Learn to Felt With Me, this Weekend at Arcosanti!

arcosanti fiber retreat 2014 flyer

 

If you’re in AZ, come on over to Arcosanti this Saturday and learn to felt with me in person, at Meet & Greet Fiber Retreat 2014!  I’ll be teaching my felt flowers, and answering all of your wool and felt questions.  You can also learn needle felting, or drop spindle spinning and more.  In the afternoon there will be a speaker, Ann Morton.  I went last year and it was great (and there weren’t even classes yet) so this time it’s bound to be a lovely day of learning, fun, and fiber camaraderie.

Visit the Fiber Retreat page on Arcosanti’s site for more info, and RSVP for classes to the email address provided there and on the flyer above.  Hope to see you there!

(If you can’t make it, you can always browse my Felting Basics Part 1 and Part 2, and make your own flowers with my tutorial.  It comes with support, so it’s like we’re virtually felting flowers together!)

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How to Felt Basics, and Felting FAQ Part 2:

Fulling, Felting Your Knitting, Felted Fabric, and More Questions Answered

 

If you read Part 1, you already know what felt is and how to get started making it by hand.  For Part 2, we’ll start with how to finish your handmade felt, or felt something you’ve knitted first.

wet felt bag exampleAn example of the bags I made.  These are made entirely by wet felting; they start out as fluffy wool like the example in Part 1.  As you can see, it’s possible to make complex sculptural shapes without any stitching or even yarn!  I formed the pockets by using resists to keep the two layers from felting together where I didn’t want them to.

 

What is fulling?  Or, how do I felt knitting or fabric or old sweaters?

Fulling is a term used for the second stage of felting, and for felting fabrics which are already knit or woven.  This makes sense because in either case, the fibers are stable enough to take some more vigorous agitation.  Although, when you’re felting something like your knitting by hand, it’s still a good idea to gently encourage the fibers to cling together at first, rather than rubbing them around as hard as possible.  Keep in mind that at any stage, gentle agitation can actually work better.  Try it and see.

There are lots of ways to full, or harden, your felt.  This is where the majority of the agitation takes place.  In Mongolia (where there’s an amazing heritage of felting, think yurts), the tradition is to roll a new rug up inside an old one, and drag the bundle behind a horse!

By Hand

When I’m felting knitting by hand, or fulling a felt piece like the one illustrated in Part 1, I have a bowl of water about as hot as my hands can stand.  I dip the piece into the water, squeeze some of the water out, and rub it.  Two effective motions are rolling, and scrunching the felt between your two hands.  You can also scrub it around on the bubble wrap, or even throw it against a hard surface to get the shrinking going.  Whatever you try, remember to keep your hands in alignment with your arms and wrists in good alignment.

 

felting motions drawing

The advantage of felting and fulling by hand is how much control you have.  The exact parts of your felt you rub are the ones that shrink, and they shrink dramatically more in the specific direction you are agitating them!  Try it by rubbing a corner in towards the middle of the felt, and you’ll see what I mean.  For even fulling, make sure to rotate the direction in which you’re rolling and rubbing.

Stop and stretch your felt (and your hands & arms!) from time to time, stretching out your work will actually help it shrink down further.

For felting my gloves/mittens, I put them on, dunked them in the water, and rubbed them all over and around each other, concentrating on areas that I wanted to shrink more, and alternating taking them off for stretching and rolling with more rubbing while on my hands.

natural dye felt color sampleIn this wet-felted color sample, you can see how fibers from each side of the piece worked their way to the other side with thorough felting.

 

In the washing machine

You can also shrink knitting, fabric, and even hand made felt that’s getting good and sturdy, in the washing machine.  Proving that agitation trumps any and all other factors, even though the fibers are swimming in water and the water may not be that hot, you can quickly get dramatic results.  The downside is that you don’t have much control over what happens.  I usually use the washer to help with fulling when I’m felting something big, but I check on it every few minutes, getting the felt out of the water and stretching or rubbing certain parts to help it take on the shape I want.  Top-loading washers produce the most agitation, and are the easiest to use for checking the felt frequently. Front-loading washers also work, especially if you are trying to felt something as much as possible, so you’re planning to leave it in for the whole cycle.

Set the water level for lowest amount that will cover whatever you’re trying to felt, and the most soil/most agitation setting, with hot water.  Put your piece in a zippered pillowcase, to prevent the wooly lint which some pieces shed a lot of from clogging the washer pump (ask me how I know about that!).  If your washer has a removable lint filter, you don’t need the pillowcase, just be sure to clean the filter when you’re done.

I don’t recommend felting large pieces of fabric in the washing machine, the agitation is just too uneven over such a large piece, and it will probably come out with some areas much more felted than others.  If you want to felt fabric for a sewing project, try cutting it into smaller pieces first (be sure to account for shrinkage when planning the size of the pieces, see below).  Even then, you’ll get the most even results if you can alternate being in the washer with stretching and rolling the pieces.

Some people use the dryer to felt as well.  If you’re trying to shrink your felt as much as possible, throwing it the dryer certainly won’t hurt.  Also feel free to experiment with putting damp felt in the dryer, and checking on it frequently the same way you would for felting in the washer.

 

 

orange felt with unfelted labelThe body of this sweater felted well, except where the stitches were held in place by the sewn-in tag.  Since those fibers weren’t free to rub against each other and felt, they still look the same as they did before going through a few hot washes!

 

Will felt keep shrinking forever?

No.  At some point, the fibers have locked down as much as they are ever going to, and you really can’t get your piece any smaller, even if you want to.

 

Can I decide that my felt is done even if it hasn’t shrunk/hardened as much as it could?

Absolutely.  As long as it’s sturdy enough for its intended use, you can stop whenever it’s the size and thickness you want.  Sometimes the maximum that your felt could shrink would be much too thick and stiff for what you intend, or just too small, especially for felting knitting and fabric.  On the other hand, if you are making hand-felted boots or handbags, you’ll probably want to plan on the maximum amount of felting you can get, so that as many fibers as possible will be locked in, and the finished item will be as long-wearing as possible.

 

How much will my felt shrink?

It depends on a dizzying number of factors, but there is one sure way to find out: test it, by making a sample and measuring it before and after, as I illustrated in my post about the magic purple mittens.  This method works for wet felting too, just measure the dimensions of the wool you lay out before you felt it. If you’re trying to get a sense of how much fiber you used, any dry felt weighs the same as the fiber used to make it.

Wool from different breeds of sheep felts dramatically differently, some from sheep raised for meat may not felt at all!  Even different individual sheep can produce wool which felts differently from the next sheep over.  The hat at the beginning of Part 1 is Churro wool, which shrinks a lot, as you can see from the pattern!

If you’re buying yarn or fabric to felt, unless it’s from a local herd, you may not know what type of sheep it comes from, but most quality wool will felt to some degree.  The yarn or fabric should be at least 50% wool, alpaca, cashmere, or other feltable critter, and not be treated (“superwash” etc.) to prevent felting.  Bleaching can be hard on the fiber scales that make felt work, so lighter colors often take longer to felt.  Like I said, there are a lot of factors, so if it matters what size the final felt is, test first!

 

felt breed samplesWhen I was looking for a wool to make my wet felted bags from, I made a lot of samples!

 

Can felt happen by accident, or with wear?

Definitely.  As you’ve seen by now, the conditions for felt are readily available in your washing machine, which can be disastrous if your nice sweater accidentally gets in there.  And, as I found out the hard way, even if it seems like a garment made from wool fabric is not felting, over many many washes, it eventually will (illustrations and happy ending here).

I also know from experience that a garment can felt as you wear it.  I have a pair of alpaca and wool blend fingerless mitts that, as they are exposed to warmth and moisture from my skin, and agitation as I wear them while I grab my keys, the steering wheel, etc., are slowly becoming more solid.  We shall see what the end result is.  This is something I’m really interested in at the moment, so stay tuned for more findings.  For now, my best advice is: don’t make an article that will be exposed to felting conditions out of a material that felts easily, or plan for shrinkage and felt it first.

 

What should I do with my felt when it’s done?

Let it go through the spin cycle, or roll it up in an old towel and squash it, to get out as much extra water as you can.  In this damp state, the felt is super malleable, so plan on doing some final shaping.  You can rub, tug, scrunch, stretch, and otherwise push the felt around into exactly the shape you’d like.  If you’re felting something like a hat, it helps to have an object to “block” (shape) it on, try a bowl a little bigger around than your head.  When you get you new felt shaped just as you would like, leave it alone to dry.  If the felt is thick, this can take  a couple of days.

Once the felt is dry, you still have another chance to shape and smooth it, with steam from your iron.  All wool responds especially well to steam (think about tailoring), but on felted wool steam is a minor miracle.  It can straighten out lumpy areas and smooth the whole texture of your felt.  Placing the iron right on the felt will also smooth and flatten the surface fibers, so if you don’t want that, hold the iron above the surface to fill the felt with steam, then put the iron down, and shape with your hands.

 

Don’t I need soap to felt?

My current experience says not necessarily, except under special circumstances.  Historically, all kinds of harsh chemicals were used in felting, to roughen up the fibers’ scales and speed up the process.  These were also highly toxic.  Most felters now just use a mild soap.  Olive oil soap and liquid soap are popular choices.  This soap doesn’t do much beyond decreasing the surface tension of the water.  Lately I have been felting mostly without soap, and I haven’t noticed a difference between using it and not using it in my studio.  You may find soap more helpful than I do, depending on your wool and your water.  Don’t add too much though, if the fibers are too slippery they won’t want to grab on to each other.

When you are hand felting, if your hands are sticking to the fibers rather than sliding over them, a little soap on your hands should help.  A mixture of solid soap and water can be a very effective “glue” if you are hand felting two things that don’t want to stick together.

If you are felting in the washing machine, you definitely do not need to add soap.  There will be enough left from the last load to make plenty of foam.

If you do use a soap that’s alkaline (most are), make sure to rinse it out thoroughly when you are done felting.  Animal fibers, like your own hair and skin, are slightly acidic, and being left in an alkaline environment for long periods can damage them.  Include a splash of vinegar or lemon juice in the last rinse, and let the felt soak in it for a few minutes to neutralize any remaining alkalinity.

 

sewn felt bag exampleI made this bag from felted wool sweaters.

 

Why would I want some felt anyway?

Felt is fabulous!  It’s a dream to work with.  As you sew it, you can ease in what seems like an impossibly large piece onto a small one, just using your fingers.   It doesn’t ravel when you cut it.  It wears like iron (assuming it’s tightly fulled).  It’s so insulating that I can iron the outside of one of the wet-felted bags, with lots of steam, with my hand inside, and feel nothing for minutes.  It’s breathable and odor-resistant and has all the other lovely properties of natural fibers.  Plus it’s beautiful, natural, and fascinating.  It can be sculpture with fiber.  It’s the perfect next stage for a sweater that’s been attacked by moths or pets, or just has cuffs too worn out to repair—felt it and make it into something else.

 

Finally, how not to felt

To care for precious article you’d rather not felt, basically do the opposite of what you would to felt it.  Hand wash it very gently: place it in water with a little bit of pH neutral soap.  Let it soak clean, press down gently to move the water through it, and drain the water off without agitating.  Keep the rinse water the same temperature as the wash (lukewarm is fine) and avoid letting the water run directly on the article.  Spin it out (spin only) in the washer, or roll in a towel and mash on the roll.  Reshape, and leave to dry flat.

 

Further reading

My favorite felting book is Uniquely Felt by Christine White.  It covers, in detail, methods for just about every type of wet felting you could think of.  Pat Spark, who I mentioned in Part 1, has been at the forefront of bring felting to the internet since the very beginning, and she has a ton of useful info on her site.

 

I packed as much as I could in here without going into exhaustive detail, so I hope it’s helpful and not too overwhelming.  If you have more felt questions, send them my way!

 

How To Felt Basics, and Felting FAQ Part 1:

What is Felt, and How Do I Get Started Making it?

 

felted hats with patternA hat I made early in my felting experiments (top) and a commercially felted hat.  The hats are sitting on the pattern I used to lay out the wool . . .

 

As I mentioned in the post about my magic purple mittens, felting is probably the fiber technique I have the most claim to be an “expert” on, and, until now, I haven’t posted much about it here at all.  Most of my deep explorations into felt happened before I started this blog, and as I’ve been digging into my research and photo archives, compiling what I want to say as an intro to felting, it’s clear there’s enough material here for a least two posts.

I’ve organized this roughly as a list of felt FAQ.  I could go on at length from any one of these starting points, but I’ll try to keep it concise.  The photos and illustrations here are necessarily going to be a little mishmashy, as they represent work over a big swath of time.  Click on the photos to enlarge for an better view of the felt texture.  Ok, let’s get started, shall we?

 

What is felt anyway?

The short answer: Fibers (for real felt these must grow on an animal: a sheep, an alpaca, a cashmere goat etc.) which have matted together into a permanent fabric.  It’s the scales on the fibers (like the ones on your hair, visualize the close-up from a shampoo commercial) that open up and cling together.  It doesn’t sound permanent, but if you’ve ever tried to pull apart a piece of felt, or un-shrink a sweater that accidentally went through the wash, you know it is.

There are lots of types of felt.  It can be made from combed fibers alone, or from fibers that have already been spun into yarn and woven or knitted into fabric.  In either case, as long as there are at least 50% feltable fibers in the mix, the fabric should be able to felt.  It’s easy to make felt at home (even by accident) and there are factories that make felt on a commercial scale.  I’d love to visit one sometime.

Wet Felt

When someone says their work is “wet-felted”, they’re probably talking about the seamless, stitch-less felt made from only fluffy brushed wool fibers (read on for how to make your own).  Below is a piece of my hand made wet felt, which I cut and sewed after it was done, to make the wallet.  The decoration was made at the same time as the fabric.

Most commercially made felt, whether starting from fibers or fabric, uses some kind of wet or steam process.  When you felt your knitting, recycled sweaters, or fabric, you’ll also use water and heat.

 

blue petal wallet 2

 

A couple of special types of felt that I won’t cover in depth, but wanted to mention, in case you’re curious:

Nuno felt

Nuno felt is made with thin layers of wool on either either side of a piece of fine fabric, usually silk.  We traded Bryan’s work for the totally gorgeous example below by Gina Pannorfi at one of our art shows this past summer.  (Lucky me, it’s just the loveliest thing.)  Because the silk provides some of the structure, nuno felt can be quite thin and drapey while holding together.

 

Gina nuno scarf

 

Needle felt

Needle felt is what it sounds like, made by pushing fibers together with a special barbed needle, or a collection of them.  Although it doesn’t make a sturdy, hard-wearing fabric the way that wet felting does, amazing detail is possible with needle felt.  Do a search for “needle felt” with your favorite animal name on Etsy, and you’ll see what I mean.  I made the examples below in a class on color theory for felters—with Pat Spark!  She has a whole bunch of good felting information and tutorials on her site if you’re looking for more felt info.

 

needle felt color studies

 

Fake felt

That slightly sticky, slightly glittery “craft felt” at the hobby store is usually made from polyester.  The fibers are punched together with needles and/or held together with glue.  It really has none of the lovely properties of real felt.  Commercial wool and wool-blend felt is more readily available than it used to be (at least in the US), so you may be able to find it at your craft store as well.

 

How do I make felt?

The short answer: Most importantly agitation, combined with at least a little moisture, and optionally heat, on wool, alpaca etc. makes felt.  There are about a million ways to apply these, depending on what you’re working on and what equipment you have.

I’ll start with a quick intro to making felt from just combed wool.  I think that way, the rest of the felting process will make more sense, and it’s interesting to know, even if you only plan to felt from knitting or fabric.

If you’re looking for to buy wool for felting, it’s usually sold as roving (a loose roll that spinners use) or batts (which are more convenient for felting, since you can pull off big thin layers).

These photos are from my felt flower tutorial, which will walk you through the whole process if you’re interested.

Step 1

Lay out thin layers of wool, with the fibers alternating directions.  Keep in mind that your finished project will shrink in as the fibers pull in toward each other, so make it bigger than you want (I’ll go into how much bigger in the next post).  The wool is very fluffy and will seem thick, but it will compress to almost nothing once it’s wet.  Use several layers for a cohesive piece of felt.  Squish it down with your hand to get an idea of how much fiber is really there.

 

dry wool layers

 

Step 2

Add a little water.  Dripping it from a sponge is a good way.  You want the wool to be all wet but not swimming in water.  You can squash on the wool gently with the sponge to get it all wet.

 

water from sponge

 

Step 3

Agitation.  Arguably this is the last step, but there are a few stages to it.  At first, you’ll need to rub the felt very gently.  You want the fibers to cling together, which they won’t do if they’re being shifted all over the place.  For wet felting small pieces like this, I like to use two layers of bubble wrap (the ordinary, small-bubble kind), one underneath the fiber and one on top.  The bubble helps spread and soften the motions of your hands.  Think about getting the bubbles to massage the wool, not about moving your hands on the bubble.

Important!: Felting by hand involves a lot of repetitive motion.  As you work, make sure your wrists are in line with your arms and not bent at a strange angle, to avoid injury.

 

bubble wrap rub

 

Rub for a couple of minutes, then lift the bubble and check on how things are coming.  You’ll probably need to rub some more.  As you practice felting, you’ll start to notice subtle changes in the texture of the piece that show how it’s coming along:

 

wet wool layersWet wool layers.

 

slightly rubbed wool layersThe wool is starting to cling together, but there are still a lot of loose fibers.

 

more rubbed wool layersAlthough still soft, this prefelt is now a cohesive unit.

 

Once your wool is holding together enough that you can pick the whole thing up and it stays together, it’s what felters call a prefelt.  A prefelt isn’t strong enough to be a finished object, and it has lots of fibers that are still ready to cling to each other or to other parts of your project.  You can check by pinching up a few of the top fibers to see if they’re attached to the ones below.  At this point, the felt is ready for whatever you have in mind for its next stage.  It can be easier to work with if you dry it off, by squashing it between two layers of an old towel.

 

prefelt

 

So, my wool is holding together, now what?  Read on to Part 2 for how to finish felt like the piece above, how to felt your knitting, more questions answered, and even how not to felt . . .

 

Aimee León: Art, Sheep Shearing, and Connections

aimee león at arcosanti

 

A few weeks ago, I got invited at the last minute to go with a couple of friends to a fiber “meet and greet” event, held at Arcosanti (about an hour and a half south of Flagstaff).  I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I am so glad I went.  Not only was it fun to hang out with other fiber crafters and get a glimpse of the architecture on a rainy, blustery day in the desert, but the speaker was fantastic.

Aimee León, who is working towards her MFA at ASU in Phoenix, had agreed to come up and speak to us about her felt artwork – for free.  Her talk epitomized one thing I just love about the maker movement and modern crafters; people who are not just looking to make something, but thinking deeply about the connections between materials, handcrafts, and society.

Aimee shears sheep (did you know they can weigh more than 200 lbs each?) and uses discarded wool in her artwork, which reflects her ideas about society and gender norms.  She talked about how much wool is wasted because small farmers don’t have the resources to ship whole container loads to China (!) for processing, and about her goal to bring more of that local wool to fiber artists.  And about the historical connections of wool and fiber with labor, women’s role in society, commodities, and how we think about the clothes we wear today.  One great thing about a small venue is that I had a chance to talk with Aimee quite a bit, before and after her presentation.  There are so many ideas to pursue in these topics that I could have talked much longer . . .

I love thinking about how what I make is connected to the materials I use and where they come from, the historical use and place in society of the materials and the maker, and all the choice that gives me in the modern world.  It just reinforces the fact that the choice to be a maker in modern times is a powerful one for us as individuals, with implications for our broader society as well.

 

arcosanti desert in rain

A desert road near Arcosanti on that foggy wet day

Do check out Aimee’s website, there are lots of pictures of her work and links to other interesting projects she’s working on.  If you live around here and would like to be on the mailing list for this event next year, let me know and I’ll pass your info on to the lovely woman who organizes it, Kimberly Hatch (thanks Kimberly!).

What do you think about art and craft and its potential to change us?  I’d love to know!

 

Felt Flower Tutorial is Now on Craftsy

 

Hello!  So, you may have noticed that blogging here has been at a more, um, measured pace than usual, even for me.  That’s mostly due to a new project I’m working on, which I’m so exited about, sweat breaks out on my upper lip every time I start thinking about it – no kidding!  More about that before long.

In the meantime, I wanted to let you know that I found a great new platform for my felt flower tutorial.  It’s called Craftsy – the folks who run it have done a great job recruiting well respected authors in all kinds of crafts to teach their online classes, plus they are making a significant effort to support indie designers such as myself in their pattern shop!  The best part for customers is that you don’t have to wait for me to email you the pattern, you can download it instantly.  Just click on the picture at the top of the post.

Um, if you like it, tell all your friends!  As they say on American Routes, “If you don’t like it, don’t tell nobody!”

 

Finished flowers

Announcing My First Tutorial!

I’m super excited to announce that my first tutorial is finished and available in my Etsy shop!  And, it’s also available as a kit with wool and practically everything else you need to get started.
I’m really happy with how it came out.  I’ve spent quite a bit of time and energy on it, but 28 pages, lots of flowers, and over 115 color photos later (LOTS of photo editing), it’s everything you need to know to make your very own felt flowers, all from my brain, hands, and laptop!
Looks interesting, right?  Why not try it out!

Felt Flowers and Cookies (good combo)

 

Yesterday I held a wet-felt flower workshop.  Now that basically all the snow from our giant storm is melted, the weather is starting to truly feel like spring, perfect time to make some flowers!

I made these almond butter cookies for my students (/when some more people were around to help me eat them all).  They were amazing – almost like a macaron with just a little crispy shell of crust and a lovely soft interior.  And they happen to be flourless!  The only change I made to the recipe was to substitute 2 tsp of Amaretto for the vanilla (and decrease baking soda because I’m baking at 7000 feet).  This recipe was recommended to me by my friend Janice.  Not only does she make beautiful jewelry, she has great taste in food!

Don’t live near Flagstaff?  Want to make some flowers?  You may be in luck – I’m turning this workshop into a PDF tutorial!  If you would like to be a guinea pig and help me test it out, you’ll get the tutorial for free, and I may even send you some wool.  If you are interested, leave a comment or contact me.  No felting experience required!