A Guide; Understanding the Magic of Wool Felting

Wool felting is a fascinating process that transforms loose fibres into solid, durable fabric or sculpted shapes. I am so excited as understanding how wool felts can unlock a huge world of creative possibilities. In this guide, I’ll delve into the science behind felting and explore the various techniques and factors that influence the felting process. Perhaps this guide to understanding Wool Felting will be the start of new creations.

Ever since discovering the wide possibilities of this media I have been captivated! Come along for my personal revelations…

What is Felting; the Science.

At it’s core, felting is the result of friction, moisture, and heat applied to wool (or other limited animal hair) fibres. Under extreme magnifying you can see that Wool fibres have tiny overlapping scales that interlock and mesh (tangle) together when agitated, creating a strong and cohesive fabric.

This process can occur through wet felting, where the fibres are saturated with water and agitated by hand or machine, or dry felting, also known as needle felting, which involves using a special barbed needle to compact and sculpt the fibres.

The ‘Accidental’ Wet Felting:

Sometimes felting can happen when a wool item (like your favourite sweater) ends up being washed in a washing machine. The woven or knitted yarn will often get felted from the agitation and heat of the wash cycle. Since the fibres are now very tangled it can now be treated much like one piece of dense fabric since it will not unravel when cut anymore. This new fabric works well for many projects like mittens.

Another similar method of wet felting uses a light base (silk gauze or the like) to integrate with the tangled fibres.

What Makes Wool Felt?

The wool fibres (2 left) show varying gauge/micron and scale sizes. The lack of scales on the right fibres (silk, linen, cotton & polyester) shows why it tends to not felt well. Sometimes other fibres can be included with the wool fibres as accents.

Several factors influence how well & easily wool felts, including:

Type of Wool: Different breeds of sheep produce wool with varying fibre lengths, diameters, and scales, which can affect how quickly and tightly the fibres felt together. Coarser wool ( core wool, sliver) with larger scales tends to felt more readily than finer wool. Merino wool, cashmere & alpaca fibres are quite a bit thinner and scales less pronounced so felting may take more time. If wool is marked ‘super wash’ then a process has changed the scales to make felting almost impossible.

Agitation: Agitating the wool fibres is crucial for felting to occur. This can be achieved through friction from rubbing, rolling, or kneading the fibres by hand or using a felting machine. Similarly, the use of a tool like the barbed felting needle moves the fibres to create locking together.

Moisture: Water acts as a lubricant, allowing the wool fibres to slide past each other and interlock more easily. However, too much water can wash away the natural lanolin in the wool, which helps with felting, so it’s essential to find the right balance. Gentle olive oil soap helps as a lubricant without being too stripping.

Temperature: Heat plays a role in the felting process by opening up the wool fibres and encouraging them to interlock. Hot water or steam can accelerate felting, but extreme heat can cause the fibres to shrink too much.

Wet Felting Techniques

Wet felting is one of the oldest methods of creating felt and involves saturating wool fibres with water and soap, then agitating them to encourage felting. Here are some common wet felting techniques:

Hand Felting: This method involves layering wool fibres, adding soap and water, and then rubbing, rolling, or kneading the fibres by hand to encourage felting.

Nuno Felting: Nuno felting combines wool fibres with a sheer fabric such as silk to create lightweight, textured felted fabric.

Flat Felting: In flat felting, wool fibers are arranged in a flat layout, then wetted and agitated to create a solid piece of felted fabric. The layers of wool in different directions and the securing of fibres is vital as there is no base fabric used.

Needle Felting Techniques

Needle felting, also known as dry felting, is a more controlled and precise method of felting that involves using a special barbed needle to compact and sculpt wool fibres. Designs take much poking on foam or felting mat. Here are some needle felting techniques:

Sculptural Felting: Sculptural felting involves shaping wool fibres into three-dimensional forms, such as animals, figures, or decorative objects. The base sculptures (often wire armature) can utilize core wool or other coarse sheep wool for bulk before adding colours & detail.

The amount of poking will make the wool more dense and therefore quite smooth when finished. Using needles with finer gauge numbers will show less holes in surface.

Surface Design: Needle felting can also be used to add embellishments and surface designs to existing felted fabric or garments. These mittens are a great small project to start.

Don’t limit yourself to only wool as a base; needle felting can be like a ‘painting’ on many fabrics or even forms.

Tips for Successful Felting

Use wool roving or batting specifically labeled for felting, as these fibres have the ideal texture and properties for felting. Some of the more fine wool will have long lengths of fibre.

Experiment with different wool breeds, colours, and textures to achieve unique effects in your felting projects.

Start with small, simple projects to build confidence and technique before tackling larger or more complex designs. You’ll be surprised at how much can be achieved with limited amount of wool.

There are many tools available that will make the task easier and faster. Needle holders will allow more poking with less strain on your hands compared to a single needle. Take breaks and allow your hands and wrists to rest to prevent fatigue. Needle felting kits often have a variety of needles as well as multiple needle holders. Pet brushes can work as small wool carding tools. If you are not happy with any parts it is not that difficult to pull the wool out (with tweezers) and fix it.

Embrace imperfections and enjoy the creative process – each piece of felt is a unique work of art.

In Conclusion

I hope this craft guide has expanded your understanding of wool felting! Tell how much you love felting; I’d love to hear!

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One Comment

  1. Hi Barb,
    I love the felt bunny and bird you made! You never cease to amaze me!! I would love to try and make these in my future!
    Thanks again,
    Linda Montreuil