If you think you know about felting, forget it. St. Paul-based Debra Manderfeld's work "is not like anything anyone else is doing," according to Ann Pifer, owner of The Grand Hand Gallery in St. Paul.

Manderfeld's work is distinguished by its carefully composed patterns -- far more sophisticated than the usual felted scarf or sweater. She uses traditional felting techniques to craft a vibrant array of upholstery, wall tapestries and accent pillows.

Manderfeld's designs borrow from quilt patterns, funky vintage fabrics and the various images she finds in glossy shelter magazines. For example, a recent pillowcase was inspired by the Spanish tiled roof she spotted in a foreign design publication. Circular motifs and chevrons also catch her eye. She then seeks to deconstruct and re-imagine these geometries -- first by sketching, then by layering hand-cut pieces of merino wool.

A smaller subset of Manderfeld's work is more along the lines of representational art, usually inspired by flowers. A recent upholstery was based on the enormous zinnia she plucked from her backyard. Pieces like these are more labor-intensive than her usual, more graphic repertoire. The self-taught Manderfeld composes these semi-realist works by arranging loose woolen fibers atop a solid merino canvas, almost like painting.

She uses a similar technique to sign her name to every finished piece (look for her understated signature, always in periwinkle).

Once the designs are complete, Manderfeld sets about the final stage of her creative process: the actual felting, or binding, of her woolen compositions. This is achieved via a messy ceremony of wetting, beating and drying the fibers, which eventually fuses them as one ("I always liken it to dreadlocks," she said).

A biologist by trade, Manderfeld admits she is drawn to felting in part because it "changes the anatomy of the fiber." But her primary motivations are aesthetic.

"There are a lot of better felters out there," said the ever-humble Manderfeld, who turns 60 this year. "I don't consider myself a great felter. I do it more to get my designs down."