Most of us have shared the experience of washing a favorite wool sweater, and having it shrink to half its size. Wool is such an incredible fiber and can be shrunk, or felted, on purpose for fun! Each strand of wool is covered with scales. When demonstrating felting techniques I like to make the comparison to pine cones. With the right type of friction, and sometimes water, the scales on wool will lock in place. And you cannot undo the process.
Historical specimens of felt date back 3,500 years. Some cultures have used felt for ceremonial dress, blankets for trade and even yurts for housing. Perhaps the first piece of felt was created by a shepherd filling his animal hide footwear with wool for comfort, and noticing that it becomes solid piece of fabric with heat and moisture.
Preschool children can enjoy making wool balls using the wet felting technique. Children can be encouraged by choosing wool colours and gently wrapping the wool roving into a ball shape. Then using their hands to sprinkle slightly soapy water over it, and gently rub the surface. Slowly, the ball begins to take shape. The more they work with the ball and soapy water, the firmer the ball becomes. Once these balls are dry, they will even bounce. Sometimes I put bells in the middle of these balls and make cat toys. Of course the wet felting technique is just a tool for the artist’s vision. Wet felting over a resist to make a hat, vase, or fairy box is simple and achievable by all. Another type of wet felting that has gained popularity is knitting an item and shrinking it on purpose. I have made oodles of woolen clogs this way, as well as tea cozies and market bags. The Complete Photo Guide to Felting is a wonderful resource for felting techniques.
My personal favorite technique is needle felting. The supplies you will need are simple and include a square of foam or Styrofoam, several colours of wool (fleece or roving) and a felting needle. Due to the popularity of this technique, many fabric and craft stores now carry these supplies and you could also check with local artisans. Using the felting needle and an up and down stroke, wool becomes entangled without the use of soapy water. A beginner can create a wonderful picture in less than an hour. I keep pieces that I am working on at my kitchen table so that whenever I have a few minutes I can work on it. Wool comes in many natural colours, but it is fun to have a palette of colours to work with as well. Other natural fibers can also be needle felted with wool such as alpaca, dog or even cat fur. Yarn may also be needle felted onto a background. Embellishments can be made to items such as blankets or clothing. Artists have used this technique to make three dimensional items such as life-size dolls, theatrical masks, and miniature animals and fairies. There really are no boundaries other than your imagination. Some books that I would recommend are Little Felted Animals, Wool Pets and Fast, Fun and Easy Needle Felting.
Recently I offered two needle felting workshops at the Middleton library. The participants were all extremely eager to learn this new art! Some of their work, pictured here, may inspire you too!
Wool …. ahhhhhh. It truly is an incredible fiber. Ok, perhaps I am biased. I raise sheep because they grow fabulous wool and I spin, knit and felt with it. There is a lot of fiber in my diet! Sharing felting techniques with others has given me great pleasure throughout the years, and I learn something new each time I do. Enjoy exploring the resources that AVRL has in its collection on felting and experimenting with this wonderful art form.