Felting Techniques: What’s What
When you’re holding a beautiful piece of felted something in your hand, it’s hard to say for sure what technique was used to create it. And that mystery can make it seem daunting to try felting on your own. Never fear, my lovelies. I’m here to tell you which is which and what’s what among felting techniques.
Technically speaking, felt is “a non-woven fabric of wool, fur, or hair, matted together by heat, moisture, and great pressure.” Hmmm. So those “felted” bags or slippers we’ve all knit and thrown into the washer are…what? Well, they are not technically felted; they’re fulled. Fulling is a precess that is applied to cloth that has already been processed. Woven, knitted, crocheted, etc. fabric is subjected to the same type of treatment as it’s non-woven cousins. In contemporary fiber art circles, we’ve come to use the term “felting” for the whole genre, and neglected the term “fulling.” But it ain’t necessarily so.
Felting, then, is the process of applying heat, moisture and agitation to non-woven fiber that tangles together. It’s usually animal protein fibers that have natural scales on the individual hairs. As you’ll know if you read my post about the superwash process, it’s the scales that do the work. The fibers are laid out in cross-crossing directions so there is no “grain” to the final fabric. then they are wet down and rubbed, scrubbed, squeezed, wrung, trodden, suzzled, smunched, grinched, or otherwise treated very roughly.
The end result can be flat fabric where the front and back sides are indistinguishable. It can also be dimensionally sculpted and shaped. This is oldest form of felting, with a long history of both practicality and artistry.
The resultant flat fabric or shaped piece can then be used like any other fabric. You can cut it and sew it together, just like any other fabric.
You can also embellish it with embroidery, beading, applique, knitted or crocheted additions, or anything else you can think of. just like any other fabric.
Sometimes, instead of laying out criss-crossing layers of wool, you can use a fabric backing that your wool fibers tangle through. This kind of wet felting is called Nuno Felting. We wrote some instructions for our new Nuno Felting kit that has a good description of how it’s done. The fabric substrate provides new dimensions in design possibilities, but also means you can use a lot less wool and get a lighter weight, drapey-er, fabric. With nuno felting, you can leave exposed fabric that has no wool over it. the bare patches become part of the design. But if you cover the entire surface of the fabric, it can be difficult or impossible to tell the difference between plain wet felted and nuno felted fabric.
Our last felting technique requires us to bend the definition a little bit. Remember our definition said that heat, moisture and agitation were required? Well, you can actually make a felted fabric without moisture, if you use the right kind of tools. Specifically you’ll need special needles. this kind of felting is called Needle Felting or Dry Felting. Catherine has explained at more length about the different sizes of felting needles, and how they work. Essentially, the needles have small barbs on them and, when you drive them into a bunch of wool, the barbs catch on individual fibers and tangles them together. The more you poke your wool with a needle, the more tangled it gets.
Needle felting can be worked flat using a previously felted wool backing like a canvas, various kinds of loose fiber like paint, and felting needles like brushes. Like other kinds of two dimensional art, precise control, color sense, proportion, composition, etc, require some native talent and some skills that can be acquired with practice. But the basic technique couldn’t be easier. Just keep poking your material with a barbed needle and you’ll be fine.
The needle felting technique can also make three dimensional sculptures. Using bunches of wool as you would marble or wood, and needles as you would chisels, poke your bunch of wool over and over until it looks right. Every where you poke your needles will tangle fibers together…which will cause them to shrink. That’s how you make the shaping happen.
So that’s the skinny on felting techniques. There’s fulling of fabrics that are already woven, anf felting of loos fibers. Felting can be wet, which includes nuno felting with a substrate, or dry which is called needle felting. All of them are easy. All of them are beautiful. And all of them are fun. You should try it.