Any aspiring artist or craftsman would be envious of Yuli Somme’s work studio. Situated in the the picturesque market town of Moretonhampstead, in the beautiful hills of Dartmoor, Bellacouche Felt Studio finds its home in a converted Unitarian church. Many of the church’s original features are intact, including the arched stained glass windows which give the spacious studio the perfect light for creating art.
“I’ve been working in textiles pretty much my whole life,” Yuli says, “First as a weaver and then as a felt-maker.”
Born in Norway, Yuli has lived in Devon most of her life, and is an expert in textiles, especially wool. Specialising as a felt-maker, Yuli’s artistic direction took a turn in the late 90s, when she was inspired to start creating a burial shroud.
The Bellacouche studio in Moretonhampstead, Devon.
“I’m a member of the Devon Guild of Craftsmen and back in 1999 they were putting on an exhibition called ‘Treading Lightly’,” she explains, “Which is a reference to how we tread on the earth, in an environmental sense. I was asked to take part in that exhibition.
“I could have made anything, it could have been a wall hanging, but for some strange reason, this idea came into my mind about death. We don’t deal with death well, in any way, in Western cultures. I thought that until we do deal with it in a better way, we won’t solve the environmental problems of the world.
“In other words, the cycle of life is not being acknowledged. The way nature works is that life is created, it grows, it seeds, it dies and it goes back into the ground, but in the dying it gives new life. But we’re really disconnected from that. People who have no connection to nature are not going to look after the planet, because they have no connection to it. In a way, death is the thing that makes you connect with the cycle of life.
“Having had that thought, I also remembered from my history lessons from school that there used to be a law in this country that the dead had to be buried in wool. I was very interested in the history of wool, researching it was part of my job in the past. So I thought I’d make a woollen shroud. In the end I made a sort of tableau around birth, marriage and death, using wool for the three biggest events in our life. That’s how I started – that was the first shroud.”
Yuli works on a felt coffin cover in the studio.
After the exhibition, Yuli didn’t return to the idea of woollen burial shrouds until a few years later, when a fellow felt-maker approached her with an offer of collaborative work. This reignited Yuli’s interest in wool as a natural material suitable for the care of the dead.
Yuli now makes bespoke Leafcocoons, a soft felt coffin alternative, as well as handmade coffin covers. The Leafcocoon isn’t a shroud in the conventional sense; it consists of a thick woollen shroud and layers felt, resting on a hidden wooden frame with six strong handles for secure carrying. The top decorated cover of the Leafcocoon can be removed before burial and kept as a memento.
As we talk, Yuli works on a coffin cover. She explains that families often ask her for specific designs. This one has Scottish thistles and a sprig of white heather, at the family’s request. Though some people buy products online which have already been made, more often than not families want a bespoke design that is meaningful to them, and Yuli discusses their ideas with them. Because the Leafcocoons are not suitable for cremation, the coffin covers are commonly used to decorate the coffin before cremation, and families often choose to keep the cover as a memento.
“I had one case where part of the family lived in Australia,” she says. “They decided that they wanted to split the cover in half and have half in Australia and half in the UK. So I made a cover that they could split in half and it worked really well.”
This bespoke coffin cover design features Scottish thistles.
These products are both beautiful and eco-friendly, with organic, locally sourced materials – an issue which Yuli is passionate about to say the least.
“I’ve come into this line of work as a craftswoman, not as a funeral director or celebrant or anything like that,” Yuli says. “The source of the materials is very important to me and, being an eco-conscious person, the source has got to be organic. The welfare of the sheep is important and the breed of the sheep is important. I think that if we want to be green, we have to source locally.
“I’ve got two farms which are providing my wool. I source the wool, then it has to be scoured, which is a washing process, and felted. It’s a very simple process. All the dyes are natural.”
The Leafcocoon and covers aren’t just an exercise in eco-friendliness – though that is an integral part of Yuli’s philosophy – they are also beautiful works of art that hold meaning for a bereaved family.
The organic, locally sourced wool is coloured using natural dyes.
“Aesthetically, it’s getting away from the hard, linear box,” Yuli says. “If we have coffins that at least look nicer, and more beautiful, that’s definitely a step in the right direction.
“This product is not a shroud, where the body is wrapped in a piece cloth and you can see the shape of the body. People find that to be too much, unless they’re used to it, like in India where that’s the norm. The Leafcocoon has got layers of very thick felt, so it’s a smooth, soft outline. It’s not a box and people do find it more comforting, especially when it’s for a child or a baby.”
Yuli understands the need for comfort at a time of loss. As she explains, her journey into the funeral profession was informed by her own experiences with death: “As a child I lost my father, and as a result of that death became a taboo subject. It was something I thought about constantly but never talked about. It was a really difficult subject for me. But when I came to it, and actually made a shroud, it was very cathartic.”
At the heart of Bellacouche’s coffin products is the desire to connect people – both with nature and the natural process of death – so that they can find comfort and meaning in a way that helps them cope with their grief. To find out more about the Leafcocoon, or browse Yuli’s collection of handmade felt products, visit the Bellacouche website.