The Amazing Versatility of Felt: A Peek at Felting Techniques on TAFA
The only things I have felted have pretty much been by mistake: sweaters and socks in the washer and dryer. Have you done that? Oops! But, it’s a field of study and practice that fascinates me and if I already didn’t have bins and bins of other supplies, felting would hook me in, for sure. I get to drool over what TAFA members make and find their work inspiring and impressive.
Wool fibers have little scales on them that act like hooks. People figured this out hundreds of years ago and have made use of this property to adorn themselves and their homes with felt. Here is a look at what different fibers look like under a microscope:
When you pound those wool fibers together, they grab on to each other, creating felt, which is not woven or knit or crocheted or held together in any other way besides sticking to the scaly hooks next to each other. This means that it can be cut with no fraying and will hold its shape in sculptural form. The possibilities are endless!
Of course, the pounding part of it is a lot of work…. 🙂
Watch this video of Mongolian nomads making felt for their yurts:
A lot of work, right? It takes a village and a song or two… Their coats are also made of felt as are many of their rugs, wall coverings, hats, boots, bags and so on.
Let’s look at some of the felting techniques our TAFA artists are using. As I said, I am not a felter and even though I see it on a daily basis, don’t feel super confident about terms and tools, so bear with me if I make a mistake and speak up in the comments.
Click on the images to visit their profiles on TAFA.
My method! It has to do with heat, soap, and the repetition of movement back and forth. Apparently the front loading models of washing machines won’t work. You’ll need to have the old fashioned one. This method is called “fulling”. (See Leisa Rich’s comment at the bottom.)
Denise Handwerker of Feltwerker (I love her name!) buys old wool sweaters at thrift stores, felts them, cuts them up and makes new things out of them. Unfortunately for Denise, I’ve heard that it’s getting harder and harder to find 100% wool sweaters second hand because all the felters snatch them up.
Like with the washing machine method, the key is water, soap and movement. One way to do it is to lay fibers down, wet it, soap it up, cover with bubble wrap, roll it up, and lay your weight on it, going back and forth, back and forth. You can keep opening it up and adding more elements and then wrapping it up again and roll, roll, roll. Most of the felting techniques scream “Carpal tunnel!!!” to me, as repetition is key. Careful how you use your bod and wrists…
Fortunately, Robbin and Harry Firth of HeartFelt Silks came up with a tool that really helps with this process: the Palm Washboard! The teeth in the washboard helps move the soap and water around, applies pressure, and you can eliminate a lot of the rolling and rolling. It’s still a lot of work, but it looks fun, too! Check it out:
Wet felting allows you to create flat fabrics that have body and texture. Most often, they are thick and provide warmth. The flat sections can be joined together by creating flaps and using friction to “glue” them together, allowing vessels and three dimensional shapes to grow from that flat starting point. Ariane Mariane is probably our most experimental artist moving from form to function with abandon. It’s been quite the trip to see her evolve over the years and I can only wonder what will come next! Her signature product was a vest that could be worn inside out and upside down, creating many different looks from one piece. Right now she is on a tiny hat kick, one cuter than the other. But, my favorites are her sculptural pieces, often cartoonish characters with a sense of humor:
There are so many great felt artists on TAFA! So hard to pick who to show…. But, here are a couple more examples of wet felting. As you can see, the wool can be dyed in vibrant colors and you can stitch and quilt into it to create extra textures.
Feuer und Wasser‘s work also tends toward vibrant colors, but I liked it that this one showed a guy wearing a neck warmer. Be bold, ye modern men! You can have fun with what you wear, too!
Nuno felt is a lot like regular wet felting and all of the artists above use it as well. Actually, I believe that Atelier Iona Loyola’s scarf is a nuno felt one. This process adds other thin fabrics into the mix, normally silk. When the wool and silk are rubbed together, the wool fibers will penetrate the silk and stick to it. This is such a luxurious addition to wool as it can take away the itchiness or roughness that raw wool might have for some people. Rarely does someone come up with something “new” these days, yet nuno felting is credited to artist Polly Stirling who came up with it in the early 1990’s.
Adding silk lightens the fabric, while still allowing it to retain warmth and body. Here is a jacket by Jacki Sleator using the nuno felt technique:
This is where felt artists go bonkers! This process does not involve water, but it does involve working wool fibers with repetitive motions. The super basic approach is to poke it with a stick, shoving the fibers into each other until they stick and get compressed. You have to do it a gazillion times to make it grow and take shape.
Many of our TAFA needle felters also like to make animals. They are so wonderful! Daria Lvovsky’s (Art of Felting) work is breath taking as she captures so much expression and realism in her subjects.
A few more favorites, showing how versatile needle felting can be:
I find each one exceptional! Oh, and no…. most of these artists are not poking the fiber with one needle like the video artist. There are all kinds of tools now that have big long sharp teeth and even machines that can speed things up a lot. There are only so many hours in a day, right?
Shana Kohnstamm pushes form and function even further. She has been interested in how to make her felt work marry with electronics, perhaps creating sounds or lighting up:
Most of us were introduced to felt as children, perhaps in pre-school, where we learned how to cut, glue and stitch. Not everybody wants to start from scratch with felt and there are many great sources out there that sell felt that is ready to go. They come in many grades, thicknesses and there are plenty of green companies selling compassionate wool products. The shearing of sheep can be quite gruesome in the bigger operations, so try to support the smaller operations who call their sheep by name.
Manipulation of commercial felt with stitching and needle felting:
Well, that’s it! There is so much more, but from here, you will have to go and explore. Do some keyword searches in our navigation bar and see what you find there. About half of our members have shops on Etsy and we have a destination there: type TAFA into Etsy’s search bar. You can add key words, so here what you will find there for TAFA Felt on Etsy.
And, remember, the next time you shrink that sweater in your washing machine, think of all the things you can do with that felt!
Enjoy and be inspired! If you are a felter, kudos to you!
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Laura Lee Burch is an American artist and author living in Israel. Her current passion lies in needle felting animals and people with humor and sometimes, a message. She welcomes special commissions of her work.View Profile
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