Hand-Stitched Badges for Me-Made-May

A beginning embroidery primer, with free patterns.

 

For the last few years, May has found us around Washington DC. We usually do two art shows there, and in between stay with some dear friends and ride the Metro to visit the sites of our nation’s capitol. The whole time we’re surrounded by so many people (especially from my middle-size-town perspective). Since it’s Me-Made-May, I spend even more time thinking about what those people are wearing than I normally would. It’s easy to get a little bummed out when I look around and consider that, of the hundreds of strangers I can see at any given moment on the subway platform or at a monument, perhaps none of them are wearing anything handmade. But it also got me thinking that maybe they just haven’t considered it, that if they knew there was a whole movement going on, that folks around the country and the world were encouraging each other and posting about their handmade wardrobes at that very moment, maybe it would encourage a few of them to at least think about it.

So I wanted to bring something that said I was participating in Me-Made-May, and/or that I had made part of my outfit, off the internet and onto my physical person where all those strangers could see it. I started to talking to Zoe about it, and she liked the idea too. I owe her big thanks for her support, bouncing ideas around, and of course for putting on this challenge for us again this year! Since MMM is all about stitching, and I’ve been doing a lot of hand-sewing and embroidery lately, here’s what I ended up with:

 

embroidered mmm badge

 

You can make them too! I designed these little badges with embroidery beginners in mind, and I’ll walk you through some parts that might be confusing, so even if hand-sewing isn’t usually your thing, you can handle it. If you’re already further along in your embroidery journey, feel free to skip down and glance through the photos, then print the pattern and get started.  Click the link below to get the pattern:

MMM-badges-pattern

 

materials & tools

You’ll need some felt, and some embroidery floss, thread, or fine yarn.

Wool felt is an ideal material to start stitching on, since it’s forgiving, doesn’t ravel, is thick enough to not need backing, and you can hide ends and extra stitches in the thickness.

The Me-Made-May badge is stitched here in variagated cotton floss, and the “I MADE this!” one in wool thread.  There’s more about the specific threads I used at the end of this post.

You’ll also need a few basic sewing tools: a sharp needle with a long eye, and a small sharp scissors. I always wear a thimble like this one when I’m hand stitching.

Finally, you’ll need a scrap of tissue paper and a fine-point pen to transfer your design to the felt.

 

thread types

Let’s talk for a minute about the differences between cotton and wool, and floss and thread, for stitching. Wool threads designed for embroidery are often labeled “crewel” (a type of embroidery) and are usually made up of two single strands (called plies) twisted together. This plying is integral to the structure of the thread, and it’s not meant to be separated.

 

embroidered mmm badge 9

 

Cotton floss often comes in a loosely twisted bundle of threads, which can be separated to make various thicknesses. This is called “strandable” floss. If you look closely (maybe with a magnifier), each strand of this kind of floss actually has its own two-ply structure. Some cotton threads have a non-strandable structure as well.

 

embroidered mmm badge 8

 

Just like in sewing or knitting, the different properties of wool and cotton fibers make a difference to how they work in embroidery. Wool’s crimpy, elastic nature means that it plumps up, filling gaps and making it easier to embroider a smooth satin stitch or a plush knot. Cotton is denser, smoother, and less elastic, meaning you may need more thread to cover the same area, and the stitching will have a tighter, flatter look.

 

getting started

Put a little piece of tissue paper over the printed pattern you want to make. You can use scraps of tissue, and iron them flat if necessary. Using a fine-point pen that won’t bleed, trace the pattern carefully, including the circle around the edge. Make a single line for thinner shapes and letters, and draw around the outline of thicker shapes. Pin the tissue to your felt, with the pins outside the circle. You’ll stitch right through the tissue and the felt to make the design.

 

embroidered mmm badge 1

 

I tried several methods of transferring the patterns to my felt, and this one worked the best. An iron-on transfer pen (not a pencil) also works, but it makes thick permanent marks that are a little fiddly to apply, and must be covered with stitching.

To thread the needle, I use the techniques I shared in this Seamwork article about hand-stitching. I found that it helps to fold over the end of the wool thread, and to wet the end of the cotton floss.

To begin, take a long stitch on the back through the thickness of the felt, coming up near where you want to start. Let a little bit of thread remain on the back surface. You can trim it off later to neaten things up. If possible, take your first stitch as a backstitch to anchor the thread.

 

embroidered mmm badge 5

 

General embroidery tips:

  • Stitch in good light! It’s unbelievable what a difference this makes.
    Test out your stitches and thread on a scrap before you start, especially if you are experimenting with new stitches and/or aren’t sure what thickness of thread to use to get the look you want.
  • How even your stitches look depends mainly on how even the tension is between one stitch and the next. Start off slow and even.
  • When moving from one letter or shape to the next one, take a stitch through the thickness of the felt to keep it hidden. To keep long stitches from pulling the next part of the embroidery out of shape, push the needle straight through to the back of the work, then take a long stitch into the felt, coming out on the back near where you want to start again. Then bring the needle up to the front in your next spot.

 

the stitches

Most of the text in these patterns is made with backstitch. I explain this stitch in that Seamwork article, and in even more detail in this post.

 

embroidered mmm badge 2

 

Backstitch tips:

  • Put your needle in right at the end of the last stitch for a solid line.
  • Look ahead at the section you are stitching, and decide whether to divide it into two stitches or three, etc.
  • Think about the path of the thread when you come to corners and curves. Remember that where the needle goes in is the beginning of the current stitch, and where it comes out is the end of the next stitch.

 

embroidered mmm badge 3

 

For the scallops around the edge of the Me-Made-May badge, I used a simple straight stitch. Follow the individual lines on the pattern for a looser look that shows off the separate threads, or fill in the whole scallop shape, depending on the thread you’re using and the look you’re going for.

 

embroidered mmm badge 6

 

I filled in the thicker lines of text with satin stitch, which is basically a row of straight stitches very close together, so that they look like a solid surface. It’s easier to keep these stitches even and plush-looking if you work them over a base of another stitch. For these patterns I outlined the satin stitch sections in backstitch first.

 

Straight & satin stitch tips:

  • Backstitch around the outline of all the text, and finish all other parts of the design that use the pattern as a guide, then remove the tissue pattern before you fill in the satin stitch. You’ll be able to see exactly where the stitches are more clearly, and pulling off the tissue will be easier.
  • Cut carefully around the outer circle of the design. Leave the outside of the tissue pinned to the felt for reference and later cutting (you may actually want a few more pins at this point to hold it smoothly). Tear out the part under the badge itself. Pointed tweezers are an ideal tool for pulling out tiny/stubborn pieces of tissue.

 

embroidered mmm badge 7

 

  •  I find it easier to keep an even tension if I put the needle all the way through to the back at the end of each stitch, and bring it up again close to the stitch I just made on the same side of the shape I’m stitching. This method is slower to work than the more common technique of taking the needle under on one side of the shape and up on the other side in one stitch. But, it uses less thread and is easier to control, especially when you’re starting out.
    • Stitch as close to the foundation backstitches as possible for a full look. You can even push the foundation stitches to the side with the needle to make more space and keep the line of stitches even.

     

    embroidered mmm badge 10

     

    • If your satin stitch comes out a little lumpy, it can help to put the eye of your needle into a row of stitching and move it gently back and forth.

     

    embroidered mmm badge 11

     

    • When making satin stitch around curves (like on the D in “MADE”) it helps to make the stitches inside the curve as close together as possible, and fan them out a bit on the outside of the curve, a technique that’s illustrated in detail on Needle ‘n Thread here.

     

    The round knots around the outside of the “I MADE this!” badge are colonial knots. They’re a variation on a French knot where you loop the thread in a figure eight around the needle before pushing it back into the fabric. I like these because they hold a larger, more textural shape, and can’t come undone as you’re making them. They look especially plump in wool threads.  There are more pictures and explanation about colonial knots on Sarah’s Hand Embroidery Tutorials.

     

    embroidered mmm badge 13

     

    finishing

    When you come to the end of a section of thread, bury it through the felt for a short distance and come out on the back. You can trim the ends close, since some thread remains in the thickness to keep your stitches from pulling out.

     

    embroidered mmm badge 4

     

    Once all your stitching is complete, cut out the felt circle, once more going carefully around the shape you traced.

     

    embroidered mmm badge 12

     

    Sew a pin, a clip, or a magnet to the back, and it’s ready to go meet the world.

     

    embroidered mmm badge back

     

    supplies

    I used handmade felt, because I have lots of scraps of it laying around. Use what you can find near you, but if you possibly can, use real wool felt rather than the synthetic stuff. Wool is just so much lovelier to work with, and it will hold up to wear much better. Mine was 2-3mm, or around 1/8” thick.  Weir crafts sells a variety of felt online, including some that’s handmade and some that’s made in USA.

    I discovered two things while looking for threads for this project: there are probably as many small companies and indie dyers making embroidery threads as there are making knitting yarn, and I personally am just not interested in using floss in flat colors. My mom has been into embroidery for as long as I can remember, and a quick dig through just part of her stash resulted in many more beautiful options than I could use.

    For the Me-Made-May badge, I chose two colors of variegated cotton “painter’s threads” from Tentakulum; 121 “Cezanne” and 125 “Matisse.” They’re made in Germany, and available through embroidery suppliers in the US, including Artistic Artifacts. DMC also makes a couple of ranges of variegated floss, which are a lot more common, at least where I live.

    For the “I MADE this!” design, I used some amazing fine crewel wool thread, dyed with natural pigments by Renaissance Dyeing, out of France; color numbers 0309, 1622, 1708, and 2000. Single colors are available in the US through Hedgehog Handworks.  Photos do not do these colors justice; they are good enough to eat!  Any crewel wool or very fine yarn that you like would be a good substitute.

     

    embroidered mmm badge 14

     

    In case you’re wondering, while I had plenty of materials to choose from right in front of me, I did do a little searching to see what I could come up with for organic/traceable threads. Renaissance Dyeing looks good on the sustainability front; they use all natural dyes and local wool, it’s just that they’re far away from me. Organic Cotton Plus also sells a line of organic cotton embroidery floss which is grown & spun in Peru and dyed in the USA.

    Personally, I think I’ll be using a lot of the yarn scraps I have lying around, especially for larger designs.  And I think it would be well worth it to buy (or spin!) some natural colored thread, and drop a tiny skein into every dye pot I try.  It takes so little, why not?

     

    resources

    All you have to do is start searching on Instagram, Etsy, or wherever you get your internet eye candy to find amazing examples of beautiful modern embroidery.  I particularly like Katherine Shaughessy’s crewel work, she has two books with a fun modern aesthetic, and sells supplies and patterns (with some free ones) on her site Wool & Hoop. Yumiko Higuchi also does some of my favorite embroidery. She likes to to mix wool & cotton threads, and her book just published in English (Simply Stitched) does a great job of taking advantage of the properties of both, as well as being full of inspiring designs.

    If you make one of these, I’d absolutely love to see it!  Share it using #mmmay16, #handstitched, or email me a photo. And of course, I’m here to answer questions if I can.

    Happy stitching!

     

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    The End of the Yarn

     

    end of the yarn 1

     

    My knitting students inspired this post. I do explain in class what to do when your skein of yarn runs out and you need to add more, but it’s a little tricky to visualize without actually cutting the yarn, and easy to forget when you get home and you’re left alone with an internet full of confusing videos … so here you go! These are my favorite, simple, fairly foolproof methods. The first one works with practically any yarn, any project, any time, and the second one makes a totally seamless join in any feltable yarn.

    Personally, if I can’t felt the ends together (see below), I almost always just leave the tails, and I don’t mind sewing them in later. There are lots of methods for weaving in the tails as you go, by wrapping the new yarn over/under/with the old yarn, and most of them work just fine. You may find one that you love. But, you don’t need to do any of them. Leaving the tails to work in later is perfectly good. And if you’re still thinking about how to knit, you don’t need anything more complicated going on when you get to the end of a skein.

    So, just stop knitting when you have about 6 inches of yarn left unknitted. Pick up your new ball of yarn (mine is purple) and, leaving another tail of the same length, start knitting with it. The stitches on either side of the tails will probably be a little loose, but you can cinch them up later to match their neighbors when you weave in the tails, so don’t worry about it for now. If you like, you can tie the two ends together into a slipknot to keep things neat while you’re working on the rest. That’s it!

     

    end of the yarn 2

     

    end of the yarn 3

     

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    As long as we’re talking about joining yarn ends, I wanted to include my very favorite method, which takes advantage of the felting properties of wool to join two lengths of yarn without any tails left at all.

    Untwist and fluff out a couple of inches on both ends. The first key to this method is to get the fibers as separated as possible. Just like in any other felting, fuzzy, loose fibers will attach to whatever is next to them, and fibers that are already joined or clumped will attach mainly to each other.

     

    end of the yarn 5

     

    The second key to this method is to mix the fibers from the two ends together thoroughly before you start rubbing them. You want as many places for them to meld as possible, so move the strands around so that all the ones from one end are not on the same side.

    Add just a little moisture (I usually use spit unless water happens to be handy). The fibers should be barely damp. Squeeze the join lightly between your hands, and start rolling it back and forth. You want to agitate the fibers together without disturbing their orientation.

     

    end of the yarn 6

     

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    Small areas like this felt very quickly. The join is done when you can pull gently on it from both sides and the fibers don’t slip. It’s possible to go too far, so that your little felted area becomes noticeably stiffer than the rest of the yarn, so stop when it’s holding together.

     

    end of the yarn 9

     

    Other than with non-felting yarns (superwash, plant fibers, silk, synthetics etc.) the only time I wouldn’t use this method is if a slight difference in yarn texture will be noticeable in the knitting, like in a very smooth or shiny yarn. A felted join is basically invisible in fuzzy singles, and it also works well with textured and handspun yarns, as well as your more “standard” multi-ply wool yarns like Cascade 220 (shown here, you can see the felted join in the bind off near my thumb below). And, if for any reason the felted method doesn’t work or you don’t like how it looks, you can always cut it off and go back to the first method.

     

    end of the yarn 10

     

    Happy joining!

     

    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!)

    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