Likened to ‘painting with yarn’, punch needle is a traditional form of rug making, one where you create continuous loops of wool by punching your needle in and out of a special fabric.
Certified Oxford Punch Needle Instructor, artist and environmental scientist Michelle O’Driscoll is the owner of Wild Wool Way, a West Cork craft business that offers punch needle starter kits, online lessons, yarns and accessories.
Nature-loving Michelle lives on her family farm in Enniskeane with her dairy farmer husband and four children. She shares her crafting journey, from novice to expert, with West Cork People.
An artistically-inclined child, Michelle was always painting and making things but never really settled on a particular craft. As an adult, being made redundant from a job led Michelle to a period of reflection, during which time a close friend taught her to crochet.
“I followed this Yorkshire lady who crocheted online. She was one of the organisers of Yarndale, a festival of wool and creativity that I just knew we had to visit!
“It was huge and hard to take it all in. On the second day we were rushing out to make our flight, when we passed a rug maker who was punching with an Oxford Punch Needle…well it completely captivated us.”
Michelle had finally found HER craft.
“Rug making to me is all about connection; connection with people, with fibre, with the past. You can make all kinds of things with punch needle, from rugs to wall hangings to bags – the only limit is your imagination. I also love the slowness of it, the peace of just listening to the crunch of the punch, and your thoughts.”
Michelle explains that “whilst readers are probably familiar with latch hook, quite popular in the 70s and 80s, punch needle is not latch hook. They are both forms of rug making but they use different needles and backings, and completely different techniques. With traditional rug hooking you work on the front of the piece but with punch needle you work on the back of the project so your design is backwards.”
In 2016, Michelle attended a workshop given by Amy Oxford, an American rug maker and inventor of the Oxford Punch Needle. “I wanted to become a certified instructor so Amy looked at my work and told me that whenever I was ready, to come to her school in America, where there would be a place for me.
“Over Christmas 2017 I booked my spot on an intensive teacher training programme in Vermont. A close relative had been diagnosed with cancer and I just thought life is too short, stop thinking ‘I’ll do it when the kids are sorted’ or ‘I’ll do it when I retire’. I’m so happy I took the chance to follow my dreams.
“We had the greatest week of learning, sharing, tears and laughter. That’s why I love rug making so much… I love the community feel, the chats that are had over wool and punching, the sharing of stories, of life experiences.”
To become fully certified, Michelle designed and punched a 2×3 foot rug called ‘Cow gazing’ – “It embraces the two loves of my life, my cows and stained glass!” – that is now featured in Amy Oxford’s new book.
Although still working full-time as an environmental scientist, Michelle has gone on to set up Wild Wool Way, which she hopes will become a go-to destination for workshops and punch needle supplies.
“I am passionate about punch needle and want to create a community where people can come together to practice the art. When I started, punch needle wasn’t as popular as it is now. I found it very frustrating to source materials, or the materials I used weren’t great and I wasted a lot of money on the wrong items.
“I provide the highest quality of tools and materials, sourced ethically and as local as possible. The wooden frames in my kits are made in Clonakilty and my wool is sourced in Ireland. I hand dye some of the wool myself in small batches or use other small dyers. I also supply rug wool; this isn’t Irish wool, but it is great for beginners to get the stitch count right.
“I believe everybody should be given the chance to craft so I always ensure I have supplies for all budgets.”
Using the best quality materials and tools creates an overall enjoyable experience advises Michelle. “I love working with 100 per cent wool. I love when you can literally smell the sheep off it! Depending on the project, I also like to use cotton yarn.”
However, material options are endless when it comes to needle punch. During the first lockdown Michelle created a piece from her recycling bin! Highlighting another global pandemic, this piece contains food wrappers, butter wrappers, netting from fruit and plastic sleeves from milk cartons.
Michelle grew up in Ballincollig, which at the time was still “in the countryside” and she comes from a long line of farmers. “My father is from Drinagh and my mother from Ballyfeard outside Kinsale, so we spent a lot of our summer holidays on family farms, meandering through the fields or out on the bog.”
Now living on a farm herself, Michelle is constantly inspired by what’s outside her back door. “Observing my cow’s personalities gives me lots of ideas. The first kit I designed was a cow called Bó… I have punched a lot of cows!”
Colours in nature as the year progresses also influence her, “I try to match the colours of the hedgerows in my yarn dyes.”
What constantly draws Michelle back to rug making are the stories the rugs tell. Her own designs are generally connected to something or someplace in her life: “I did a piece recently following the death of my uncle, of whom I was very fond. It’s called ‘Gone Fishing’ and is a memory that we shared. I thought of him and his family while punching it. You pour yourself into a piece, thinking of all the people involved, and I think that love comes across.”
Michelle also credits access to the coastline of West Cork for her creativity. “I love the sea, it sings to my soul; my lighthouse kit is inspired by Galley Head and the ‘Night Swimming’ kit is inspired by the bioluminescence experienced by kayakers in Lough Hyne.
Turning a hobby into a business has been a steep learning curve for Michelle but she recommends reaching out to online communities for support: “Being a one woman show is hard, all the decisions fall to you and you have no one to bounce ideas off. You don’t know what you don’t know until somebody else mentions it and suddenly you have a lightbulb moment. I have made a lot of mistakes but I am learning.
“I am part of the Biscuit Community, a group for creatives and small business owners run by the fabulous business mentor Tara and also www.upsherises.ie, where Virginia is all about empowering women to build powerful brands and believe that you can do this. You do need to push yourself out there and dampen down that inner critic and imposter syndrome, that for me is definitely a challenge.”
In the last year Wild Wool Way has refreshed its branding and launched a more user-friendly website with the help of the Local Enterprise Office in Clonakilty, “I am so grateful for this funding, it has helped my business grow for sure”, and Michelle has lots more ideas to grow the business into the future, “I have new punch needle kits launching early and late August, which make great presents for all ages, give the gift of craft for a gift that lasts a lifetime!”
For all you punch needle requirements visit www.wildwoolway.com or connect with Michelle on Instagram @wildwoolway and Facebook: Wild Wool Way.
Wild Wool Way is launching a new kit this August, simply called ‘Big Fluffy Cloud’. West Cork People readers can get a 10 per cent discount by using the code ‘WestCork’ at the checkout.