Handmade: Fiber artist uses ancient technique to create work

Jocelynn Brown
The Detroit News
Mandisa Smith of Detroit Fiber Works wears her silk and wool Nuno felted poncho.

Creative individuals are usually on a never-ending search for ways to expand their skills as artists, no matter their current medium of choice.

As a metalsmith artist, known around town for creating beautifully handcrafted jewelry designed with precious metals, Mandisa Smith of Detroit recalls taking a class to sharpen her skills, and how it led her to add a different medium to her skill set.

"I was always looking for ways to improve my work, so I was taking a metalsmith class at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center (BBAC) in probably the early ’90s," she stated.

Then, one day, while flipping through BBAC's catalog, Smith said she came across information for a class in feltmaking. "I took the class," she said. "I bought a bunch of roving, and tried to make a hat. It came out really bad, so I put the stuff away and forgot about it for years." 

Following that time period, the need for the perfect accessory gave her the idea to try her hand at feltmaking, once again. It took only a second try for the determined artist to produce a piece of felted fabric she could be proud to wear -- and not just anywhere, but to Bal African, a black-tie gala that was held annually for many years at the Detroit Institute of Arts, attracting a long list of notables.

"I had this gorgeous dress but I didn't want to expose my back. So, I was looking for a shawl and something said, I could felt one. I don't know why I thought that because I hadn't felted in years," she said. "I did it that day. Felting is an activity where you need to pay attention to ergonomics. By the time I finished, I was in so much pain from being bent over so long, but the shawl turned out beautifully. I wore it that night and got so many compliments."

A framed piece of felt art, created by Mandisa Smith of Detroit Fiber Works.

She attributes her success the second time around to the fact that the piece was only two dimensional.

"After that, I was inspired to continue felting because I got so many compliments, and because I liked it so much. The thing I love about felting is that it's impossible to make the same thing twice," said the fiber artist, who prefers not replicating any of her work. "I can make something similar, but everything I make is unique and one of a kind. That makes it more special to me and the person who gets it."

Since taking "other felting courses with instructors from all over the world -- Australia, Japan, and the Netherlands," Smith is now able to produce amazing garments, wall hangings, hats, neck scarves, shawls, bowls, baby booties, wrist warmers, and more.

She doesn't limit her feltmaking to wool roving. "I'm always looking for ways to stretch my work, so I combine my wool with other kinds of materials. I combine it with copper mesh, plastic netting from bags, (etc.). I'm just always looking for new ways to make things that are really interesting and different."  

Smith, 65, is the co-owner of Detroit Fiber Works, a gallery and boutique at 19359 Livernois in Detroit. She opened the business in 2013 with fellow fiber artist Najma Ma'at Wilson of Detroit, after they won a contest sponsored by the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, which was aimed at bringing "new businesses to the Avenue of Fashion on Livernois." She sometimes uses the space to share her feltmaking skills by instructing classes. "We did a "Felted Adinkra Symbols" class in February, and they were frameable."

Framed pieces of felt art, created by Mandisa Smith of Detroit Fiber Works.

How are the felted African symbols made? "We create a piece of flat felt first. Then we cut the symbol out of that and lay that shape onto several layers of roving and felt it all together so it becomes one piece," explained Smith. "There's no separation. It looks like one piece of fabric. These symbols have meaning, not just beauty. So, around Kwanzaa, people are always looking for something that connects them in that way." 

The two-hour felting class is $40, plus a $5 fee for materials. The finished project measures about 5-7 inches in height. Felting classes at the studio will be held again starting in the fall. 

Classes at Detroit Fiber Works have also featured other fiber art instructors -- from dollmakers to feltmakers. "A few months ago, we brought in a woman (from Zambia) who goes around the world teaching felting," said Smith.

Trunk shows are another attraction at Detroit Fiber Works. This weekend, Nigerian artist and fashion designer Jimi King will showcase his one-of-a-kind wearable art creations, from 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sat. and Sun.  

Although operating Detroit Fiber Works has been “real challenging” lately -- with complete redesign of Livernois and removal of the median -- Smith said, “I don’t regret this adventure. We’ve evolved from being primarily a gallery featuring work by local artists to a boutique with a focus on local designers.” 

Detroit News columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, or 

Contact Detroit Fiber Works at (313) 610-5111 or visit Email:

Mandisa Smith of Detroit Fiber Works shows a Nuno felted dress.