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.