I met Tara Shaw in 2021 when I was looking for a way to decorate my stand at RHS Chelsea Flower Show. I was keen for my exhibitor stand to capture the imagination and wanted to bring birds to life and inspire a passion for wildlife. Some Googling led me to Bedfordshire-based Tara and the wonderful needle felted birds she sells via her Etsy store and website, and I knew from our first conversation I had found a friend and fellow bird enthusiast. Tara’s passion for birds and wildlife has been with her all her life - she specialised in birds as a zoo keeper and now they inspire her art. Tara was identified as a gifted artist from a young age and has a double distinction in Art and Design, so when I first saw her needle felted birds I was completely blown away - the attention to detail and care that goes into each one is just incredible. For most of us, it’s the closest we’ll get to the songbirds we love to watch in our gardens and it’s such a treat to see them up close. It goes without saying the birds went down a storm at Chelsea and I was proud to share my stand with them again this year. I chatted with Tara to find out more about her work and her passion for birds and wildlife.
What sparked your interest in garden birds?
I was very lucky that I grew up in a nature focused home - my Mum always feeds the birds and my Grandpa put up a Readers Digest poster of garden birds in my bedroom at my grandparents house when I was a child. It was the catalyst for my obsession with birds and everything to do with them. So much so, I actually became a zoo keeper, specialising in birds, so I’m an official bird nerd!
How did you get started with needle felting?
I actually took my mum on a day course for her birthday and we both needle felted a dog… it’s safe to say that our dogs were definitely, uhh - interesting - so I made it my goal to learn a bit more in depth about how to make them! Friends and family caught wind of my felting and I made a lot of dogs in the space of a year. I then decided that what I really wanted to make was birds and that’s what I now specialise in (with the odd pet portrait thrown in for good measure too!)
Tell us about a day in the life of a needle felter. How long does each bird take?
It definitely varies depending on the species. A robin which are relatively simple (and I make a lot of!) typically takes me around a day. Something more intricate or fiddly can take me far longer. I often have ‘big’ projects that I regularly put down and come back to, such as woodpeckers and pigeons! I have a beautiful workroom where I can see the birds on my feeders out my window and I drink plenty of tea to keep me going!
What is the process for creating a bird? How do you perfect the scale and colouring?
Practice, practice, practice! I spend a lot of time around birds which helps me have a first hand idea of characteristics of specific species - I love robins especially so I always try and befriend one in the garden every year! This means I can study them up close and personal. I have a LOT of wonderful reference books to work from too, which are invaluable. I use 3D printed beaks and feet, which are true to species, using scans from the Natural History Museum. I also hand-blend wool to make sure it’s the appropriate colour for the species in question.
Which is your favourite bird to watch in the garden? And which of your needle felted birds are you most proud of?
I love all birds and I’m often like a kid in a sweet shop, as I spot who’s on my feeders! I get particularly excited over long tailed tits (my mum calls them flying teaspoons!) as they’re just so interesting. If I had to choose the piece I’m most proud of, I think it would be my kingfisher!
Which is your most frequently commissioned bird? And have you had any unusual or memorable commissions?
Robins! I really should count how many I have made now. I love the connections humans have with robins, whether it’s spiritual, a loved one reincarnated, or just a lovely garden friend, I really enjoy hearing customers personal reasons why they want a little robin on their mantelpiece. My most memorable commission was a splendid fairy wren- and splendid they are too!
What tips do you have for a needle felting novice?
I said it a bit earlier, but practice and not worrying about it going wrong. Make sure to take lots of time studying the animal or object you are wanting to felt, anatomy is very important!
Tara’s birds make a brilliant gift - they really do have to be seen to be believed. To buy one of Tara’s beautiful birds and bring your favourite species into your home, head to tara-shaw.co.uk, email firstname.lastname@example.org check out her website and find her on social media @bytarashaw.