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Career

How my passion grew for creating miniature felt replicas of people's beloved pets

"There's something really magical about having a little three-dimensional version of your pet," says Dr Tatiana Kalnins.

By As told to Lynley Ward
"I'd never heard of needle felting until I happened to see a page of someone who made little caricatures out of felt pop up on Facebook. I'm interested in art and craft, so I ordered one.
It was cute and made me wonder if I could give it a go, so I did a bit of research, found a kit which came with a book of basic felting techniques and made a few simple items.
I was determined to replicate my own dog because a Blue Heeler is not felted often and they have a distinct smile when they have their mouth open, panting. I made a very basic version of her, then tried other simple things like a cartoon fox and a mouse.
Through sheer determination, I managed to get to the point where I could confidently recreate most cats and dogs, rabbits and horses through needle felting.
Tatiana discovered felting after seeing an example on Facebook and ordering a starter kit.
At the same time I was finishing a PhD in education for sustainability, which I started about nine years ago. It's about living in a way that doesn't compromise the options of people living in the future.
Although it might seem it'd take time from the PhD, I think it actually supported it because it's hard to just sit and do academic work all the time. Felting gives your mind a rest and as long as you've got a lot of sticky plasters you're fine to start with.
There's something really magical about having a little three-dimensional version of your pet. Sometimes people don't look at the size in pictures and they think it's taxidermy, which is kind of a back-handed compliment. But they don't actually look anything like that in person as they are very small.
Depending on whether it's a little or big dog, they range from 15 to 17cm. I have them set up in our living area so I'm always going past and looking at them, critiquing them in my head, and you really miss them when they go.
Most people are very grateful. It's amazing to be able to create something that really has a lot of meaning for others. For me, that's very important.
Because I now have an international following, I have orders going all over the world. I've sold them to Hong Kong, Germany, the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and of course New Zealand. I'm doing a little chihuahua at the moment and he's around 12cm. He's going to be travelling around America in an RV so he has to be small!
I have quite a peculiar way of working. On an average-size dog, I'll start with a wire frame and put core wool all around it, tack that into shape with a large felting needle, rough it out, then put it away for a little bit and maybe a week or two later I'll come back and work on the head, then put it away, then I'll come back a few weeks later.
I ask customers if they can give me as much time as I need because I find you can get too close to a work and spend a lot of time staring at it, then totally lose perspective.
Two of Tatiana's felt works
Our dog Sofie is quite an interesting story. She was very fearful of dogs and people, and constantly leaping and snapping. I got in touch with a very good dog trainer who taught me clicker and positive training methods. Sofie turned out to really thrive on this.
When I moved up from Hamilton, I joined the Manukau Dog Training Club and saw a demonstration of heelwork to music. I liked the idea and we both turned out to have a knack for freestyle moves. An instructor came out of retirement and taught us the rudiments of canine freestyle and we turned out to be really good at it!
Our first routine was to the Chim Chim Cher-ee song from Mary Poppins. I dressed up as a chimney sweep and had a brush and a couple of little platform things made to look like chimneys, and we had a choreographed routine of spins, circles and leg weaves.
We practised it for two years. By the time we got to our first competition we were both really well established in our routine. We won elementary – the entry-level class – which was fantastic. She's the highest points champion in New Zealand twice in a row at the national competitions.
There's a relatively new dog sport in America, which isn't done very much here, called Rally Freestyle Elements. You learn a series of exercises based on freestyle moves, then you follow a course that is emailed out to you. You're given a chance to practise it and add in your own free choice moves and then it's judged on how accurately you do each of the things.
And to think, it's through this funny little dog with all her issues that I learnt so much about dog training and discovered this whole dog sport which I just love."
It's not just felt dogs Tatiana specialises in. She and Blue Heeler Sofie also compete – and often win – at canine freestyle comps.

Quick-fire:

If you could choose one dinner guest from history, who would it be?
Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote the Little House on the Prairie books as it would be fascinating to meet someone with such extraordinary pioneering experiences over such a rapidly changing time in history.
What is the one felted creation you will never forget?
The one creation that has had a lot of influence on my other work and that I am immensely proud of is the one depicting my own dog Sofie. I've made two or three versions of her over the years, each one better than the last, and I am incredibly proud of the most recent one as it captures her complex colouring and happy smile perfectly.

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