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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.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks!
    here's one typo: ...make yourself as many evenly spaced "hopes" as you can.
    (A photo here would be good or more explanation of the bottle prep.)

    Also a photo of the plastic, on the wool in the first phase of felting.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you for picking up that typo. I shall be adding some photographs just as soon as I can take some to assist with clarity.

    ReplyDelete