Needle felt a sheep: Nitpicking details

Mr. Handsome RAM is currently  2 weeks in progress….nearly done.   He’s the first I’ve made with hard clay horns instead of wool wrapped, and I really enjoy this look.  More horned rams will attend future shows, that’s a certainty.

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I was trying to replicate a photo I’d seen of a Soay ram out in the field.  The darker phase, with the bouffant fleece all sun-bleached at the tips.  I love that bicolor effect.

The sheep began with a stiff wire armature in 18 gauge floral wire.  It helps to examine a diagram of sheep skeleton and muscle anatomy – all of which takes time.  One could just create an oval blob for the body & stick on wool curls, but I never do.  My sheep bodies look properly sheep-shape before fleece is ever attached.  Here is a goat for example, though he remained a green goat, just because I liked the look of it.  He was more of an art sculpture that I beaded and kept for myself.  He’s got goaty angular hips, a proper belly and (up close anyway) a spinal ridge such as I’ve seen on a live goat.

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Wrap the wire with fuzzy pipe-cleaners to help subsequent wool wrap grip the wire.  The body is wrapped thicker than the legs; well anchored with a bajillion needle pokes.  Next I built up musculature by needling ‘pads’ of wool and attaching it where belly, haunches or shoulders required.  One pad after another until the shape is pleasing.  Examine many photos of shorn sheep so you see the rounded belly, indents at legs & crotch, bump of the chest, knobby hip tops, etc.  Practice, practice, practice.  I’m always trying to perfect a variety of small details, for the realism.

Here’s an earlier (incomplete) sheep prior to application of wool curls. It’s a Balwen Welsh Mtn sheep with their white socks, tail tip & facial blaze.  Black wool sun-kissed brown at the tips.

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While light needle felting core wool is often most affordable, sometimes its just easier to build the whole thing out of brown, rather than all the work required to cover the whiter base wool.  Mostly I use whichever wool on hand will obtain the best result.  Always I choose the “skin color” to match the subsequent topcoat curl color.  Here’s a sheep meant to wear white curls when it’s body is complete.  As a whimsical Knitting Sheep, she’ll sit upright.

Mr. Ram is proving to be quite a challenge, as he began with no horns.  The decision to ADD horns after his main shape was complete meant a lobotomy, to expose the head wire and attach horn wire securely.  Threaded the horn wire thru the head loop, twisted tight, and applied superglue for good measure.  After I laboriously wrapped the horns with wool – which looked good & would have sufficed – I had a notion instead to try hard horns of clay.  So I cut OFF the wool wrap.  Ditto for the legs; changing to darker color.  Here waiting for the clay to harden overnight before secure the wool back in place.  Horns of various shape, texture & color will be another future subject of study.

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These horns are an epoxy clay, though I also use various types of hard, air-dry clay.  The internet has several DIY formulas and it’s good to experiment.  Some clays have shrink factor that leaves wrinkles and wobbles, which is okay for imperfect horns, less satisfying for hooves.  I found the epoxy clay rather futzy, but I’ll continue to use it.  Painted the horns various colors of brown, smearing here & there for good effect.

Moved on to insertion of glass eyes.  From teddy bear skills of years past, I know how to loop a glass eye wire, and anchor it internally with carefully hidden knots covered to leave no palpable lump.  The internet abounds with step-by-step tutorials; I’m just nattering on about the myriad nitpicking aspects of assembling this entire creation.  A bit of dark eye outline and paler surrounding area are the Soay sheep facial characteristics.

Deciding which fleece to use pained me, since my favorite choice was so-full-of-debris!  Arrrgghh!   It took days pulling apart tufts of fleece to preserve the pale tips, then tweezering out the bits.  You know what?  THIS sheep has got authenticity.   REAL sheep have debris, so there!  I tried to extricate it all, but a gal can endure so much.  (Also toward authenticity, since it is a ram, there’s…um…a full pkg underneath.  Just sayin’).

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One fiddly step after another.  Next up is layering the tufts of fleece, like shingles on a roof.  Begin underneath.  Don’t skimp on anchoring the wool.  See the length of the tufts?  Let’s say ~ stretched a bit ~ it’s about 3″  Fully 1/2 to 2/3rds gets anchored into the body.  Could human (or pet dog) pull it off?  With effort, sure.  Point is: it won’t fall off all by itself.     Now we’re making progress.  Mind you I’m on the 4th night of applying fleece, anchoring with another bajillion needle pokes in multiple directions.  If it’s meant to look great and last a good long time; it’s worth the care and effort.

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I could labor this far and stop…but no.  I look at wooly sheep photos.  Even through a full coat there is discernible body shape.  Tucking and needling bits will further define front & back legs, and the roundness of the belly.  Sometimes even the ridge of the spine.

I’m done for the night, though the neck & head need completion.  That’s okay.  It’s work to look forward to tomorrow.  There’ll be adjustments, tweaking the wool, needling and snipping, fussing over bitty details.

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Already I can hardly wait to begin the next sculpture; a JACOB, because if I can make 2 horns, why not try FOUR?  Plus hey, Jacobs have polka dots.  There’s an irresistible combination.  Or perhaps a Merino, with their big rolls of wool & wrinkly faces?

https://www.facebook.com/whimsy.ewe (full disclaimer:  my FB page is heavily slanted toward irate political opinion at the moment.  I’m striving to recover a sense of calm, but it’s currently a struggle.  Patience, please… it could take a whole 4 yrs).

Edited to observe:  Drat!  I concentrated on 1 particular Soay ram photo which ~ due to angle ~ didn’t show the distinctive marking of paler belly and rear end.  I now have to choose whether to leave the ram as is, or dissect the belly & rear leg area to attach the lighter fleece.  Sigh…… so many nitpicking details.  But… I still I love this work!

Update: Yessss I carefully ripped out the belly wool to replace dark with lighter fleece.  So well had I anchored the first layer, it was actually quite difficult to remove.  I’m curiously proud of that fact.   Anyway the lighter belly looks more authentic.   Glad I did it.

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