CHILDHOOD memories of helping her father bring sheep down from the moors in upper Wensleydale provided a textile artist with her greatest inspiration.

Andrea Hunter, who opens her studio and gallery at Hardraw, near Hawes, on Good Friday, believes it is those early recollections which enable her to capture the atmosphere of the upper dales in her striking pictures.

Using merino wool, she "paints" with strands before rolling the work to felt it. Her favourite - and most popular - subjects are sheep, mainly Swaledales, in typical stances against stark, moorland backdrops and skies.

Fashioned in monochrome, they are incredibly representative of the moors around her home, built by herself and husband Stuart, in the village where she grew up, the youngest of nine children of a farming family.

"I don't work from photographs; it is all in my head, particularly the sheep," says Mrs Hunter, whose work is about to be showcased on a major database and at several exhibitions around the country.

"I have been brought up with them. I was sent up to the pastures from the age of five to bring sheep down and all those images are in my head. They help me to get the atmosphere into my work."

Sheep studies are snapped up by buyers across the world, some fetching more than £1,000.

While she will take on commissions, she is reluctant to accept anything too prescriptive which might stifle the spontaneous nature of her creativity.

She prefers clients to simply request "a sheep picture" or "a floral study" and leave the rest to her.

A hotel due to open in Scotland this year has commissioned a huge, five-panelled sheep picture and has hinted that another work of similar size will be requested next. She has put together a study of Highland cattle as a sampler.

For those who prefer more colour, Mrs Hunter turns out rich flower pictures, dragonflies and moorland landscapes dotted with stone barns.

There are also greetings cards - which many customers buy to frame as miniature works of art - and felting packs for children and adults to "have a go."

The felting process was discovered by Mrs Hunter when she was studying for a visual arts degree at Bretton Hall, Wakefield, part of Leeds University.

She specialised in textiles and, after gaining her degree, returned to Hardraw, where she "just slipped into being an artist because there wasn't a lot of call for textile designers up here."

Almost immediately, commissions for paintings began to roll in, but Mrs Hunter admitted she was soon bored with the "chocolate box" pictures that people requested.

Two children came along - Grace is now 11 and Amelia eight - and she settled down to being a wife and mother running a small bed and breakfast business.

"Amelia started school in September 1999 and I thought, right, it's time to get going with the art work again," says Mrs Hunter. "I got all my old folders and work out of the attic and I knew I wanted to do something with textiles. I started messing about and I came across bits of felt."

She began to "paint" using the wool and her fingers and soon developed a technique of creating a "canvas" with two layers of off-white wool, on which she would create her picture.

"I tease the wool out with my fingers and lay it down to create a picture," she says. "I make it very thin, so the pictures retain a delicacy and it will felt relatively quickly."

The finished picture is laid on bubble wrap, dampened with soapy water, covered with another piece of wrap, wound around a piece of dowelling and rolled like pastry until it binds together as felt.

The process is the result of friction, not pressure, together with the slight warmth created by the bubbles in the plastic wrap.

"Only when I am completely happy with a picture will I felt it because, once it is felted, you cannot remove anything or change anything," she says. "The bond is incredibly strong and you have to be happy with what you have."

She uses merino wool from Australia and New Zealand - because local Swaledale and Wensleydale fleece is too coarse for felting - and has just discovered a supplier in the Falkland Islands.

Mrs Hunter's first felt pictures featured still life fruit and she showed them to internationally-known felt expert Sheila Smith during a course.

"She was impressed and said I was doing something very different with felt making," she recalls. "She really encouraged me and it just took off from there."

Pictures began to sell like hot cakes and people from across the globe started to contact Mrs Hunter, many asking if she would give workshops and tuition.

"I don't do much of that because I have a young family and can't be away for several days at a time," she says.

However, some travel looks likely in the next few months as she exhibits across the north of England.

Her work has already been seen at the Knitting and Stitching exhibitions at London's Alexandra Palace and in Harrogate and she is due to exhibit at a new gallery in Ilkley in May.

Chrysalis Arts, at Gargrave, has chosen Mrs Hunter's company, Focus on Felt, as one of ten to be featured on its new North Yorkshire arts database, which will be launched at Skipton Castle on March 14.

Mrs Hunter will display the three-panel sheep mural which graced the walls at the Harrogate and Alexandra Palace exhibitions.

It then travels to an International Feltmakers' Association exhibition, entitled High Places and celebrating the Pennine area, at Stockport, Cheshire. From there, the exhibition goes to the Up Front gallery at Penrith.

Good Friday sees the official opening of her studio, built on to her home at Hardraw and finished shortly before Christmas. "I used to work in the garage, which could be extremely cold at times," she says.

She has also developed mini workshops on Wednesdays during school holidays, where children and adults can have a go at making simple felt pictures.

Mrs Hunter is constantly amazed at where her pictures end up.

"A high court judge from London once called in while on holiday to ask for a piece of coloured felt and I have sold pictures to Hong Kong and America.

"One lady in London bought seven big sheep pictures and, when I remarked that she must have a huge house, she told me they were for her psychiatric consulting rooms because they were very calming images.

"I feel really lucky that I just hit on the right thing at the right time. Felt is very popular now and I am very fortunate.

"However, a lot of the success of the business is down to the fact that I am in the upper dales, where such a variety of people live, work and visit."

l Focus on Felt will be open from Good Friday until October 31, Tuesday to Friday, 11am-5pm, and some weekends. For details, telephone 01969 667644