Updated: Oct 25, 2021
The GR and Fulling Drum as of March 2020
(Note: even though our August 2020 Symposium was cancelled due to COVID-19, we still appreciate Philip and Joni's support for our organization. They were also planning a brand new $500 GRC :: Fabulous Felted Arts Award for the Felting On the Edge exhibition at the Symposium.)
Philip Coates and Joni Cornell are the talent behind the Gentle Roller (GR), the wet felt rolling machine that felt artists are raving about. They are also two of our generous sponsors at the August 2020 symposium.
Recently we were fortunate enough to to interview Philip and we think you’ll enjoy learning about the story behind this innovative machine.
Where are you located?
We were living in Ferny Creek, Victoria in Australia (a beautiful spot in the Dandenong Ranges) where I invented the GR. We recently downsized and now are located in Emerald, a small township of 5,500 people at the base of the Dandenong Ranges and about 80 km drive from Melbourne CBD, Victoria.
All of our stock is held in China. I travel there as required to ‘batch build’ the GR with my colleague who has a factory there. They are made from Australian and Chinese components. The GRs are mostly stored in China and I usually keep a few in Australia, and we ship world-wide as required.
Is the Gentle Roller (GR) your first invention? If not, what else have you created?
I invented a few board games as a kid of 12 or 14. Some of my mates would come round to my place after school and we’d play an Australian rules football board game which I invented and was quite popular.
When I was around 21 or 22, at the very beginning of the personal computer revolution (remember the Commodore 64 and the Tandy TRS 80 where programs were stored on cassette tape), I was writing computer games for my brothers and I to play. They were written in “Basic” computer language which I taught myself – my younger brother had bought a Commodore 64 and didn’t know what to do with it.
I wrote about 10-15 games all up (football/soccer, cricket, world domination, et cetera) and my brothers and I would play for hours. Subsequently, I sold the games for about $A250 dollars each to a book publishing house and they were published in Australia, UK, USA and many other places in a compiled book of computer games. For the USA edition I was asked to write programming code for a game of baseball and I remember having to study up on the rules of the game, which I didn’t know, so I could write the code.
I never imagined computer games would take off and went back to my ‘career’ and more important things – that may have been an “oops!” moment.
Joni, the inspiration behind the Gentle Roller.
I understand that Joni, your wife, is a felt artist, how did she contribute to the creation of the GR?
Joni was the inspiration. She was also the reason it was probably eight years in making! When I met Joni she was already making felt and I watched her and thought what a ridiculously long amount of time she spent rolling. I told her that she was going to hurt her back and I could probably make a machine to do it. She had a long list of objections – I enjoy rolling (Huh?), they already exist and they are ugly, they’re not the same as hand rolling, the quality will be no good, it will take the art out of felting, etc.
I tried anyway to make a “rolling machine”. I didn’t look at whatever else was around and just went on my merry way – as I do. The first few attempts were a disaster and after about 6 to 8 months trying various designs I just couldn’t make anything work so I gave up. Joni wasn’t interested anyway. All the tubes and frames and rolling things I’d created I threw away.
A few years later, Joni was making some exhibition pieces and she was doing 40,000-60,000 rolls to complete a “Battlecoat”. I was incredibly frustrated watching Joni work and set about once again building a machine to help her. I played around with it for about two years on and off and reached a stage where I thought I was on the right track but I was still unable to really interest Joni in the project and my test machine sat for about 6 months untouched in the studio until I decided one day to just toss it back in the workshop and forgot about it..
Then Joni developed sciatica and could hardly stand at times. She struggled to felt and almost gave it up. I got serious about my project, and Joni became more committed although she gave me very “constructive criticism” and a list of criteria. It had to replicate hand rolling, it had to look good – I don’t want an ugly “machine” in my studio, she’d say, it had to make felt better than she could, it had to be easy to use and I added, it’s got to be safe. By now, she realised I wasn’t removing the art because the art was in her colourways and fabrics and layups – that’s where the artistic skill of most felt making resides and I wasn’t touching that.
It took me 12 to 18 months of almost full-time design, manufacturing (in my workshop) and testing, a lot of research on wool and felting, an awful lot of money spent on materials, samples (motors, rollers, pulleys and gears, aluminium frame work, etc) and tools that I never owned previously but needed for my work. And then I had to teach myself Arduino programming code so I could program the PCB to control the motor to do what I wanted – I learned the basics of circuit boards and found myself programming once again. After many prototypes and trials I finally came up with a GR design that worked. We gave it a large-scale test producing about 35 – 40 items over a six-week period. The GR did around 350,000 rolls in that time – something Joni could never have achieved – and the quality was excellent and consistent.
Along the way, one of the very early attempted models became the basis for the ‘Fulling Drum’ which is unique to the GR.
With Joni finally satisfied I thought I was done. Eight years, thousands of dollars and 1 working prototype. Then she said, “you’ve got to make this available to my friends or anyone else who wants one!” That started a whole new adventure.
What do your customers like most about the GR?
From the feedback we get most of our customers initially like the fact that they just don’t have to hand roll and it frees them up from the most laborious of tasks. Many of them, but not all, are elderly or have injuries and they just don’t want the hassle, and in some cases the pain, of rolling. The GR has enabled many of these felt makers to keep on making felt when otherwise they may have given it up. That’s really satisfying, to enable somebody to continue with their passion.
Some makers just like the fact that they can practice the tuba or make a cup of coffee while their felt is rolling. That’s cool.
And pleasing for me personally – as an inventor – is the number of users who have subsequently commented that they can now try this or that material, or tackle a project that they would never have dreamt of doing without the GR. It’s freed them up to be even more creative and experimental than they were before. That is also very satisfying.
What do you like the most about your work?
I don’t call it work. I’m “permanently disabled” with Parkinson’s Disease diagnosed about 20 years ago and haven’t worked for 12 years. I call the GR activities ‘maintaining my sanity’. What I like most is covered in the prior answer.
Early prototype 2015/2016. Made with plyboard ends and mechanical rack and pinion drive system to create forward and backward motion (ie pre PCB control)
Why was it so important how the GR looked?
Joni said she didn’t want an ugly machine in her studio. When I looked around her studio it was full of soft fabrics and materials, and there were colours everywhere. I could fully appreciate why she didn’t want a “machine”. I thought that even her sewing machine and overlocker looked somewhat mechanical and cold and out of place.
When I looked at the few rolling machines that were available on the market they were awful – mechanical, steel and aluminium, exposed motors, no regard whatsoever for aesthetics and large. I was determined to make the GR colourful, with soft lines where possible, and something that didn’t look out of place in an artist’s studio. There is no reason why engineering can’t be pleasing to look at.
Equally important though was that it was safe to use and easy to use. They were all very much front of mind and part of the design process.
Oct 2016 – Prototype testing in my tool room. Testing the design and roller materials.
I understand you have a new GR being released soon. Can you tell us about it?
It’s pretty much the same as the previous model however I have added aluminium tubing into the idle rollers which were previously PVC. The cost is about six times more expensive but I didn’t change the price of the GR. The aluminium tubing makes the rollers a bit heavier, more rigid and less likely to bow, which provides that little bit of improved contact during the felting process and makes it just a little bit quicker. Anyone with the current PVC idle rollers should know that they can make them heavier by filling them with water and achieve similar results (not something we can do in production as we can’t airfreight liquid filled rollers).
Nov 2017. This was the actual unit that we used for demos and videos when we started to crowdfund for the GR in Dec 2017-Fed 2018. I had no tooling for a tray and streamlined cross-bars. The crowdfunding was unsuccessful (that is we failed to hit out funding goal which we needed to cover the basic tooling). I’d already invested in tooling for the motor housing and rollers and in Jan 2018 after much gnashing of teeth, we decided to go ahead anyway and funded all the tooling, patents and inventory out of our own pockets and launched the GR website.
The GR looks like a very nuanced machine. Can you tell us about this?
I am sure some felt makers would just like to turn it on and use it. But not all felt makers are the same. Different fabrics, different styles – am I my making a lightweight nuno garment or a heavy piece of wall art – these things require different considerations when rolling. I have managed to condense this to a few simple options.
Mar 2018. First actual production unit of GR made. We shipped our first 48 units to UK, USA, Canada, and Australian customers in the last few days of March 2018
Users can change where the idle rollers hang depending on the thickness and shape of the item – 95+% of the time though this is on the same location.
Users can change the speed while it is rolling – I did this so users could start slowly to make sure everything is in place (I machine sew occasionally and I hate the way the machine goes from stationary to full speed almost the moment I touch the foot pedal – it scares the life out of me and if I’m not holding my material straight I invariably do a bad job). I default the GR to start at 50% speed and the user can increase it to 100% as quickly or as slowly as they like.
Users can change the number of forward and reverse rotations. This affects the level of agitation, or work, that you’re putting into the materials. Sometimes you want to be a bit gentle – perhaps when starting an item so you don’t move any embellishments you’ve put onto your garment – and sometimes you just want to work it as much as possible to get those tricky Tencel or bamboo fibres to felt.
And finally the cycle count. Users can do anything from 50 rolls to 5000 rolls (I recommend Max 1000 rolls) before the GR automatically stops.
These few things give users ultimate control. And of course there is always the default settings which suit most general users and if a user has a particular setting they like that can easily make it their default setting.
Have you made anything using the GR?
I am not a felt maker, I’m much better at designing a great Excel spreadsheet or discussing the effect of pH on wool, but I have dabbled making a few things. Mostly I am Joni’s assistant helping lay plastic, or I design the pattern templates if she wants to try new style garment.
Where is the GR most popular?
Our biggest market is the USA, followed by Canada and Australia who are pretty similar, and then the UK. Europe is growing but it’s slow with the language barrier. In the USA, Canada and UK we have “agents” who have helped spread the word. They’re called agents but they are more than that. They are fellow felt makers who loved the GR when they first saw it and wanted to help spread the word.
Who is the GR perfect for?
Anyone who makes felt. For older people or people suffering an injury or disability, it removes a major part of the hard work of felting. You still have to lay out your materials, put it on the GR, check and inspect and occasionally hand intervene in the process, which is still difficult for some, but you don’t have to stand there rolling backwards and forwards which is the major back, shoulder and arm problem. And then for anybody of any age, the ability to try new things that you wouldn’t otherwise have tackled because it would take ‘too much rolling’ is a major benefit.
Philip and Joni have done an amazing job with the Gentle Roller’s Website. It’s filled with lots of useful information and videos teaching felt makers how to utilize the GR. There’s features on how to adapt the GR for your style of felting, how the GR can be used to create very light nuno-felt, and using a resist with the machine. This is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s also a fantastic film featuring what their clients have created using their Gentle Rollers. It’s very inspiring.