Felting is an ancient process, most likely predating woven cloth, and uses a renewable resource: wool shorn from sheep. There are two types of felting: wet felting and needlefelting:
I am a “wet felter” and use simple materials to create my felts: wool and soapy water. It is an easy technique: I use my hands to agitate the wet wool. That’s it. There are many variations but here’s the basic process:
Gather the materials:
-Unspun wool – which looks like hair. I’ll use blue, orange and white so you can see the layers.
-Plastic sheeting: I drew lines showing the size of the felt I’ll be creating.
Next I lay out the fibers: I take a small hunk of wool off the ball and begin to lay it out like shingles on a roof. Each row slightly overlaps the previous row. Each layer has the fibers in only one direction. I’ll cover the plastic with one layer and try to stay within the lines:
The next layer is perpendicular to the previous one, so the orange layer is vertical to the blue’s horizontal orientation:
Now for the top layer which is white. Again, I’ll lay out that layer perpendicular (90°) to the previous layer:
Felt can be thin (think the drape of a scarf) or thick, as I’m doing here. For this piece I’ve actually laid out multiple layers of each color: 3 of blue, 2 of orange, and 2 of white, so the final layout is pretty thick – and fluffy for now.
Now felting begins. Here are my “tools:” a thermos to hold the soapy water, a pool noodle (cut down to size) to use for rolling, a piece of netting (so the fibers stay in place) and some bubble wrap underneath to give a little abrasion so the wool felts faster:
I take some water and slowly “wet it out” which means making sure all the fibers get wet through all these layers. Did I tell you how wonderful wool is? One reason is that it will wick away water (or sweat) but that means it needs a little encouragement to get wet for felting.
You can see where the wool is wet (darker fibers) and where it is still dry and fluffy. I love the smell of wet wool!
Once it is all wet through I top it with the piece of netting and roll it up around the pool noodle:
Tie it tight into a bundle (strips cut from pantyhose are perfect for this):
And start to felt: I roll – and roll – and roll the felt. Periodically I unroll it to add more water and to turn the felt so it gets rolled evenly.
Feltmaking is really a two-step process: First is felting, which means rolling the wool fibers until they become one piece, just starting to hold together. You can see the felt has barely shrunk:
The second stage is fulling. That’s when the fibers interlock so tightly it can’t be pulled apart. By rolling it harder and harder it fulls more and more. This is also when it shrinks. The more it shrinks, the stiffer the felt.
There’s a choice as to how much fulling I do and it depends on what I’ll use the felt for. Since many of my felts are cut into or used for sculpture I tend to full my felts a lot. My nickname is “the concrete felter.”
Here I’m starting to roll the felt against itself (no noodle this time) since it is pretty firm by now. This is my favorite part of the process. I can feel the felt changing under my fingers.
To get the felt to shrink pretty quickly (which will make it stiffer) I use a glass washboard. Yes, there is still a use for this old-fashioned tool:
When it feels stiff enough to my touch I stop rolling. You can see how much it has shrunk. It was original laid out 18” high x 16” wide and is now 13” high x 11” wide. That means it shrunk by 28% in height and 31% in width.
Felt has unique properties that I love to exploit: the layers of wool mix both horizontally and vertically so the colors of base layers sometimes migrate to the top. You can see how the blue and orange fibers have migrated through those two white layers:
Now I can cut the felt into any shape since it won’t unravel. I love to cut into the felt and remove some of the layers, exposing what’s inside:
Written in Gregg Shorthand this says: “Knowledge is hot water on wool. It shrinks time and space.”
(Mark Z. Danielewski/House of Leaves)
Needlefelting is another feltmaking technique that uses only the unspun wool and a special needle (instead of the soapy water). By using a punching motion the barbed needle interlocks the fibers.
Here I have started making a ball. You can see the wool roving is being punched into shape and it will become firmer the more I use the needle.
One benefit of needlefelting is its exactness. I can create a much finer detail using this method than with wet felting since I can needle in a tiny amount of wool at a time if I choose to.
On occasion I’ll use both wet felting and needlefelting in one piece but my first love is for wet felting.