Updated: Oct 22
Please meet Baya; creator of Unifelt: a wonderful story of heritage, tradition, and craft- a truly crafted garment, hand-made, one-of-a-kind, sustainable “fur”. I am so impressed with the patience, skill, and gorgeous work of Baya Batomunkueva. She is a fiber artist, based in Portland, OR, where I first met her at FashioNXT’s Emerging designer competition in 2019. I hope this story inspires you as much as it did me!
Baya, you weren’t trained in design- in fact your degree is in Statistics- so did you grow up as a creative kid?
I come from Buryatia, a region in Siberia. My ancestors were nomads of a Mongolian ethnic minority that wandered the Russian tundra in search of grasslands for their sheep herds. Over the centuries, my grand-grand parents learned to survive in symbiosis with nature, nurturing their animals and using their wool to build clothes and yurts.
You started felting at a very young age- did you always love it and has it been a part of your life since then?
I did, I started felting when I was 10 years old in Home Economics class. I fell in love with fiber instantly. I was doing many different projects, but life happens and felting was forgotten for awhile.
Baya would like to thank Tom Lupton Photography, Megan Blake Hair & Make-up, Models Oksana Bell, Kayla Layer, Norma Alcazar, Peyton Myers, and on location at Shepherd’s Lane farm
You work with only natural eco-friendly materials….Is it difficult to find the right qualities of wool that you want?
Not at all, today you can find anything you want, thanks to internet. And I use only natural materials, sheep wool, yak, camel, rabbit, goat fiber, tencel, silk, bamboo and other plant based materials. I also use scrap materials for different projects, to utilize the waste. Felting is a ZERO WASTE craft.
Your garments look like traditional fur made from animal skins- Can you explain the process of felting and how you learned to create “fur” garments?
Wool fiber has a scales like human hair, when the fiber gets wet, the scales open, and under friction the scales start to entangle with each other, building very strong connection. This quality allows us to create nonwoven textile that has exceptional qualities. Wool maintains body temperature, that means keeping you warm in cold environment and cooling when it’s warm. It is soft, and strong. My fur garments are made the same way. I lay wool base first, and on top I felt raw sheep locks. They felt very well, creating real fur look, but without pelt. I call it UniFur: unique, unifying, universal fur, which is a ethical option between traditional fur, when animals are raised and killed for their fur, and faux fur made out of synthetic fiber that is not biodegradable, it breaks to microplastic that polutes the environment.
Photo by Tearsheetpdx
“This one took me a couple of weeks to make since I didn’t have any inspiration to finish it. I created a raw form, and the shapeless piece of felt was lying around for quite a while. I didn’t yet know what it wanted to be. Yes, it sounds weird, but it is not me who decides what it will turn out to be. The hat gives me directions on how to shape it, and I follow them. Sometimes, when I struggle with the idea, I talk to it, and it answers in form of lines and curves.” Baya
How long does it take typically to create one of your pieces?
Depends on complicity, from 2 days to couple of weeks.
We work with many designers and design students, could you share how you go about determining each design?
I don’t do sketches, I just have a rough idea, than small scale proof of concept, and if everything looks ok, I do final piece. And even then, I can change everything, wool is amazing material, it has memory, but it is also very forgiving.
“When I learned about handmade fur, it blew my mind. Making fur out of wool roving and sheep locks seemed impossible to me. I tried and failed, then tried again and failed again. My fifth attempt was more or less success. Now I feel more confidence around the raw fiber. I can make shape and color I want, I can create a work that is beautiful, sustainable and more importantly, the killing of an animal is not involved. So happy and grateful to be able to make it and share with the world.”
How long have you been in biz and when did you expand to apparel?
I created Unifelt, LLC in 2018. At the beginning I was doing hats mostly, but apparel was my goal. I wanted to start with smaller pieces, to try first. I sold many pieces, people loved what I was doing, then I realized I can do something bigger, thats when I decided to move to apparel.
So will you be adding apparel to the website?
Absolutely, just need to find time, I am a one-person theatre.
What is the most challenging part of creating your designs?
The most challenging thing is to find an inspiration, once I found it, everything goes faster.
What is your favorite part of designing?
The last part, when it is almost done. When I can see the final product.
Backstage at Portlands 2019 FashioNXT- Emerging Designer Competition.
You competed in FashioNXT’s UPnxt design competition- What was that experience like?
This is the best platform for emerging designers. I would recommend everyone to apply for the next year. My experience was amazing, they have a team that helps you on each step, just don’t be afraid to ask many questions.
Looks from FashioNXT 2019: Bayas first ever runway show
Photos from Unifelt Bayarma Batomunkueva Instagram
“Sweet wool… It is not only knitting and weaving. So many people do not have any idea how incredible this fiber is. You can create literally everything: clothes, shoes, toys, accessories, even houses and furniture. And felting makes it all possible!” Baya
Was FashioNXT the first apparel collection you have shown?
Yes, first ever. And it was my first fashion show as well.
What tips/advice would you give to any younger/ other aspiring designers who are just starting out?
Please make an impact by creating ethical fashion, do not use synthetic textiles, and learn where the fiber comes from. We have way too many clothes thanks to fast fashion. We need to change it.
If someone wants to learn to felt…any advice on where to go our how to learn?
Pre-Covid, I give classes in my studio, and I will happy to have more students, to share my knowledge about fiber and its magical qualities.
Future goals and dreams?
I have a dream, that one-day felting will be as well recognized as woven textile, and it will be taught in schools and art institutes.
If folks want to reach out to you to learn more, how can they contact you?
Please write me a message on my Instagram @unifelt, or send me an email at email@example.com
Any last words of Wisdom?
When I learned about handmade fur, it blew my mind. Making fur out of wool roving and sheep locks seemed impossible to me. I tried and failed, then tried again and failed again. My fifth attempt was more or less successful. Now I feel more confident around the raw fiber. I can make the shape and color I want, I can create a work that is beautiful, and sustainable, and more importantly, the killing of an animal is not involved. So happy and grateful to be able to make it and share it with the world.
” If you have a dream, pursue it! All worthwhile endeavors take patience and practice”. Baya
Thank you Baya for sharing your amazing journey and your love of Fiber- you are an inspiration!