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Here is the long "how to make felt post" I always meant to write


Making woollen felt

Felt making is an ancient technology and although in some respects the process remains the same, the materials used to make felt have changed quite dramatically. I hope that this post will tell you how to achieve a consistent durable woollen felt after a little practice.

Firstly felt is a non-woven fabric traditionally made from wool or fur. 
felt vessels
Under certain conditions wool fibres will irreversibly bind with themselves. These conditions are moisture, friction and a change in pH. Contemporary felt makers use soap to assist and speed up the felt making process. By bringing these three conditions together the small scales on the surface of the wool fibre raise and entangle with each other before starting to shrink (thereby creating the felt).

Felt goes through a soft prefelted stage before it becomes properly useable. This prefelt is achieved as soon as the wool has tangled together but before it has shrunk. Shrinking prefelt (also known as fulling or milling) hardens it, making the felt useable and durable. If you were to use a felt item that hadn’t been properly fulled you would find that it bobbled, pilled and didn’t keep its shape as well as it ought to. Felt can and does regularly shrink by 50% which is why the patterns for making felt items appear disproportionately large. Shrinking the felt it is often achieved by rolling it in a matchstick bamboo mat. It can also be shrunk by picking up the felt and dropping it onto a hard surface (known as percussive fulling).

Selecting wool

The steps to making felt are very straightforward and like everything else, the quality of the wool you use will determine the quality of the felt that comes out. A coarse wiry wool will be excellent for a pair of hardwearing boots or insoles but a fine grade soft wool will make a thin closely textured felt better suited to hat making.

Wool can be purchased prepared in several main ways, batt, roving, sliver and top. Batt comes as a carded sheet and is not recommended for the beginner. Wool top has all the short wool fibres removed from it by combing and this is the easiest type to find. It is prepared for the spinning industry and comes in a long, slightly twisted rope.
hand dyed and carded wool batt
 Wool roving and sliver is also sold in long lengths but is carded rather than combed and so still has the short and long fibres together. You can find this sold in rope or pencil width (pencil thin is trickier to use). If you can find ropes of sliver or roving then this is my preferred wool preparation.
wool top being split into smaller lengths

That said wool top is perfectly adequate, it’s just that having the little short fibres mixed in with the long fibres I find makes a felt that isn’t prone to going holey. Do not use rolags, save them for spinning.

There are lots of on line sellers. To recommend one would be unfair to all the others and by shopping around you will get to see who has what and how competitive they are on price.

Felt making Equipment
Fortunately felt making isn’t equipment intensive and it is quite easy to improvise with everyday household items. I’ve listed them as you will want to lay them out on your table.

An old towel or two. This is a base to work on and a spare always comes in handy to mop the floor (everyone spills water on the floor at least once).  Mopping up as you go is not only good housekeeping; it will stop you from slipping over and breaking your ankle.  
towel, blind and bubble wrap
 

A bamboo or matchstick blind. Buy one larger than the felt you intend to make and take off the fittings. Cheap and cheerful is what you are looking for here. Eventually, if you want to buy a Turkish reed mat to felt carpets then be my guest. For now you don’t need anything so expensive. Place it on top of your towel with the end of the mat to the edge of the table

Bubble wrap. The small bubble variety, bubble side up (two sheets). Lay it on top of your blind. This will support the felt in its early stages and the little bubble texture acts as a friction mat to help your felt come along faster.

Thin clear plastic Decorators dustsheet is ideal. You can see what you are doing through the plastic; it traps in the moisture and helps to stop the wool from slipping about in the early stages.

Fabric conditioner bottle Take an awl and make yourself as many evenly spaced holes as you can. This is going to hold your soapy water (the idea being that you can sprinkle water over the wool by shaking it). If you decide you like felt making then you can buy yourself a bowser with a metal nozzle and a plastic bulb but it really isn’t necessary.





Olive oil or Glycerine soap. Buy a couple of bars, one to turn into soap jelly and the other to rub directly onto your hands during the felting process.  Both olive oil and glycerine soaps are low surfactant soaps. This means that you don’t get too much foaming (which has the effect of pushing  the wool fibres apart just as you are trying to get them to lock together). Beware of detergent bars. Some will change the pH of the wool; others stay pH neutral and will not help you in the felting process.

Jug and container for Soap jelly and felting solution. This is made by taking a 4oz/125g bar of soap and grating it into a 1 litre plastic container with a lid. Dissolve the soap into hot water and allow it to cool.





At this point you will see why it’s called jelly! Then take about a teaspoon of it out, pop it in your jug and dissolve it again in warm water. This is your felting solution (that’s the posh term for soapy water). When you put your fingers in the felting solution you should just feel a slight “slip” as you rub your fingers together. This felting solution goes into the fabric conditioner bottle when cold.  

 

If you live in a hard water area then the soap might form scum which won’t wash out of your felt. If this happens then the only solution is to soften your water.

The felting process

    Lay an old towel on a stable counter top or table, cover with a bamboo matchstick blind and then lay a sheet of bubble wrap (bubble side up) on top.

    Divide the combed wool top (I am going to assume that people are using top) widthways into two or three smaller ropes for ease of handling.


      Pull a fine wispy tuft of wool top using the blade of your thumb and your palm catching the wool with your second, third and fourth fingers. You are trying to pull out as fine an amount as possible. If you are pulling out clumps of wool then you are pulling too much in one go! If you lay this wisp out on the table you will see that it has a blunt edge where it was held by your fingers and a wispy edge. All the fibres should laying parallel and you should be able to see the table through the wisp.

Sometimes the length gets so slim you have to use your thumb and finger, just keep the wool uniformly wispy

 


 Felt is built up in layers (typically four layers). The wisps will eventually be stacked up on top of each other so that each layer crosses the one beneath it. To do this lay this lay the wisps of wool on top of the bubble wrap side by side with the fibres running in a North/South alignment like the tiles on a roof (starting at the top left and finishing on the top right). If you are finding it hard to pull consistently sized tufts of fleece keep your hands about 6” apart and slow down. The more closely you bring your hands together to grip the wool the harder it becomes for the fibres to pull apart.




Repeat a second line of tufts/tiles, just beneath but slightly overlapping the first and keep doing so until you have a “roof” of woolly tiles finely covering the bubble wrap and 50% larger than the size of felt you want to achieve. It is very easy to forget shrinkage but try not to. When you full the felt all those nice wavy fibres will start to return to the coil shape that they were originally in and that is why felt shrinks so much. If you forget to add shrinkage you will swear about it later

 
 
    Repeat the laying out process again, but this time rotate the orientation of the tufts so that the fibres lie east/west and the tiles run downwards.


 

Carry on until you have achieved 4 fine, even layers of wool running N/S E/W alternately.

  Using the felting solution in the fabric conditioner bottle, sprinkle the wool layers until the wool is wetted through and no air bubbles exist. Air bubbles will stop the wool in that area from felting and will spoil the final felt.

 

   Cover the wet wool with a thin layer of plastic and gently rub the surface of the plastic for a few minutes until the fibres start to hold together. If you wet the back of the plastic and put a little soap on your hands then you won’t pull the plastic around and disturb the woolly layers beneath. After 5-10 minutes of rubbing you can start to test the prefelt by peeling back the plastic and pinching the surface of the wool all over. If the wool fibres pull up and part then the prefelt stage isn’t yet achieved. When you can’t lift those fibres by pinching then you have made prefelt!

 

 Carefully remove the plastic and using soapy hands very gently rub the felt until you are satisfied that all the fibres do not separate when pinched. Add extra soap from the bar as necessary to keep your hands moving smoothly over the surface. If the felt starts to pill add more soap, either by rubbing soap on your hands and transferring it to the felt, or by carefully rubbing the bar over the felt.

Place a layer of bubble wrap over the prefelt and flip over like a pancake. Check that this side is fully felted too. Now it is time to full and shrink the felt.


  Replace the bubble wrap so that there are bubbles on the top and bottom of the felt before rolling up the felt snugly in the mat. Roll backwards and forwards 200 times as if you are rolling out biscuit dough before unrolling the packet, turning and smoothing the felt a quarter turn clockwise, rolling up and repeating the process again. Keep going until you have returned to the starting position and then flip the felt over and repeat the rolling and turning on the other side until the felt has been rotated 360 degrees font and back.





  Remove the bubble wrap and repeat the rolling/turning in the blind (until the fibres are no longer moving when the felt is rubbed between the finger and thumb). Felt shrinks in the direction it is rolled, so to keep the piece fairly squarely shaped it needs to be fulled from all directions. When the fibres have stopped moving the felt is fully shrunk and properly finished.

 Rinse and allow the felt to dry. If you leave any soap in then it will eventually rot your felt. You can add a small splash of vinegar to the final rinsing water if you wish. Once dry check again to make sure that the fibres don’t move. Soap acts as a sort of a size and once rinsed out the felt can be examined properly. If the felt does need to be shrunk a little further then it can be rewetted and re-rolled as necessary.

Finally be proud of yourself and put your feet up while you decide what you are going to make with your felt. Notice how the fibres and colours penetrate from front to back, hold the piece up to the light and see how uniform (and how tightly felted) your piece is. Then make another and put it in the washing machine to see just how fulled and shrunk felt can get! 

I appreciate that there are parts of felt making (particularly the rolling) which can seem tedious and I know that you can find faster ways to make felt, but I’ve found that the speedier methods won’t give you a consistently good result, especially if you are going to make a three dimensional item such as a hat. So bear with me and we will make hats in the next post.

The Sea Monster









Found felt at Warner Bros Harry Potter

I saw this gorgeous hatblock, and pointy felt hat while on the Harry Potter tour and I just had to share it. Wouldn't it be fun to make one? My hands were itching to try. 
In fact, I could have spent all day just examining the costumes. Seeing how the camera can be manipulated to trick the eye. 


This ghost's dress for example was printed and painted more than stitched. But on screen it * looks* like faded embroidery. 

I am going to have to watch the films again now !

Gritstone fleece

Sitting in a black bag in the corner of my kitchen this morning was one "Gritstone" fleece. I think it's a wonderful name for a sheep breed. It sounds tough and hardy, not to mention a little old fashioned (which I like).

The first job of the morning was to open it and have a good look.


It's always so exciting opening a new fleece because even if it's a breed you know and love, individual fleeces vary between different animals, changing over the lifespan of the sheep and even shifting depending on the environmental conditions in any particular year.

Gritstones were bred in Derbyshire, becoming recognisable in the late 1700's, although the stock from which they were descended may well have been hill sheep tended in the area from Middle ages. They are a polled (non horned) breed and their fleece is of a mid staple length coming in at a Bradford count of 52-56.

 
It was a good sign to see that the fleece was properly folded. Fleeeces should be shorn and have the worst daggings removed straightaway. They are laid out skin side down and the flanks folded in thirds over the midline. The fleece is then rolled up toward the neck and secured.  I prefer the neck wool to be tucked into a hole in the fleece but it isn't unusual to see fleeces tied up with a twist of neck wool like this one.


As I unrolled it I noticed that the wool was quite dense. I was optimistic about being able to scour a good proportion of it. I was starting to formulate my washing plan..... hot water and detergent, then straight onto the stove to rinse and melt off the lanolin.

Nor was it too dirty, there really was only a handful of dagged wool to throw out. Not a kempy fibre in sight. The vegetative matter (VM) wasn't too bad either, the odd bit of grass and some wood shavings. I've seen plenty worse. I remember one particular fleece that I scoured which was more field than fleece!



The fleece looked so pretty. Uniform, with a regular crimp. Then I tried to grade the wool from the finest to the coarsest, as the shoulder wool is finer than the flanks.

That's when my hopes came back down to earth with a bang.

The fleece was cotted across the back and shoulders. This means that the wool is matted together, usually close to the skin. In essence the fleece has felted to a greater or lesser degree and cannot be pulled apart easily.


Light cotting can be relaxed in hot water and separated (although it's not ideal). Heavy cotting leaves the fleece almost like a sheepskin rug, but without the skin.

Sometimes you can cut the wool again if you have enough length in the staple.

I did my best, starting from the outer margins, pulling and teasing as I went, but I didn't get very much useable wool.

What wool I did get cleaned beautifully, which almost added insult to injury. It is now drying up on the top shelf of my airing cupboard. I have had to reassure my husband that I won't be felting with it but spinning it.

I know it felts! That's the problem!

A little while ago I stepped out of my blogs and turned the lights off.
If I'm honest, I had reached capacity (and I'm not just talking about the photos on my Picasa account here).

Because I couldn't make felt anymore there didn't seem to be any point in carrying on blogging. From where I was standing I could see my peers expanding their practice while my creative bubble was somewhat diminishing.

So after sweeping most of my blog into a little dust heap I put the broom into the cupboard, held a studio sale, packed my sketchbooks away and  sat down to wait for the post operative recuperation to do its thing. I also went out into the real world and found a job outside of the creative industry.

But people keep visiting the few posts left up, and I keep being e-mailed questions about felting, which is rather nice. So while that's still happening I shall answer them to the best of my ability in this blog. I'll probably share a few hat patterns while I'm at it.

I can't promise I'll post very frequently - the new job is keeping me busy and even finding time to draw is proving tricky! But wool still features significantly ... for example there is a gritstone fleece sitting in the kitchen. Perhaps I'll blog about that tomorrow...

Needle felting with Gretel Parker

Needle felting as opposed to wet felting, is something that I can still do - and hurrah for that! In fact it was a felting needle that opened the door into the whole felting world for me (hence the name of this blog).

The technique involves using a sharp sliver of metal that has several "barbs" cut along it's length. When the needle is stabbed into a mass of wool, the barbs catch and entangle the fibres, thereby creating a nonwoven material. The main difference between wet and dry felting, is that in wet felting, entanglement is created by causing the scales on the wool fibre to open and catch with each other. In dry felting the wool fibres are tangled around each other without the fibre scales having to open. For this reason, it is possible to needle felt all sorts of fibres, not just protein based fibres such as wool.


However needle felting isn't on the City and Guilds syllabus, I thought I'd go and do a workshop  with one of the best in order to pick up some extra skills.

Gretel Parker  is a professional needle felter, designer, art toymaker, illustrator...  if it wasn't for the fact that she is so down to earth, you could hate her for being so talented.

 The little bird we created is one of her many designs and it is the design that makes Gretel's work so scrumptious. After making birds, people started on hares, sloths and a butterfly. As with all good things, the basics are quick to master, but a lifetime could be spent refining your skills.

Image from Mollie Makes website
Gretel's highly refined work is on this months copy of Mollie Makes - just leave me one to buy in the shops as I don't get a subscription! I can't stress enough that if you get the opportunity to see some of Gretel's work or take some tuition from her you should. She is very generous with her time, sketchbooks and ideas.

Thanks Gretel - it was a great day.

Smalls

Beads and baubles aren't tricky, they are sweet, and straightforward.

They also get considerably better with practice. So don't be put off if one or two aren't perfect. As with all these things, the finishing is important so really make sure that your bead is shrunk down to a firm density.

I weep when I see barely fulled beads for sale (as I did this morning at the market).
But enough of that moaning about shoddy felt, lets get on with the simple sphere.

Roll a little wool around itself

Cover again, this time going in the opposite direction and feathering the edges a little. Don't let the ball get too loose but don't wrap really tightly either.

Dip into warm water and with soap on your hands start to roll the ball around your palm. Don't grip at it, just pretend it's one of those chiming balls and jiggle it a little. 

If one of these "cuts" starts to form - don't worry. Just take a tiny piece of fleece, "snap" the fibres into short lengths and put a patch over the cut. As long as not too much felting has started to happen it will all be fine.

Carry on felting the bead...
Once you feel the ball start to shrink and harden you can put more pressure on it. Roll between both your hands keeping the sphere shape. If you want to have an oval, then this is the time to shape and mould the ball. Once it is rinsed in hot and then cold water to remove the soap, and allowed to dry, it will remain in whatever shape you can push it into.

Enjoy making lots of balls of different sizes, they are easy peasy and can be done sitting in front of the television. Then start thinking about how you are going to embellish them, add bails, thread them up etc. 

Now I'm going to grab this interlude to make a point about soap in the feltmaking process. For these small projects the type of soap used isn't desperately important, but in further traditional feltmaking the type of soap does make a difference.

But why use soap anyway?

Felting happens best with a change in pH, plus heat, moisture and friction. That change in pH can be achieved with acids or alkalis. At home the best alkali to use is a bit of soap. Quality olive oil or glycerine soaps are a good bet, as they don't have foaming agents added. Too much foam just pushes the fibres apart making it harder to get the wool scales to catch together. Too little foam and your hands will catch and pill the wool fibres. Olive oil or glyerine soap provides a good amount of foam and change in pH. 

Oh and your hands will also feel much smoother and softer if you use a quality soap too.


Anyway, lets bring on the second act ... "Torpedo Beads"   (essentially long tubes).


Take three pencils.


Wrap fleece evenly around them
Wet out with warm water. The pencils will collapse into a line.
With soap on your hands start rolling them between your palms.

Neaten up the ends regularly, to prevent a scraggy finish. You could cut the ends to neaten them, but cut wool fibres will then possess a blunt tip, which has a habit of forcing its way out to the face of the felt, and it doesn't look as neat as smoothing the felt off in the early stages.

The felt will start to shrink and it won't be long before you can remove one pencil, and carry on fulling (shrinking) by continuing to roll the two remaining pencils between your hands. Repeat the process, finally going down to one pencil. 



Remember your ends though. You can see that the tips in the picture (above right) are starting to get ragged. Neaten, neaten, neaten...

Then you can slide the last pencil out and carry on using
progressively thinner and thinner objects (such as knitting needles, bamboo skewers etc). I'm going to slide this torpedo tube over the end of a sterling silver wire necklet and full the tube right down onto the wire; again by rolling it between my hands. When I think it won't shrink any more, I start to stretch the tube along the wire, just to really get the fibres to lock down hard against each other.

Now in the best Blue Peter tradition....
                         (British children's television programme with a strong craft section)...
                                                                                                               Here is one I made earlier!


It is quite possible to felt and stitch both types of bead together. In the picture below I felted over memory wire and used both torpedo beads and spherical beads in a semi rigid "torque" style necklet.

I used to enjoy making these as they were fast and provided a good base for further textile experimentation with stitching and embellishing. They are also very good fun for children to do.