Des Moines-based artist expresses femininity through felt


Nicole Hasek

“Seanbhean na Phrairie/ Old Woman of the Prairie” was created in 2022 with felted wool. The button is for Irish Gaelic pronunciation.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated as the event date was postponed.

After growing up with talented art teachers, Cynthia O’Hern found her passion in the design and art world. She then studied at Pratt Institute in New York and is self-taught in felt making.

At the Octagon Center, O’Hern will be displaying her exhibit, “Snáithín Baineannach/Feminine Fiber,” until Feb. 25. She will be hosting a felting class at the exhibit on Feb. 23.

“She uses felt, and not many people have done felting where you take a needle and felt, which is basically just raw wool that hasn’t been spun into a yarn,” said Terrie Hoefer, Octagon Shop director. “She’s going to come, and you’ll get to do some felting basics with the artist.”

In order to teach herself this art form, she spent months watching Polish YouTube videos and started with easy projects. She first made slippers and pots then transitioned into garment making as her skill advanced.

O’Hern finds beauty in felt making, as she sees a balance of masculinity and femininity.

“Women have such a long tradition of working with fiber that it feels like this very soft, intuitive process to begin with,” O’Hern said. “It’s beautifully balanced by the actual felt making process, which is very labor intensive.”

After using felt as a way to design garments, she decided to stop making felt items for her shop and create art pieces and figures that speak to her.

“I conspire with the medium,” O’Hern said. “In its rawest form, sheep’s wool is a material that grows on the body of an animal, and what are we but animals that are covered in hair? There’s this kindred relationship between our physical bodies and the raw material of sheep’s wool.”

This relationship is what draws her to felt making. She does not feel the connection with other mediums, such as paint, charcoal or ink.

The title of the exhibit, “Snáithín Baineannach,” is the Irish Gaelic idol, translating to feminine fiber. O’Hern created this exhibit to express the feminine experience as she and other women have lived it.

“Bringing the feminine fiber back into our own lives and to recognize it in the figures and see what comes up for the viewer when they’re reflecting upon this in their mind,” O’Hern said.

Two pieces, “Sreabhadh Ionam/ Flow Within Me” and “Seanbhean na Phrairie/ Old Woman of the Prairie,” were heavily influenced by the Cailleach from Celtic mythology. After studying this tribal mother and divine hag, O’Hern channeled her into herself and her work for these pieces.

“I used wool from more sheep than I could even count,” O’Hern said. “There was blood, sweat, tears and many months of chapped hands and sore muscles.”

For the event on Feb. 23, O’Hern will be joined by Beth Weninger, Octagon Center education director. Introductory needle felting will be the main focus, and guests can make their own piece to take home. The event will be held from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., and registration is available online.