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.


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.

The Stealth Witch

After talking with a friend I decided it might be nice to put up some "how to" posts.  While I might not be able to physically make felt I can still talk about it for a while. Also I'm aware that one of my hats is being taught by popular request, which is flattering and lovely - So I thought "Why not share it on line"? If you are a feltmaker used to making 3D seamless pieces you will be able to make one of these hats.

First a bit of background. This hat was part of the design progression series. I was making round crown hats, which were becoming increasingly pleated, creased and folded. Then I remembered a character from Terry Pratchett's Book  "The Wee Free Men" called Miss Tick.

Miss Tick is an undercover witch operating in a witch unfriendly country, and she has a contraption which raises and lowers the pointed crown on her hat at the appropriate moment. The two ideas merged together and the *Stealth Witch* Hat (patent pending) was born.

But how do you pattern such a thing? There are three main ways ...

1) The proper way - you measure your head around the the part you intend the hat to sit (ie. if you are going to wear it tipped back, measure around your forehead to the base of your skull). I wear mine sitting more forwards so I measured around my forehead above my ears.

Take your measurement and multiply it by one and a half times. Most felt making assumes a shrinkage rate of 33%. While this is not always the case, it is a good rule of thumb to apply. Percentage calculations demand that you add 50% to get a 33% shrinkage. Please don't ask me to explain the maths because I can't. You'll just have to trust me.

2) The second way is to draw a pattern from your existing measurements and add a generous extra couple of inches (5 / 6 cm) all the way around. This approach is for the Gung Ho amongst you and I don't recommend it.

3) Last but not least, learn by heart that the diameter of a hat pattern needs to be at least 15" wide and the crown at 18" high.

My pattern is 27" at the widest part of the brim, narrowing to 18" at the forehead. The brim is about 5" deep and the crown is a whopping 32" tall.

Once you have those measurements plotted down on your resist material (I use laminate flooring underlay because it has a slight "lip" to it which helps in identifying the edge and preventing seams), the next big thing is drawing the point of the hat.
Do not make this angle too narrow, 45 degrees is the minimum angle you can get away with. Any sharper and you will end up with a point you cannot shrink down into a pleasing tip. Instead it will felt to itself and misbehave.
Round off the tip too, or else as the felt starts to shrink, the resist will poke through the top of your hat and spoil it.

Lay out and felt using the 3D resist technique. That is 2 fringes of wool and 4 layers of felt. If you don't know what I am talking about I'll do another tutorial soon, but most feltmakers will know what I mean. As soon as the resist starts to buckle, cut it out, rub out the seam line and heal the brim edge.
After fulling until the hat fits your head, the last part is to crimp down the crown. With the hat extended, pinch the felt and pleat it against itself by pushing down with your fingers, about an inch deep at a time. Start pinching at the place where the top of your head will come and work the fold all the way around the crown, then repeat a little higher up, pinching and pushing until just the tip is left.

Eventually you will be left with a flat profile to the top of your hat and the appearance of several concentric circles. The central one of these circles is the tip, which when pulled will extend the hat back out again.

Once you are happy with your pleating, set the folds by steaming your hat or letting it dry while creased. Then finish with trim and go out undercover to scare small children with your witchiness!

Just a small note - I am very happy to have this hat made for personal use, but please not for sale, and if you do use my pattern I appreciate being recognised. Thank you.

The Pleasure vs Pain equation

Things go well, things go badly. The two seem to be linked by some unfathomable law which holds an equilibrium between pleasure and pain. Or put another way, everything has an equal and opposite reaction? Something like that. All I know is what when something goes well, something else won't.

So anyway I won a City and Guilds Gold medal of excellence in Feltmaking and Design. It was a wonderful feeling being awarded, a real pinch me I'm dreaming moment.

The back of the medal has the  arms of the 16 livery companies that set up the initial City and Guilds training ... it's shiny and pretty and I was very proud. Then I was invited to the Lion awards to celebrate...

Best bib and tucker donned, managed not to spill my food down my frock or twist my ankle (I am out of the habit of wearing high heels). Met lots of interesting people including a Saville row tailor, ate wonderful food, watched marvellous entertainment, stayed up late and enjoyed every second.

Then I came home and received the results of the MRI scan during the preoperative assessment. My shoulders aren't ever going to be good enough to carry on felting, even after going under the knife. All repetitive motion has to be avoided. While I was expecting some decompression surgery, it may involve a rotator cuff repair as well.

All the work I had put into using the washing machine as a felting tool was not enough, it bought me enough time to get me to here, but now it has to stop. After all, who would be so stupid as to carry on doing something that is simply going to damage them physically?
Not me.

OH my word ! The polling booths are open!

I've been nominated for the City and Guilds Lion award! Now I really do feel like I have to ask for some assistance.

Please help me make sure I don't come last. You can vote daily, and I would be so grateful if you would help me make feltmaking just a little more popular!!

New year - New Broom

In my last post of 2011 I wished for hard work, new lessons and a dose of luck. Today on the first day of the new year I ended up wiping my blog clean. Time will tell how misguided or otherwise this action is, but I am optimistic.

The prompt came from Google blogger, informing me that my Picasa web album was full. There it was, the first lesson. I didn't even realise that I had a Picasa web album, let alone that there was a limit on it.

When I went to look at the pictures on line my heart sank - duplication upon duplication, more rubbish than my eyes could stand to look at. Several years of progression, that much was evident, but not much else. So in the spirit of New Year beginnings I decided to take a metaphorical broom and sweep the whole thing clean. Of course this had implications for the blog too, so I brushed that down at the same time....

I can hear the faint screams from at least one person, but bear with me; and my goodness I feel lighter now ..... Happy New Year !