Hazards of Being a Fiber Artist

What are the Dangers of Creating Art with Fibers?

Being a teddy bear artist or needle felter  is not all fun and games.  Sure, you get to bring darling little creatures made of fibers to life.  Sounds simple and safe, right?

Helpful Safety Tools

  1. Tool Caddy
  2. Wrist Pin Cushion
  3. Magnet on a Stick
  4. Face Masks
  5. Lint Remover
  6. Vacuum Cleaner with crevice or keyboard attachments

Beware of Sharp Objects

Most obviously, you are working with sharp pointy objects. I once was working on bears with tools all over my table. Somehow, I managed to knock a very sharp scissors off the table and it landed with one blade stuck in my leg!  There was blood. My husband rushed me to the Urgent Care where they fixed me up. I still have a scar to remind me to be careful. Now I have a jar or vase or some container handy to keep those pointy tools corralled and I put them back in whenever I am not using them!

Then there are pins and needles. When my kids were young, I often worked in the family room so I could be with them. I’d stick pins and needles in the arm of my chair or couch. That could be painful and I stopped doing it when my little boy got big enough that he wouldn’t fit in my armchair with me and started snuggling beside me on the chair arm.

The handiest place to store your needle when you are moving around is often in your shirt. If your hands are full and you need a place, that shirt (or whatever you are wearing) front is always there. Trouble is, if you make a wrong move, you can stab yourself! There is also the possibility of sending it through the wash. Heaven knows where that would end up. Wearing a wrist pin cushion gives you a handy place to stick those pins and needles

Of course, many of these weapons end up on the floor. They are not always easy to see down there, depending on the surface. A magnet on a long handle is a good tool to have in your defense arsenal.

Hand Injury

The small, often repetitive, motions involved in creating many fiber art pieces can result in injury to your hands and wrists. Carpal tunnel syndrome is the most well-known condition. You can develop cramps in your hands and fingers, numbness, joint pain, etc. Taking frequent breaks and varying your activities can help prevent wear and tear on your hands. There are many braces or gloves on the market that will help relieve these problems if you already have them. Topical ointments can also help.  See your doctor for advice and treatment.

Fibers are Forever

The next hazard is the very materials you use. You are working with fibers.  Fibers separate and float in the air.  It’s easy to breathe them in to your nose and lungs. Wearing a face mask is a good habit to form. Post pandemic, this should be a piece of cake!

I knew a woman who made and sold an incredible number of bears per year. She had a real production line going. She and her husband cut out so many bears that there was fur flying everywhere. Her husband solved most of that problem by cutting a slot in a table for a shop vacuum. Cut pieces were passed over the vacuum slot and the loose fur fiber was sucked away! Necessity is truly the mother of invention!

If you are making small pieces or needle-felting, you might find that sticky lint removers or a vacuum cleaner nozzle designed for cleaning keyboards or other small spaces will work for you.

Find Time for Fitness

Being a fiber artist is mostly a sedentary occupation.  Ever try to sew or needle felt while standing up or walking?  Then there are the increasingly necessary jobs of updating your website and keeping up your marketing efforts on social media. The human body is not designed for sitting for long periods and it can lead to all kinds of health problems.

Years ago I attended a presentation by an artist who explained how she made so many teddy bears.  Basically, each day, she got herself situated in a recliner with her materials all around her and did not move out of that chair for hours. I would be surprised if she is alive and healthy today. You certainly do not hear about her making bears, so maybe she gave up that sedentary lifestyle.

Set up a schedule for working that includes regular breaks for taking a walk, going to the gym, dancing, gardening, or however you  prefer to incorporate activity into your routine. Nowadays there is really no excuse for spending long hours seated at your work. You can ask your home virtual assistant to remind you or set a reminder on your smart phone or fitness tracker.

Be Safe, Have Fun

I hope if you take some of these precautions, you will be healthy and happy creating with fibers! If you have some more tips for the fiber artist community, please respond in the comments below.

Farewell to an Industry Legend – Steve Schutt May 15, 1950 – March 19, 2017

On Sunday, March 19, teddy bear artist, friend and mentor, Steve Schutt passed away after a long illness. He had a number of health problems over the years and had retired from bear-making. A former art teacher and avid puppeteer, he was the founder of the Iowa Teddy Bear Makers’ Guild and the Teddy Bear Reunion in the Heartland in his hometown of Clarion, Iowa. He asked me to work with him to produce one last Teddy Bear Reunion for June, 2015. Despite our hard work, his health was a determining factor in cancelling that event.

A gentle and humble man, Steve inspired us to create art through his teaching and example. Like many others, he helped me to enter the crazy world of collectable artist teddy bears.

SteveinWorkshopI took this photo of him two years ago when I helped him clean out his studio in preparation for selling his house. It was a difficult time for him, but despite his pain and frustration, to the world, he presented his gracious smiling self.

He asked me to continue the Teddy Bear Reunion in the Heartland tradition in the Des Moines area. If you knew Steve, you would know that it was hard to refuse him. I said yes and Prim Folk Fest is a result of that promise.

I can only hope to live up to a fraction of Steve’s vision and familiar charge to “Be Magic!”

One of Those Award-Winning Bears

AwardWinnerArtists enter many contests at shows allowing conventioneers to choose their favorites in different categories. This time at Kansas Cty Jubilee, it was my turn to win in the miniature category.  The winner was my little brown mohair clown bear – four inches tall.  He and his ribbon now reside with a collector in the Kansas City area.

Souvenir Bears for the 25th Annual Kansas City Teddy Bear Jubilee

The 25th Annual Kansas City Teddy Bear Jubilee had a unique concept for souvenir bears. They asked artists who had made souvenir bears in the past to do a set of 5 bears. Conventioneers would be allowed to pick which bear they wanted. Terri Larson and I had each made convention souvenir bears in the past and we also collaborated with Joel Hoy in our Once Upon a Needle group to make souvenirs another year. So we all elected to do a piece. This meant that Terri and I made a lot more bears than Joel. How did that happen?

We decided out joint piece would be a scarecrow since the show had a fall theme. Terri made the heads and passed them on to me. I sewed on the ears and made the bodies and attached them. This was interesting because I had not made a ragdoll body for a bear before. I then passed the bears on to Joel who created the costumes.

Terri made these cute Autumn Clown bears in a basket of tiny “pumpkins”. I loved them so much, that’s the one I picked for my own!

And finally, here are my little Autumnal Bears with a collar of leaves and an acorn and holding their “25” tag in honor of the 25th Anniversary.

Artist Challenges

Over the years, my bear-making friends and I have participated in many group challenges.  When the organizers of Kansas City Jubilee were loobellhop challenge bearking for a program to present for conventioneers at the 25th Jubilee, Joel Hoy, Terri Larson and I dug into our collections and photo files to put together a fun and entertaining program.

Joel was in charge because he does really well speaking before a group and also because I was teaching a Make ‘n Take workshop that same day and Terri was unable to come to the convention.  It was a trip down memory lane when we laid out the samples we had brought. I had forgotten about some of these things I had made!

As far as I can remember, the bell hop was made incorporating the bell, a bottle cap which was the base for the hat, and the button which became his badge.


Types of Challenges

Challenges were issued and results revealed whenever friends gathered at a show.  Some of them were:

  • Make a bear incorporating items from a package – identical packages were given to each participant
  • Make up your own package of items and then draw for another artist’s pack to make your piece.  The Artist who provided the items received the finished product.
  • Mythical creature
  • Other animal you haven’t tried before
  • Use a material you haven’t tried before
  • Incorporate a new technique you’d like to learn

This lion was made from an “other animal” challenge when I was given the mauve fur. You can’t see the tail, but the tip is also the longer mohair. I further challenged myself to make him a nice open mouth.



There were also challenges for two or more artists collaborating on a piece that would be offered for sale or at auction for charity. Terri Larson and I made many fun pieces for Kansas City Jubilee inspired by Daniel Epley’s wild imagination.  Sometimes we also enlisted the woodworking skills of Terri’s dad, Dick Chloupek.

Here's one that came from Terri Larson's imagination. Terri made the little boy bear pretending to be an inspector and I made his hound. This was way out of my usual scale, I hadn't made a dog before and I hadn't made a figure posed and unjointed, either.

Here’s one that came from Terri Larson’s imagination. Terri made the little boy bear pretending to be an inspector and I made his hound. This was way out of my usual scale, I hadn’t made a dog before and I hadn’t made a figure posed and unjointed, either.


Full Time or Part Time Artist?

A fellow needle-felter posted the question on Facebook the other day.  Is needle-felting a full-time job, part-time or hobby?

I know she meant “do you support yourself by selling your needle-felted art?” and I think I can say that not very many people can manage that.  When I was a full-time teddy bear artist, my children were small and we wanted them to have a full-time stay-at-home mom.  Teddy bear making allowed me to stay home, but did I make enough money to support myself, let alone my family?   No.  It was extra income, but not very much.  I travelled a lot and spent a lot of time creating product and marketing it.  It allowed for some extras for our children and some discretionary spending money for me, but my husband’s full-time job and benefits provided our support. Eventually, I had to give up a lot of my teddy bear making and spend my days at a “real job” with a regular paycheck and benefits.  This coincided with a downturn in the economy that led to less discretionary spending, fewer people who could be active collectors, shows and shops that went out of business…a downturn in the collectibles market. So things worked out.

Right now, most of my art is donated to raise money for charitable causes.  I don’t have much time to make things.  In fact, I had an order that took me over a year to complete, but that’s another story.

Needle-felting has really taken off in the years since I started sculpting with wool.  When I started, nobody knew what it was.  They liked what I did, but I didn’t really know how to price things, so I priced them the same as my mohair pieces.  I sold whatever I made, but I didn’t make very much.  Now, there is so much wonderful needle-felted artwork out there!  I really want to get back to work!

Back to full-time vs. hobbyist.  I think if you are an artist, you are an artist all the time. At the office, I sculpt with words, I design graphics and forms and coax code into web pages. I choose promotional items that support and reinforce our brand.  At home, I paint with plants in my garden.  I photograph my flowers and dogs and use those images to convey messages. I am always creating, taking pieces and molding them into something else, but it’s not always with some kind of needle.  I tell stories – sometimes intentionally and sometimes by accident. There is an art to all of it. So yes, I am a full-time artist.

Does selling or at least trying to sell your work make you a full-time artist?  Is the benchmark how much your earnings contribute to your support?