ALAMEDA -- Patty Benson has a most extraordinary occupation. It harks back to ancient China and thrusts forward into washing-machine cycles. It involves "fulling" and rolling around in bubble wrap. The reality of actual and would-be espionage means she's secretive, refusing to divulge her trade secrets. Give up?
Benson is a felter.
The 36-year-old Alameda resident and owner/founder since 2007 of Papaver Vert (pronounced "puh-PAY-ver V-air"), sculpts ingenious, handmade products from wool. She's been selling her goods like bonanzas ever since placing them at the online marketplace Etsy.
"It's grown like mad. I sold two things in my first month," she said in an interview following her latest leap up the artisan retail ladder. Benson was invited to display her designs at the fifth annual "Artwear at the de Young," the San Francisco museum's two-day sale of the Bay Area's best wearable art.
"It was the first time I've shown just jewelry," Benson recalled. "It was definitely my crowd. Museum shops do well with my work."
Indeed, her nesting bowls, coaster sets, pincushions, pillows, vases and jewelry have fine art forms and the exquisite colors of a keen-eyed designer. A surprisingly light, bubble-cuffed bracelet ($58), looks sturdy and substantial in a rich, leaf green shade. And the red center nestled in a "Roly Dot Bowl" ($28) sets off its woolly white surroundings as boldly as the item's claims to "never break" and to be eternally "renewable" with the swift application of a dust-freeing shake or a vacuuming. Every item begs the question: How can something so soft be so substantial? With her expanding line, the successful entrepreneur may soon need an intern. But Benson is a humble artist self-driven to perfection and is more likely to apprentice herself than to step into a teaching role.
"I've given workshops, but it makes me nervous to do it. I want to know more about what I'm doing before I give back and teach," she said.
Benson remembered making "horrible Barbie clothes" and endlessly rearranging her room as a child. Hand-stitched cross-hatching designs on her clothing pegged her as "definitely not cool." But she didn't care. She loved home and fashion and took that passion into a career as a Crate & Barrel visual designer and an assistant designer for Old Navy. Then, the bubble burst.
"I guess Papaver Vert is me, rebelling against the fashion world," she said. "I quit that world and was working part-time, restoring antique rugs more valuable than my car and crocheting. I got a book, went online, took classes."
Benson taught herself how to transform the structural knots of crochet into fuzzy, three-dimensional sculptures ("fulling") and the ancient practice of "felting," subjecting raw wool to heat, moisture and pressure to create a solid material. Both processes start with rigorous pulling: separating tufts of material and placing them in alternating, perpendicular layers. The finer the layers, the finer the end product. An application of water and olive oil soap prevents the water's beading off and precedes crocheting, agitating in a washing machine, form fitting and overnight drying.
"They come out looking hairy, pretty scary," she admitted. "I trim them with scissors and steam them with an iron."
Sounds almost easy, but her pillows require an additional, strenuous bubble wrap procedure.
"The pillows? The last ones I made, I had to spend three hours rolling them," she said. Placed between layers of bubble wrap and requiring enough water that Benson joked it's a good thing she's married to a plumber, in case there's a flood, she literally leans on and rolls the material back and forth until no fibers can be pulled from the dense weave. With her bowls, necklaces and other free-form vessels taking off, Benson is letting the pillows rest, for the time being.
"I'd like to expand more into the home, though," she countered. "And I'm in love with "sashiko," Japanese hand-stitching. Needle and thread are just magnetic to me."
With a gathering media storm -- Papaver Vert has received mention in Sunset magazine, The New York Times, American Craft Council Online and more -- Benson is determined to control her artisan, one-of-a-kind creations.
"I love wool, I love the labels I designed for each item. My hands make the same raw wool felting found preserved in ice in ancient China," she marveled.
So if she's less fond of rolling in bubble wrap, perhaps that's OK. There's a world of pleasure in the gentle, curving embrace of Benson's soft, organically shaped nesting bowls and necklaces.