For our latest A Day in the Life of feature, we meet felt shroud maker Yuli Sømme from Bellacouche. Based in Devon in a former chapel-turned-workshop, she has been crafting beautiful handmade felt funeral shrouds and eco-friendly soft coffins for over 20 years. We are delighted that Yuli has agreed to share her story, work and inspiration with us.
Before we begin, can you share a little bit about what you do and how you got started?
I’ve been been a textile maker all my life, first knitting and embroidery, then spinning and weaving, working in my 20's at Coldharbour Mill Working Wool Museum, Devon. Then took up felt making during a B-Tech art course. Didn’t do a degree, until I was 48, which was an MA in Textiles at Bath Spa.
I’ve been making shrouds since 1999, in response to an exhibition call-out called Treading Lightly, asking makers to demonstrate their sustainability within their practice. This got me thinking about the Cycle of Life - how disconnected we are from it - and also the 17th Century law of burial in wool.
My father died when I was 5 years old. I didn’t go to his funeral (nor did my siblings) and there was no acknowledgement of childhood grief in the 1960s. You just had to get on with it. My grief was internalised and manifested itself in a couple of unusual phobias. Unexpectedly, the physical effort of hand rolling a huge unwieldy roll of wet wool with the aim of felting it, was cathartic. I wouldn’t say that my long suppressed grief was cured (you cannot ‘cure’ grief), it was purely a shift into something more peaceful.
Photo (above) of Yuli using a needlefelting tool which has multiple needles to push the coloured wool into the felt cloth in order to create the embellishment
Rise and shine… what’s you morning routine?
It’s winter, and I seem to have the urge to hibernate, so my mornings are later than in the summer, when I usually wake at around 7am, sit in bed with tea and computer dealing with emails, whilst also being captivated by the birds having their morning ablutions in my birdbath just outside my window. Mostly, I bike (electric) to work. It’s 5 miles of beautiful Dartmoor lanes, steep hills and spectacular views.
Photo (above) of a LeafCocoon wool felt coffin in a woodland setting
Looking around, can you describe your workplace to us?
My workshop is a Unitarian chapel. It’s very damp and cold. That’s the downside. The upside is it’s beautifully light, with a gallery above my big work table so I can have an aerial view of my work. I share it with another woman who makes willow sculptures. Currently there’s a dragon (25’), a horse, cows, deer, pigs, hares and… a dachshund! Sometimes a little disconcerting, but on the other hand, Katherine has to put up with the undersides of my burial vessels!
I have a long-arm walking foot sewing machine, ancient and designed for making marquees and sales. It’s a huge bit of machinery and has a large table built around it. I have two smaller machines for more delicate work and embroidery.
I love working in Moretonhampstead as I’m surrounded by other makers and artists, with a gallery around the corner, a shoe making business in another chapel a few yards away, where I make the insoles. It’s all very friendly and co-operative. However, the damp is an incurable problem, and it is necessary for me to find a drier place to work in. So, sadly, my days in this wonderful place are numbered.
Photo (above) shows a shroud making workshop taking place in the chapel - more details about this are available below
Who are your customers and how do you serve them?
My customers come mostly through the website. I will get a call usually - “I’d like to order a Leafcocoon”. And so a conversation begins. Sometimes, of course, these are difficult and tragic conversations, especially if the death is unexpected. I have to focus on the practical sides of the order, as well as engaging on an empathetic level. I try to find the balance of professionalism and empathy. Empathy, rather than sympathy which can so easily tip over to something trite. That’s what I feel about this work.
Photo (above) shows a decorative coffin cover, which can be used to soften the look of a traditional coffin
What do you like best about what you do?
This is, and always has been, a voyage of discovery; about myself as a human, an artist, a maker and an environmentalist. This is always going to be interesting to me.
Tea break…. what’s your guilty pleasure?
My guilty pleasure? Mmm! Good coffee! A G&T or cold glass of beer would be welcome every evening, but I try to restrict myself to weekends.
Who or what inspires you?
Nature, other people and artists, the environment, music.
Have things changed in your line of work since you first started?
As a lifelong maker, I love using my hands. When I started making shrouds, I had to make the decision to switch from hand-made felt to machine-made needled felt as I knew that I could never physically make enough felt for my purposes. However, even this industrial felt is simple; it’s just mechanically jumbling the fibres together with barbed needles, as with hand-made needle felt.
Photo (above) shows the delicate needlefelted details on the shrouds and coffins. As they are made by hand, each one is unique
As to the ‘market’, it has always been up and down for me, niche, as they say. I’ve been making the shrouds for 20 years and it was initially slow, slowly building up. I have been surprised that I have kept going though, and the last 6 years or so, has made me a reasonable living and I have been supporting 2 other people with it. This last year, I have seen an increasing number of orders direct from funeral directors, whereas before, it has been individuals seeking out alternatives to conventional coffins. I feel I have gained a reputation ‘in the profession’. I put these words in inverted commas because there is a slight disconcertion about making money from people when someone has died, a feeling that we, in this ‘industry’, are preying on people at their most vulnerable. I have to be honest, this is a conversation I regularly have with myself. However, if I didn’t do what I do, people would have to go for conventional, soulless, ugly and environmentally damaging mainstream offerings. I’m trying to show people another way of doing things. Thank you to Greta Thunberg for raising the level of discussion about the environment!
Photo (above) shows how multiple layers of felt are used to create a soft, cosy and comforting resting place, complete with head rest, foot rest and internal cocoon
What advice would you give to someone who is interested in your line of work?
Firstly, look at The Natural Death Centre, then The Good Funeral Guide and join the Good Funeral Guild on facebook. Go to any of the ‘alternative’ events, such as the Pushing Up The Daisies Festival, visit Arnos Vale if you live near Bristol. Get involved in the conversations by following #deathpositive hashtags on social media. Look at Heart and Soul Funerals for professional training courses.
Name any books, films, blogs, podcasts or other resources that you would recommend?
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematorium book by Caitlin Doughty (she also hosts the excellent 'Ask a Mortician' YouTube video channel). Dead Good Guides by Sue Gill and John Fox (Sue runs very good residential courses on Rites of Passage). R.I.P. Off! book by Ken West (Ken started the Natural Burial movement in Carlisle Cemetery). There’s masses out there.
Heading home… After work, what do you do to relax and unwind?
My work is my way of life, my way of life is my work. I’ve always been interested in farming and may well have gone that way if I hadn’t discovered my passion for textiles. I read about farming, soil, sheep and livestock; I read The Land magazine and the Sustainable Food Trust blog and follow the talks from the Real Farming Conference. I belong to Moor Meadows, so visit Dartmoor wildflower meadows throughout the summer and have made many friends through this, and learnt so much about flowers and insects. I share this passion with my husband, Nicky Scott. We have an allotment and wildlife garden. I love walking and always take my binoculars, as another of my careers might have been ornithology! My favourite place to get away to is the country of my birth; Norway. I’m going there this summer.
Photo (above) shows a detail of the Oseberg Cradle coffin, which has a frame made from reclaimed timber and was inspired by Yuli's Norwegian roots
What’s on your bucket list?
Not sure about bucket lists! However, I still haven’t seen an otter in the wild, so every now and then I take myself off on my bike, with tent etc, and camp up by a river in the hopes of getting acquainted with one.
Have you thought about what you’d like for your own funeral?
Yes! But whatever is right for me should be right for my family, so I can put in requests for my favoured bits of writing or music, but really it’s for them to chose what will give them comfort. The only stipulation is that it’s a natural burial, but they know that anyway.
What would you like your epitaph to be?
Thanks for the loan! Over to you, dear worms.
At the end of the day… what’s the last thing you do before you go to sleep?
A big thank you to Yuli for sharing her work and her story with us. If you are interested in finding out more about Bellacouche felt funeral shrouds and soft coffins, visit the website at www.bellacouche.com or watch the short video below. Or if you'd like have a go at designing and decorating your own wool felt shroud, you can find out more about attending a Lifetime Cocoon Workshop here.