By Ramona Branch —
Rebecca Welsh lives in a house full of flowers…flowers she makes. She’s a felt maker. She and her business partner, Lesley Hansard, own HWD Felt, which stands for Hansard Welsh Design. Behind this thriving international company are several layers of serendipity.
Back in 1996 two free-spirited young women, one from the southern hemisphere and the other from the northern hemisphere, met on a small barrier island in Massachusetts. Both had spent their childhoods dreaming away the days and filling them with images of exotic, faraway places, animals, plants and fanciful folk art. Instantly they recognized in each other a similar sense of spirit and independence.
Seeking to fulfill their need to avoid a 9-5 lifestyle, they joined creative forces and formed Hansard Welsh Design, a small felt making company specializing in wearable art. Each woman made products, Rebecca in her home studio in Dublin and Lesley in Kensington. They handled all the PR and sold the product at renowned craft shows, which included the Smithsonian Craft Show, the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show and others. A buyer for the Smithsonian Catalog saw their work at the New York International Gift Show, which led to their being included in the offerings in the museum’s catalog. During this time they were also fortunate to run in to Martha Stewart at a 5th Avenue shop while they were wearing some of their work. Martha like it and invited them to appear on her TV show.
After 15 years of making product in their home studios they grew weary of meeting daily production schedules. (If you have ever seen a hand felt making demonstration then you know just how much energy it takes.) Rebecca and Lesley began asking themselves, “How much longer can we, or do we want to, keep this up?” Almost magically —like an answered prayer sort of thing — a felt maker who owned a shop in Nepal sent them an email saying, “I found your company on the internet…love your work…can we work together?” Breathless and eager, they sent him several prototypes for his shop to replicate. When they received his copies of their prototypes they were not happy so they flew to Kathmandu and spent ten days teaching the shop workers how to make their products to meet their high quality standards. In 2008, HWD Felt joined forces with this small Nepal felt making workshop to begin mass production of their product.
The product is big and bold single flowers, i.e., chrysanthemums, poppies, day lilies, peonies and lotus on hats, slippers, handbags, pillows, journal covers, holiday decorations and jewelry.
Today the vastly expanded operations work with four felt making shops with some 120 felt makers. Many of the felt makers are women who are members of women’s cooperatives.
HWS Felt products are sold online, in catalogs, and in retail shops. To learn more about HWD Felt and see the whimsical flower designs go to www.hwdfelt.com.
Ramona Branch is a freelance writer and editor and is on the staff of the Advocate.