It takes about two hours to get from Amsterdam to Spannum, where felt maker Claudy Jongstra lives and works. According to Suzanne Oxenaar, artistic director of the Lloyd Hotel, the train is the best way to travel. "You get a real sense of the Dutch countryside," she says, drawing her hand horizontally through the air with a whistle: Dutch for "flat." I sit with Oxenaar in the capacious restaurant/common area at the Lloyd, where Jongstra is one of several Dutch artists and designers commissioned to furnish the place. In front of me, Jongstra’s Japanese-inspired shutters dress each of the double-height windows; to my left, a Jongstra-designed throw shrouds a leather sofa, looking much like the pelt of some fauvist beast, dyed in a hue that would shock Elsa Schiaparelli. Even from this cursory survey, it’s clear that despite the humbleness in material and process, Jongstra’s interpretation of felt, civilization’s oldest textile, is to be prized.
Jongstra meets me at the train station in Leeuwarden to take me to her studio in the outlying village of Spannum. As we drive out, the bustle of Leeuwarden gives way to what to me is a quixotic countryside, polders traced by tiny canals and punctuated by windmills and cattle. The move from Amsterdam to Spannum, which is in the province of Friesland, was a positive one, Jongstra explains, adding that despite the area’s relative provinciality, she likes the open space and being closer to her sheep. Other creative workshops, like Royal Tichelaar Makkum, are located nearby as well, ensuring that she and her team do not feel creatively marooned. When we arrive at her studio, which is composed of three buildings (her home, a small studio office, and the werkplaats where all of the felting is produced), I am surprised and charmed by its diminutive scale.
In the werkplaats, three women crowd around a metal table lined with plastic bubble wrap, wafting handfuls of raw silk onto its surface. The antediluvian gesture is contrasted by coils of blue tubing and the stainless steel components of the mechanized process Jongstra developed eight years ago. The team (six felters, two dyers, three designers, Jongstra, and a business manager) is hard at work fashioning 16,000 square feet of fabric that will cloak Claus en Kaan’s dome-shaped conference area for the House for Culture and Government in Nijverdal. It will take about four months for the felters to finish. Looking at the model, felt maker Geertje Harkema explains that the angles make this project particularly difficult. As felters and laypeople alike know, the mixture of wool and hot water—the basic process of felting—leads to shrinkage. When I ask what would happen if one of the pieces were to shrink, Harkema’s eyes widen and she smiles: "Well, we have to start over!"
Jongstra’s operation will soon include a natural dying component headed up by Marjo Moeyes, who studied and documented natural dying processes in Thailand for five years. "One of the challenges with the felt making was not to do it in the ‘hobbiesphere’ but to do it in a larger scale," explains Jongstra. By vertically integrating, she feels she’ll have more control over the final product. "This is really important," she explains, "because we want to ensure that this knowledge will be kept." Jongstra even hopes to grow Wouw, the flower that 17th-century Frieslanders used to dye their trousers and from which she derives a vibrant celadon-tinged yellow.
Jongstra keeps a flock of 200 sheep, 150 of which are indigenous Drenthe Heath sheep, a long-haired breed employed mainly for vegetation management. This is why they (and now we) are on the move, driving around the countryside, trying to contact the shepherd via a mobile phone. The humor is not lost on Jongstra, who laughs and rolls her eyes when we arrive at the wrong plot of land. Jongstra strives to run a thoughtful, creative company, but she is also a sharp businesswoman.
She hires people to maintain each component of the operation: shepherds, shearers, spinners, dyers, felters. At times, she admits, it’s a struggle to communicate her artistic vision to the spinners, who, by trade, strive for uniformity and precision in their thread. "I don’t like the thread to be like that," she explains. "I like the quality overspin. So it’s about finding the right language."
When asked how large she wants the business to get, she says, "Of course we have to grow, but it isn’t a question of how to grow. I think we want to do one or two big projects a year, and then just small work. You know, because what is your happiness?" "Worth" is lost in the translation, but I take her point. And for Jongstra’s patrons, her happiness is worth quite a lot. Murray Moss, founder of the New York shop Moss, sells a long, loosely knotted strand of hand-spun drenthe wool for $550. Michael Maharam, principal of the eponymous U.S.-based textiles manufacturer, says of his company’s collaboration with Jongstra, "We’re interested in exploring luxury right now—the luxury of simplicity." Jongstra’s overarching appeal suggests a collective desire for simplicity. The fact that consumers would find value in a strand of yarn that, to a traditional craftsperson, would be considered poorly spun and thus worthless, is telling.
Jongstra works in a medium that for centuries has existed in the realm of craft—craft being, in its very essence, artistry subordinate to function. But she is an artist who "likes to work with her hands" and hopes to create work that people live and interact with. One senses that she directs her company from a moral compass—what she feels is right and good, she deems best for her company. "It is a desire for me to do social works, which is why I keep these sheep," she says. "It seems that people can be touched by this process, and I think that’s important. I’m not talking in a missionary way or anything, but if I can change something by utilizing what is already around us, I feel lucky." She pauses for a minute. "In that way, it is a small mission."