The person behind the Hungarian Felt Tours : : interview with Flóra Carlile-Kovács
by Laura Kooiman
How did you get the idea to offer felting trips to Hungary?
In the fall of 2014 I was teaching a felted jewelry class at the Pacific Northwest Art School in Coupeville, WA. The project was small; the 12 students and myself were all sitting around a large table, and once the jewelry was constructed, we got to the meditative stage of fulling the felt. Soon the group started chatting about their favorite hobbies, traveling and felting. One student asked, why don’t I organize a felt tour to Hungary where they can learn more of this ancient craft, but they can also travel around in this wonderful country that bears that weird language? The idea turned out to be very popular, and six of the students promised that if I ever got a tour organized, they would join me. Back then it felt like a daydream. I hadn’t been back in Hungary for almost 3 years and I couldn’t imagine that this trip would ever happen. Six months later, in 2015, finally I was able to go back for Mother’s Day. My parents volunteered to join me in a planning trip of the first felt tour. We crammed in my father’s small Renault Clio, and in a couple of days we visited all the planned sites and venues, met the instructors I had chosen to teach, and the itinerary of the East Hungary Felt Tour was completed.
How did you develop the itinerary for your trips? Instructors for the classes? Times of year? Length? Mixture of cultural and teaching experiences?
First, I chose the instructors I admire. They are outstanding artists, who are leaders in the Hungarian and international felting scenes. Also, they are very experienced instructors, generously sharing their knowledge. Last but not least, they are wonderful people. Then I compiled the classes, and considered offering a wide variety of projects (two- and three-dimensional, small and medium size but not overwhelming, traditional and contemporary techniques). In the first year, our tour coincided with the spring Sheep Herding Festival in Nádudvar. This showed me how interesting these complex events were for visitors and now I plan the tours around the most outstanding folk festivals. The felt workshops take 5 days. To balance the classes with some cultural activities and traveling in the country, I added 6 more days which is just enough for a full immersion.
What are the biggest challenges?
Many of the programs in Hungary are posted very late to the public. Usually I know the timeframe of the events, but I have to keep the itinerary flexible to be able to adjust to some late changes. I very much appreciate the precious time the participants spend in Hungary and I want to make sure to make the best use of their time while we are together. Sometimes it can be challenging not to overschedule our program.
Is there anything about the trips that has really surprised and delighted you?
It feels very rewarding connecting the Hungarian felting community with felt/fiber enthusiasts from all over the world.
Interestingly, I never could have imagined myself in the tourist industry (just as I never could have imagined myself as an artist). I always had the feeling that tourism was routine-based and soulless, so it was a rather big surprise for me to find myself in a role of leading tours and loving it. After living abroad for several years, I have different point of view and better appreciation for what my country offers. I just can’t hide my enthusiasm for Hungarian folk arts, fine crafts, music, food, wine, Art Nouveau architecture, thermal baths, etc. and it looks like this enthusiasm is contagious.
I am also really surprised how these tours have grown in the past years. So far, I have had participants from all over the USA, Canada, the UK, France, Israel, and even from Australia, which was beyond my wildest dreams when I first started drafting the tours.
How does it feel to show people your home country? Is there anything that makes you particularly proud?
There are many aspects of the tours I am very proud of, but one of the most important thing is that with the tours, I can shine a spotlight on amazing artists while I am sharing the treasures of my country with an audience from very diverse backgrounds. Often times, I bring the group to places no guidebooks would mention (like the hidden workshop and home museum of the last hat-maker of the country), I help them to connect to local artists, and I organize studio visits.
What do you like the most about the tours?
I love seeing the post-tour results, seeing friendships growing from these trips, and after 5 tours in 3 years, I feel like I am building a tribe across the globe. I am planning to add a forum page to my website to help these people from various countries stay in touch, get inspired, and share new ideas.
How do you expect your tours to evolve in the years ahead?
Right now, my family’s limit is two tours a year. But there are many more places I want to show, and more instructors I would love to introduce with great projects. Eventually, a third tour itinerary might be added to the palette, where we would visit and take a class in a 120-year-old felt factory in Western Hungary too. Because I am doing everything myself, from marketing to assisting classes and interpreting throughout the tours, my time and energy are spread thin. As my kids are growing up and are getting more independent, I would love to have my husband Christopher involved in the tours, too. He knows a lot about Hungarian history, is a great interpreter, knows the country very well, and also knows everything about felt-making, he’d be the perfect tour assistant.
Flóra and Judit Pócs at the first Felt Tour, in 2016