Felting: What & why

How I make a felted vessel

In the wet felting process, wool fiber becomes felt when you apply hot water, soap, compression, and agitation.  The process makes the microscopic scales on each wool fiber open up and interlock with adjacent fibers.  The wool shrinks and locks together, creating a thick, durable fabric. 

To make my vessels, I use commercially cleaned and carded wool, usually merino, either dyed or natural colored.  I prefer working with batting – a multi-layered sheet of fibers with no direction (no “grain”) – but I also sometimes use roving -- a long rope of parallel wool fibers, prepared for spinning yarn.

I layer strips of wool on an inflated rubber ball, designing as I go.  I may add bits of fine silk, contrasting wool, or yarn, to the inner or outer layer or both.  When several layers are complete (and the assemblage looks a bit like a giant fright wig), I encase the entire package in pantyhose with the legs cut off.  This keeps everything in place during the early stages of the felting process.

I thoroughly wet the wool-covered ball with hot, soapy water, and work it by hand -- rolling, pressing, bouncing, hitting -- until the wool comes together enough that the pantyhose and ball can be removed.   This can take from 10 minutes to occasionally as much as an hour, depending on size, the particular wool, intensity of work, and other factors.  Then I work the unwrapped piece more to “full” it, firming, stretching, and shaping the felt.  Finally, I rinse out all the soap, finalize the shape, and let the piece air dry.  Later I may embellish it further with stitching, beading, cut-outs, etc.

Needle felting is a different process which I use occasionally to embellish a wet-felted piece or to make additions adhere.  This is the process used for many of the felt toys, figures, and pictures that are popular these days.  A mass of dry wool is stabbed repeatedly with a special barbed needle to interlock the fibers.  The barb catches the scales on the fibers and makes them tangle and bind together.   Friction and pressure from the stabbing further compress and interlock the fibers.  No water, heat, or soap is used.  The felt is shaped and sculpted using only the needle.  It is less durable than the product of wet felting and is not washable.

Why felting?

I came to felting by accident, after twenty years of handweaving.  I had always had the impression that felting was about making slippers and hats, which I had no desire to do, and was a messy, exhausting process.  Then at a conference I took a class that was next door to a felting class taught by Sharon Costello.  They were making fabulous felt vessels and masks, and the students were having a blast.  Other people from my weaving guild must have talked to those students too, because the following year the guild brought Sharon Costello to San Diego to teach us that same class. 

When Sharon came here, I was in the middle of a home remodel, and a felting workshop sounded like a good way to escape the mess for a couple of days.  I didn’t expect to like it much, but figured I could hang out with my fiber friends and then check off felting on my list of fiber techniques I ought to try some day.  Instead, to my amazement, I fell in love with felting.

A bit of back story:  What drew me to weaving in the first place was the complete involvement with the fiber:  You don’t just work with cloth, you actually create it, have your fingers inside it, watch the colors and textures interact and take on a life of their own beyond the yarn. 

Weaving is a slow and methodical process, which suited my personality but also has its drawbacks.  From the idea through design, planning, preparing a warp, dressing the loom, working one weft pick at a time through the length of the warp, processing the cloth to finish it – it takes days, weeks, sometimes months from beginning to end.  It’s a craft for the patient.

Twenty years on, I still loved weaving but was feeling unsatisfied by what I had been doing.  I wanted to work smaller, more pictorially and expressively, but didn’t enjoy the techniques I knew could achieve that.  I wanted to be able to produce more and then sell my work at a price people could afford to pay, which meant working more quickly.  I had been searching unsuccessfully for ways to accomplish those things with weaving.  Suddenly felting was there, offering me all of it.

When I felt a vessel, I am again engaged in the creation of the fabric, with my fingers in it, watching the textures form and the colors interact.  But instead of days and weeks, I often can make a vessel, from concept to finish, in just a few hours.  It’s easy to try things out, and not so expensive or discouraging if something doesn’t work.  For me, it offers almost instant fiber gratification and total design freedom. 

After three years, I love felting more and more, and learn something new every time I make a piece.  Who could ask for better?