Blocking Knitting Without Special Equipment

When I mention blocking your knitting, I get a lot of blank looks from my students, and concern about how to do it and what they need to make it happen. Although it can be a magical transformation, it doesn’t need to be mysterious. And although there are a bunch of gadgets (special mats and pins, forms, blocking wires etc.) sold specifically for blocking, you don’t need to use any of those to get good results.  Some pins and a place to hold them will do, and sometimes you don’t even need that.

lupine cowl blocking


What does blocking mean anyway?

Blocking is actually a simple concept.  It just means using water and/or steam to set the final shape of something after you knit it.  As you knit, you make a new structure—a fabric—with your yarn. When the fabric gets wet, the yarn has a chance to settle into its new shape.  Sometimes it can change quite a bit, expanding or relaxing in response to the tensions (or lack of) that are now on it.

In blocking we take advantage of the fact that the yarn can form new shapes, and influence those shapes in the direction we want.  This can be as simple as gently stretching and patting a sweater so that it looks good flat, and leaving it to dry.  Sometimes more dramatic blocking is part of what makes a pattern shine, like stretching lace as much as possible to make the most of the open areas in the pattern.

Essentially, blocking is getting your knitting wet, shaping it how you want it to be, and holding it in that shape until it dries.


Why wet?

Yarns, especially wool ones, can change shape much more easily when they’re wet.  This is because of the structure of the fibers themselves.  (If you’re curious about the science of wool and haven’t seen the wool article I wrote for this month’s Seamwork, check it out!)

You can also stretch/shape your object while it’s dry, and then steam it to set the shape.  In general, I prefer the wet method for a few reasons.  It’s gentler on the fibers, and gives them a chance to relax before being under tension. It also gives a good idea of what your finished project will be like when it’s washed later.  A damp yarn object is easier to shape.  And when you finish knitting something, it may have been dragged all over hither and yon and have oils from your hands (or sticky stuff from your toddler) on it, and washing it is probably not a bad idea anyway.  (Hey—my favorite method for hand-washing is in that wool article too—good timing!)  (And speaking of good timing, Karen posted an eloquent argument this morning about why you should wash/block a swatch before embarking on a big project.  This is especially important when you’re making something like a sweater, where the final size/fit/drape is crucial to success.)


Does everything need blocking?

Not really.  I do wash all my finished knitting projects, shape them gently with my hands, and then leave them to dry.  But not everything needs to be pinned out, or to dry in an exact shape.  Socks, for example, are meant to be a little smaller than my foot, and to take on the exact shape of my foot when I wear them, so I don’t see much point in carefully shaping them before wearing.


How do I block something without special gadgets?

Everyone should have sewing pins, they’re useful for all kinds of things.  I’m not counting them as special equipment, but, it’s worth getting some with large, easy-to-see heads if you don’t have them already.  I like plain flat-head pins for sewing, but they get lost in the structure of hand knits.

The only other thing you need is a surface where your knits can dry that you can pin into.  A lot of times I use the same folded piece of flannel that I iron on.  An ironing board or a couch cushion covered with a towel are good choices for small projects.  For big items I stretch an old sheet over my bed (see below).


blocking shawl 1I tuck a doubled-over old sheet in tight over the bed covers.  That provides enough tension to hold in place when I pin onto it.  Plus it protects the covers from pin marks or any dye transfer from the yarn.  (Forgive the weird indoor lighting.  I wanted to show how I actually do this, but our bedroom is not ideal for photos …)

When your finished project is clean and damp, it’s ready to block.  Stretch and shape it with your hands, patting wrinkled areas out, smoothing ridges parallel, etc.  Pin in place any pieces that try to shrink back, away from the shape you want.


blocking shawl 2For this shawl, I pinned it at regular intervals along the straight edge, and intermittently along the other two edges.  You may have to move the pins as you smooth out the whole project, and that’s fine.  (This is my Indigo Boomerang, made with handspun.  More details are on Ravelry, and pictures of it worn are also in this post on slowness.)

For the cowl at the top of the post, I wanted to stretch the lace sections, but not the plain knitting in between.  I could have blocked it flat, a couple of sections at a time, and that would probably have worked fine, especially if I steamed it.  Instead I decided to experiment with different sizes of rolled up towels, and found a combo which was the right size to block it around.  I opened up the lace with my fingers while it was damp, and pinned the two edges parallel.

When your blocked knitting is dry, take out the pins and check out the shape.  If there are any parts you’re not happy with, or little pulled areas from the pins, those are great places to steam.  Hold your iron over the part you want to adjust (don’t flatten it) and fill it with steam.  Then take the iron away and reshape it with your fingers.


Will I have to block my knitting every time I wash it?

Probably not.  The most dramatic change takes place the first time the yarn gets wet in its new knitted shape.  Unless something extreme happens to it, it will stay more or less how you blocked it, with the additional influence of how it’s worn.  Lace may need to be re-blocked to look its crispest, but it won’t go all the way back to how it looked before you blocked it the first time.  For most items, a quick smoothing/stretching with your hands, before letting them dry flat is enough.  I like to drape bigger things like the shawl over the top of a wooden drying rack, using lower bars of the rack to hold the ends so that no part gets too stretched by gravity, or too folded and wrinkly, while it’s drying.

If your project does dry with wrinkles, a little steam will fix that right up.

I hope this helps demystify blocking for you!  The more we can all understand what’s going on with our yarn at various stages and why, the more we can get the results we want.  Happy knitting!


Tips and Ideas for Sewing Cover Buttons, DIY and Store-Bought


diy sewing cover buttons 1


As I mentioned in my knitted cover button post, I got into some online research on DIY cover buttons, and I couldn’t resist making up a couple of sewn ones.  Special thanks to Sophie of Ada Spragg for pointing me towards Ebony H’s tutorial for fabric covered buttons on SewStylist!  I love the idea of covering existing buttons, and especially that you can sew through them.  But, I’m kind of a purist, I like things clean, and held together with needle and thread alone.  And I had some more ideas … so, below is my version.

If you’d rather use a cover button kit from the fabric store (I do this a lot too), scroll down (way down) towards the bottom of the post, and I’ll include my favorite tips for those as well.

Let’s get started, shall we?

Measuring & planning the button front

Draw around your button with a fine-point marker.  It’s easiest to use one that erases with water or air, but if you don’t have that, you can use any regular marker that won’t show through your fabric, just keep all markings on the wrong side of the button.  Draw another circle outside the button outline—this is the fabric that will wrap around the button to the back.  It should be just a little smaller (about 1/8″ or 3mm smaller) than the thickness of your button plus half its width.  If your button is bigger, you can have more of a gap in the fabric at the middle of the back.  For these little buttons, I wanted as much fabric on the back as I could get without it bunching up in the middle, so that it has the best chance of staying in place and not fraying as I sew it.  Mark the distance you want outside the button outline at several points, then connect them to make an outer circle.  (This picture also shows the markings for the back piece, which we’ll get to later.)


diy sewing cover buttons 2


Embroidery (optional of course)

If you’d like to add any embellishments, it’s easier to work them before you cut out the fabric pieces.  I was inspired by this post on The Purl Bee, but decided I’d rather have simple stitching.  I think this would look great if you used the same thread as the topstitching on your project.

Since I used a water-erasable pen, I could stitch on the same side as the marks, following the button outline.


diy sewing cover buttons 3


Once I was done with my embroidery, I caught the thread ends in the stitching on the wrong side, and trimmed them off.


diy sewing cover buttons 4


Sew & gather the button front

Cut out your fabric circle.  Then sew a line of running stitches around the edge, around 1/8″ or 3mm inside the cut edge.  Ordinarily I’d use matching thread for this, but as you’ll see, it won’t show, so use contrasting if it’s easier to see.  Start with a knot, or leave a long tail so you can pull on both ends of the thread when you’re done.  The smaller you make the stitches, the easier it will be to pull your gathers in tight.


diy sewing cover buttons 5


diy sewing cover buttons 6


Time to pull the gathers around your button.  At this point it occurred to me that I needed to get the button wet at some point to erase the marker, and it might be easier to manipulate the gathers if the fabric was damp.  It totally was!  So I highly recommend spritzing your fabric with a little water before you cinch it around the button.  This should work for all natural fibers.

Pull the gathers in tight.  Use your thumbnail or an awl, etc. to redistribute any gathers that are bunching up.


diy sewing cover buttons 7


Once the gathers are set how you’d like them, stitch around the back, a bit inside the edge, with a series of backstitches to hold them in place.


diy sewing cover buttons 8


The button back

I wanted another fabric piece to cover all these raw edges on the back.  To make one, draw around your button again, but this time just add a tiny bit around the edge, I found 2 mm to be just about perfect (I know you have a metric ruler, fellow Americans).

Stitch another circle of running stitches, this time just inside the line you drew around the button.  Leave a tail of thread at the beginning and the end.


diy sewing cover buttons 9


Pull on both the thread tails to gather the raw edge to the inside.  It may help to get the fabric wet again.  You can use the blunt end of a needle to push out any parts of the turned-in edge that get bunchy.  This doesn’t have to end up as a perfect circle, since it will be on the back, but roundish is helpful.


diy sewing cover buttons 11


Once the back looks pretty good, I like to tie the thread ends in a knot, so the fabric won’t come ungathered as I sew it on.


diy sewing cover buttons 12


You can guess what to do now, right?  Yep, sew the back piece in place, using tiny stitches around the edge.


diy sewing cover buttons 13


Finish off with a couple of backstiches under the edge.


diy sewing cover buttons 14


That’s it!  I sewed them on using my favorite method, making a thread shank on the back. You could also sew just through the fabric on the back of the button, rather than through the original button holes, but I think this would leave the fabric on top of the button free to shift around a bit.

The possibilities here are endless … and speaking of endless possibilities:


Tips for store-bought cover button kits

I use these a lot (at least I did before I discovered the above technique).  My favorite are the tiny ones (surprise).  Here are my best tips:

1.  Get the kind with the teeth facing inwards, not the ones with the flat metal edge.  The teeth are a lot easier to work with, and you can use them without tools, precisely centering your fabric.  The flat edge also cuts through the fabric over time, meaning your buttons wear out faster.


cover button packagesOnes on either side, good, the center ones, not so much.  Her hair!  Can you tell I inherited cover button kits from both my grandmothers?


2. Use another layer of fabric, or something thin and opaque like interfacing, under your button fabric.  This prevents the shiny button from showing through, and gives your button a subtle but nice plusher look.  The extra piece only needs to be the size of the button top, since it doesn’t need to wrap around.


cover buttons coatI replace the fabric on a couple of these buttons on my coat about once a season.  The ones with a layer of interfacing do seem to last longer.


3. The guides printed on the back of the button kit are probably too big for thick fabric and/or knits.  You need enough fabric to secure in the teeth, but not so much that it bunches up and keeps the back from seating in securely.  You may need to experiment to find the right size circle for your fabric.

4.  Pull the fabric up from two opposite sides, and hook it onto the teeth by pressing it under them.  Repeat at right angles to your first two points, and then do the places in between.

5.  For knits, it’s up to you how much you stretch the fabric as you pull it over the button.  Pulling less will make the buttons look more plush.  Try to be consistent, however you like it.


cover buttons small wool knit


6.  It’s totally possible to use the metal parts of these kits many times when the fabric wears out (like on my coat).  Use any small flat tool to pop off the back, then pull off the remains of the fabric, and start again.

7.  You could definitely use embroidery on these as well (they do in that Purl Bee tutorial), just be careful when centering the fabric—see 4.  You could even use the embroidery to tack your two layers together.


cover buttons small wool knit finished


I think that’s the lot, for now anyway.  Best returns of the season, everyone!


Basting: Thread Magic


new backstitch 1


I kind of feel sorry for anyone who doesn’t like basting, or thinks they don’t.  It’s a like a magic wand for your sewing.  It keeps things exactly in place for exactly as long as you need it, doesn’t distort your final sewing, doesn’t need to be removed as you go, and can be pulled out when you’re done, leaving no mark behind.

I fell in love with basting many moons ago, while sewing a collar onto a button-down shirt.  I had all the layers of shirt and collar scrunched together ready to sew, and no matter how many pins I put in, the fabric kept shifting under the sewing machine as I went and getting terribly uneven, and/or folding over and catching pieces of the shirt I didn’t want in the seam.  After ripping it all out and starting over two or three times, I decided to baste it in by hand and see if that was any better.  Held by the basting, the shirt and collar seam went through the machine without a hitch, as nice as I could ask for, on the first try.


basting stripes


Basting just means any kind of temporary stitching, meant to hold fabric in place until you can get the final stitching done.  The advantage is that the basting doesn’t have to be neat and even, or strong enough to hold up with wear, so you can concentrate just on the fabric while you’re basting, and then just on stitching when you’re sewing the final seam.

If I’m in a situation where I want basting, usually it’s because I need more precise control over the fabric, so I baste by hand.  To baste, simply sew running stitches (illustrated at the top).  The stitches can be pretty big and uneven—concentrate on the placement of the fabric layers with each stitch, rather than the stitches themselves.  I like to begin and end with a backstitch, just to keep the basting from pulling apart until I’m done.

Some good places to use basting are: when you want things to align exactly (like matching stripes), when there are a lot of shifty layers (like the collar seam), or any other time when you want to make sure some part of your project will stay in place while you sew it.  For the soft bra below, I knew there was no way the lace would stay in the folds I wanted against the fabric if it was held only by pins.  Plus, basting allowed me to put everything together on my dress form, seeing exactly how the lace would work on a body, and then take the whole thing off the form and sew it.


basting lace on form


finished soft bra lace


It worked great!  When you’re done with the final seam, you can remove the basting easily.  Pick out the backstitches at the ends and grab one thread tail, then you can often pull out a long basting thread with one pull.  Unless of course you sewed over it in the final stitching, but no worries, that happens.  Just pull out what you can at once, you may have to cut and pick out a few small thread bits.

Although it may sound like a technique for more advanced sewing, I definitely recommend basting for beginners too.  When you’re just starting out, learning how your machine handles fabric, especially in tricky situations, isn’t easy.  You can baste practically anything that you just can not get to stay in place while sewing on the machine, get much better results, and save yourself a lot of frustration.  According to The Mary Frances Sewing Book, back when most garments were sewn by hand, it was more efficient to baste a seam first, and then sew it, than to sew the final stitches while trying to keep the fabric layers in place.

Best of luck with your sewing!


How to Mend a Small Hole: Sewing a Patch by Hand



small hand sewn patch 5


Here’s another way to fix a small hole in a shirt or a sweater—especially a hole that’s a little too big to simply sew back together without causing puckers.  No sewing machine required though, it’s more invisible to sew a little patch like this by hand.  These examples are in woven fabric, but this technique also works on knits.  I sewed a patch like this on the front of this sweater, which because of the fuzzy knit fabric is too invisible for pictures!

I’m going to demonstrate on two skirts, which happen to both be made of linen, cut on the bias, and have small holes.  The difference is, the blue one at the top I fixed for keeps—it had a little tear, but the rest of the fabric is still in good shape.  I bought the pink stripey one for a dollar on the sale rack at St. Vinnie’s, and it followed me around the country on our summer travels for years.  I even tried out two different ideas for adding pockets to bias skirts on it.  By now it’s on its way out, the fabric across the back has a few tears, and is super thin and ready to tear in a lot more places.  It’s ready to retire, but I can get one more use out if it by fixing one of the holes with bright green thread so you can see what’s going on.

To start, cut a circular patch, about three times as big across as your hole.  Making it a little bigger will make the sewing easier, and you can trim it later.  If you have a piece of the garment fabric, cut the patch from a section that matches up with where the hole is, in terms of color, pattern, or wear.  If not, just try to find something that matches as well as possible.  Hold the scrap behind the hole to see how it looks.  If your fabric is very loosely woven, you may want to sew around the edges of the patch to keep it from unraveling.  Otherwise, a circular patch should be ok as it is through normal wear and washing.

Click on any of the pictures to enlarge, you can see more detail here than I could while sewing the patches!


small hand sewn patch 1


Carefully center the patch behind the hole.  Match the grain (the direction of the grid of threads) of the garment and the patch.  This is especially important if the garment is cut on the bias (with the grain at 45°) like this one, because I want to avoid changing the drape of the bias cut.

Pin the patch in place through the front of the garment, sticking each pin in and out of the fabric twice.  Check to see that the patch is centered over the hole, and re-pin if necessary.  If the fabric is slippery, it may be easier to sew a few temporary basting stitches, and pull them out when you’re done, than to get the pins to hold it.



small hand sewn patch 2


Knot your thread, and bring it up from the back.  Sew around the hole a couple of times, sewing through both layers using small backstitches.  Don’t pull the stitches too tight, or the fabric will pucker up.  Try to catch each thread that is cut by the hole on one pass or the other.  If there are intact threads in the center of the hole, tack them down to the patch too.

The goal is to keep the hole from unraveling any further, without adding so many stitches that it makes the patch stand out.

When it’s done, secure the thread with another knot or a couple of backstitches just through the patch on the back.

Here’s the finished patch on the front:


small hand sewn patch 4


And from the back.  You can trim the patch, but leave some around the edges so that if it unravels slightly, there will still be enough fabric to hold it in place.


small hand sewn patch 3


Here’s the back of the blue one:


small hand sewn patch 6


Hopefully this adds another option to your mending toolkit!

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 Fix a Coat with a Ripped Back Vent


coat vent mend 1


I’ve had this coat for, um, more than a decade now, around 15 years I think (!) . . . I bought it for $5 at a garage sale at my dad’s church, when I was in High School.  It was, without question, one of my best ever thrift finds.  I wear it all winter, every winter, and I still get compliments on it all the time.  I have fixed it so many times, in so many places, which really is the biggest key to its success over all this time, that and the quality fabric. The only clue I have to the coat’s true origins is a little tag inside which says “wolle.”

The other day, as I was finishing up teaching, I looked over at my coat hanging on the back of my chair, and the back vent was completely ripped out.  It’s cold here now, especially at night, so this project jumped right to the head of my line.

Fixing the outside part is actually not too big a deal.  Thanks to interfacing and the aforementioned quality fabric, the stitches have popped but the outside fabric isn’t torn (the lining is another matter which we’ll get to later).


coat vent mend 2

(As always, click on any of the pictures to enlarge for a better look.)

I lined up the vent in its original position, twisting the coat around to get a good angle for sewing.  I can tell where the stitching was by the little channel the thread has left in the fabric, and by the bits of leftover thread.  I lined up these clues, pinned things in place, and started sewing, overlapping the place where the original seam is still intact.

I used a double thread and backstiches sewn by hand to replicate the old seam.  I could have done at least some of this on the machine, but by the time I got the thread, stitch length etc. all sorted out, I figured this way was faster and easier.

As near as I can tell, those bits of thick white yarn are for matching a point in the original construction, and weren’t used to hold anything together.  When this coat does finally give up the ghost, I think I’ll take it apart and see what else I can glean from how the inside is put together.  I’d love to make my next winter coat from scratch.


coat vent mend 3


Back to mending for now; keep following the path of the old vent stitching.  It makes several right angles which seem random, but they were obviously holding everything in the right place before, so just go with it.  I found that right at the turn it was useful to make another pass and add a few more backstitches.  It can be hard to get them as dense as you would like and still get through the thick layers.  Turn the coat right side out and see if everything is held in place the way you would like.  If not, it’s easy to add more stitches.


coat vent mend 4


So that’s actually about it, just keep backstitching until you get to the end of the old seam.  Since that’s obviously a point of stress, I stitched in a little rectangle all around it to distribute the stress, rather than just following the path of the old thread.

Flip the coat right side out, and if you are satisfied with how the vent looks, it’s time to fix the lining.


coat vent mend 5


Sigh, the lining.  On the night that the coat vent busted, I described its lining to a sewing friend as “a hot mess” which pretty much sums it up.  Whatever this (I’m guessing acetate) lining stuff is, it’s not nearly as nice or durable as the outside, so that at this point, particularly at areas which get lots of wear (like the vent, and where the sleeves join the coat body), it’s a patchwork of repairs reflecting the techniques, scraps of fabric, and even moods I’ve had over the past decade or so . . . at this stage my goal is just for it to hang together and not look too awful if someone happens to catch a glimpse of the inside.

Since the fabric itself is ripped here, I needed to patch it with something.  I settled on a scrap of grey knit fabric, because 1. I won’t need to finish or turn over the edges, since it won’t ravel 2. The color is a pretty close match and 3. a knit is stretchy, which might work well at an area that’s clearly getting strain.

I sewed the first part of this patch on my machine, using a narrow zigzag stitch.  It proved difficult to go around the top without everything bunching up under the machine foot, so I decided just sew the second side using backstitch again (but only one strand of thread this time).


coat vent mend 6


After stitching to the top and burying the thread ends, I trimmed the patch for a neater (ha!) look, and there you have it.  I also tacked the bottom of the lining piece to the outside fabric.

This has got me wondering about lining my fantasy next coat in a silk knit.  What do you think?  Could be pretty sweet . . .


coat vent mend 7


Tada!  Fixed.  I just gave it a good press from the outside (a quick ironing with a lot of steam in the repaired part) and it’s good to go.  Pay no attention to the other small hole, I didn’t even see it until I was editing the photos . . .

I bet after all that you might like to see a picture of me wearing this fabulous, recently fixed, coat, yes?


me wearing coat


I know, it’s lovely, right?  If you look closely, some of the repairs are more obvious.  I’ve re-sewn the buttonholes multiple times, re-covered and attached I don’t know how many buttons, tacked down the tabs on the back belt every way I could think of, I put a bigger pocket in one side . . . but I’ve been more than paid back for time invested in repairs vs. time wearing coat.  I think it has another season or maybe two left.  The fabric right around the cuffs and front is starting to obviously wear.  When it does go I may just copy it and make a few modifications.  It occurred to me while working on this post that since this is my only real coat, I’d better make the new one while the weather is warm . . .

Here’s to extending the life of the things you love!