

Pupils were inspired to do their own thing: some dropped turquoise and gold snippings onto a white ground, others laid out precise spirals in sun and flower shapes. Others again blended the colours together like marbling on paper. Some were content to make a felt picture, abstract or else sun and sea-inspired: the more ambitious used moulds to create shapes, so that almost miraculously by the end of the day wide-brimmed hats, drawstring bags, a giant glove and petal-covered swim-hat, had appeared. Except for a slipper executed in black and white, all glowed with colour and once dry can be embroidered and decorated.

Textiles has only recently been introduced as a GCSE subject at Woolston in order to widen the technology options. Teacher Rhoda Lansley has already taken textiles students to the NEC Clothes Show but this was the group's first workshop. In her opinion it was "a wonderful day for the students. Seeing the exhibition gave them an awareness of the history of seaside fashion. It also gave them the chance to meet a practising artist whose work they had seen, and lastly the experience not just of making felt but of being really creative. "

Another noteworthy aspect of the day was that both the exhibition and workshop were organised by the County Museum Service and came free to the school. Rather than being centralised the exhibition is one of a number being toured round five or six of the county's museums over a two or three year period. (Subsequently it will be offered outside Hampshire). This means that in all more than 120 pupils a year will be able to take part in the felt workshops.

Hampshire Museums Service: 01962 846315.

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