Learn everything you wanted to know about Needle Felting and Wet Felting in this Complete Beginner’s Guide
What is Felting? Basically, it is the process of turning a protein fiber (meaning animal fiber) such as sheep wool, alpaca, mohair, yak, etc. into a piece of fabric by connecting the individual fibers.
The wool can be in any form from raw locks to processed roving or batts and there are several different methods of accomplishing this felting process so let’s dive right in!
- What is Felting? My Definition
- How to Felt Wool: Wet Felting Method
- Let’s move on to Needle Felting!
- How to Felt Wool: Needle Felting
- A few additional thoughts:
First, a little background: How did we get into fiber and felting?
My love of wool and fiber began years ago when we acquired our first two alpacas, Godiva and Permanent Ink.
Well, little did I know that alpacas grow a lot of fiber in just one year and since they are very heat sensitive, we had to shear them every Spring.
Consequently, we very quickly realized that something had to be done with all of this fiber! We ended up with bags and bags of lovely alpaca wool fiber every year. What the heck was I going to do with it all??
The first thing we did was ask our fellow alpaca breeders how they used all of their wool and surprisingly, most of them did absolutely nothing with their fiber.
Most of them tossed the bags of fleeces in the attic because nobody had any idea what to do with them.
Personally, I did not like the idea that this wonderful natural material would go to waste. No, I wanted to turn that fiber into something wonderful.
So, after a lot of research, I discovered the world of sheep wool. What did the sheep breeders do with their wool fleeces? And that is how I was introduced to the Wonderful World of Wool Felting!
What is Felting? My Definition
Felting, in my words, is the process of producing a textile or fabric by combining and compressing the loose fibers, wool or hair.
Note: you can use fibers that are synthetic or natural. However, they won’t felt exactly the same way.
Do you remember the sheets of brightly colored felt fabric that you used in kindergarten? Those are made with synthetic fibers and mass produced by some large machines.
Honestly, I don’t know much about that process so in this article I will focus on working with natural fibers.
What is the Process of Felting?
To produce a piece of felt, you have to cause the hair or fibers to interlock with each other creating a matted fabric. This can be accomplished by applying water and agitation or by physically tangling the wool using special felting needles.
What is the difference between wet and dry felting?
There are two basic ways of felt making: Wet and Dry.
Wet Felting is the process of using water, soap and some form of agitation to cause the fibers to open up and then bind together. You can do this with raw wool fiber, washed fiber, carded batts, or processed wool roving and sliver.
This process also works for felting previously knitted, crocheted or woven items such as wool sweaters.
Have you ever accidentally shrunk a wool sweater by sticking it in the washer and dryer? That’s a form of wet felting! And, you can actually do that on purpose.
What is Dry Felting or Needle Felting? This involves using special barbed needles to basically weave the individual fibers together until they form a matted piece of fabric.
You can do this by hand with a single needle, or with a tool using multiple needles. There are also very large machines which create felt using hundreds or even thousands of needles.
Wikipedia defines Felt as “a textile material that is produced by matting, condensing and pressing fibers together.
Felt can be made of natural fibers such as wool or animal fur, or from synthetic fibers such as petroleum-based acrylic or acrylonitrile or wood pulp-based rayon. Blended fibers are also common”
Check out How to Needle Felt for Beginners
How to Felt Wool: Wet Felting Method
The basic steps you use for the different wet felting methods are as follows:
- Lay out thin sections of wool or roving
- Apply soapy water
- Work water into the fibers with your hands
- Add a second layer, perpendicular to the first
- Add more soapy water and work with your hands
- Repeat steps 1-5 until the piece is thick enough for your project
- Continue working the wool with your hands until the fiber felt and bind together
- Full the felted fabric
How to felt wool by wet felting in detail:
Basically, the wool is arranged in perpendicular layers to make an interlocked piece of felt fabric. Then you apply water and soap and work it into the wool.
Next, the piece is manipulated with your hands, gently at first with gradually increasing pressure and agitation.
Once the wool fibers are sufficiently interlocked so they don’t come apart, the Fulling stage begins. Fulling the felt fabric involves dropping and throwing it on a table.
This further shrinks and hardens the wool and creates a firm piece of felt that can be cut and sewn without raveling.
Your final felted fabric will be much smaller than the original layout of wool. How much shrinkage occurs depends on the direction of the fibers and the amount of agitation and fulling. Generally, you can count on your final piece being about 25 – 30% smaller by the time you are done felting.
Wet Felting Techniques:
Basic Wet Felting
The basic method is used for making a flat piece of felt fabric. It’s appropriate for thick, sturdy pieces such as wallhangings, coats, purses and tote bags.
What is Nuno Felting? This is a relatively new technique developed by fiber artist, Polly Stirling around 1992.
The main difference with Nuno is that an open weave fabric is incorporated into the felt. This can be a super lightweight silk chiffon or a heavier muslin or even burlap depending on how heavy you want your finished piece to be.
During the nuno process, the wool fibers work their way through the fabric thereby interlocking and bonding the two materials. The Fulling process creates a wrinkled effect. Nuno is the perfect technique for making very flowy and lightweight wool shawls, scarves or even curtains.
Here is my tutorial on the Nuno Felting Method
Cobweb is also a flat technique. The wool is laid out in various thicknesses so that the final felt fabric has a lot of texture with thick and thin areas and even holes. The fiber has to be thoroughly felted and fulled to make sure the piece does not come apart.
Cobweb is a good technique for scarves, shawls, wraps and wall hangings.
How to Felt Wool with the Cobweb Felting Method
Lattice Wet Felting means just what is says – creating felt fabric with a lattice pattern. A flat method which makes beautiful scarves, shawls and wraps.
There are two different techniques for creating the lattice felt:
1. Felting a piece of fabric and then cutting out the “negative” areas, leaving the lattice work.
2. Laying out the wool in a lattice pattern in the beginning.
The first method is a bit easier, especially for beginning feltmakers. The second method is a little more challenging since you have to work the individual strands.
Learn How to Make Lattice Felt
3 Dimensional means any wool felted piece that is not flat such as a bowl, hat or slippers. Generally, you felt over a mold or support of some kind such as a bowl for hats and vases. I’ve also seen hats felted over balloons.
It’s also possible to create 3D pieces using a Resist (next section).
Here’s how I created Wet Felted Easter Eggs
The Resist Felting Process uses a barrier of some sort to keep certain areas from bonding together. Often, this is can be a sheet of heavy plastic. The Resist is placed between layers of wool which are then felted. When the Resist is removed, there will be two separate layers of felt.
This method can be used to make 3D felt objects such a bowls or cat caves and it can be used to give flat pieces some dimension and texture.
Here is how to Make a Felt Bowl with the Resist Method
Those are the main Wet Felting Techniques which can also be combined to create various textures and effects. For instance, I often combine the Nuno and Cobweb Techniques in my shawls to give them structure with the fabric but also make the shawls lightweight by thinning out the wool.
Here are a few other projects:
How to make Wool Dryer Balls – an eco friendly alternative to using dryer sheets or tennis balls to dry your laundry.
Felted Soaps – a great project for beginners. Also a fun way to introduce children to wool.
Wet Felting Supplies
Wool fiber or Protein aka animal fiber includes sheep wool, alpaca, mohair (goat), cat fur, dog, human hair … all of those are protein fibers.
This can be in any form such as raw wool, washed raw wool, roving or carded fiber and locks as well as yarn.
This is my favorite roving, perfect for super soft scarves and shawls.
For beginning felters, Knit Picks has affordable roving in white or multi colors. They also carry a line of Feltable Yarns.
This Complete Kit includes everything you need to get started!
FAQ about Wool:
Can I felt with Synthetic Wool?
If you look at a single hair from a sheep under a microscope, you’ll notice that it is not smooth. There are scales along the shaft of the hair. Hot water causes those scales to open up.
When you apply hot water to a bunch of sheep wool, the barbs on the individual hairs open and attach to each other.
Can I Wet Felt with Cotton or Silk Fiber?
Cotton is a plant fiber which is smooth and does not have scales so it will not adhere to other fibers with this process. While Silk is a protein fiber, highly processed silk is also very smooth and does not felt well.
It is possible, however, to “trap” non-felting fibers within wool for added texture or a pop of color.
Matchstick Blind or Bubble Wrap
If you’re going to make this a hobby or perhaps a side job, I highly recommend you get a Matchstick Blind to help you with the hard rolling back and forth of your pieces. Matchstick Blinds also give you the option of making larger pieces and they tend to last a long time. Just make sure to buy an unstained blind vs. a dyed or stained blind.
If, however you only want to make a few, smaller pieces of felt, Bubble Wrap will be sufficient. It’s a bit more slippery to work with (especially when wet), but it will do the job.
You will need a sprinkler of some sort to wet your wool fiber. The important thing here is that you want to be able to control how much water is applied at a time.
When I first began felt making, I used an old vinegar bottle with holes punched in the cap. This worked just fine for a while but getting the flow of water right can be a bit tricky.
For my larger pieces, I bought an inexpensive Garden Sprayer. These usually hold 1 gallon of water which is great when you are making a large shawl or wallhanging. The nozzle can be adjusted to control the flow of water.
A great option for small pieces is a Bottle Cap Sprinkler which fits on water bottles as well as 2 liter soda bottles.
There are many different opinions about which soap is best to use. Honestly, I’ve tried a wide variety of soaps from solid to liquid, expensive and cheap soaps. All of them will work fine but there are some other considerations.
Some felters swear by this Olive Oil Soap because it works really well and it keeps your skin from drying out. Plus, if you are using soft water, Olive Oil Soap will be much easier to wash out of your felt fabric.
Here in Kentucky, the water is very hard so rinsing is not as much of an issue for me. Normally, I use clear liquid dish soap and/or plain Ivory soap bars. Stay away from any colored soaps, though. They usually have dyes which can discolor your wool.
Other than that, the only items you will need are a sturdy table, plastic table covers, some old towels and bits of nylon hose for tying your rolled matchstick blind.
Let’s move on to Needle Felting!
How to Felt Wool: Needle Felting
What is Needle Felting?
With Needle Felting, you use special, barbed needles to tangle the fibers together until they form a matted piece of wool. The needles are repeatedly pushed through layers of wool.
This can be done by hand with a single or multiple needles or it can be done by machine. There are a variety of machines available from smaller, hand held models to larger tabletop felting machines type models.
Larger felting machines or looms utilize hundreds or even thousands of needles to produce very large pieces of felted fabric.
CAUTION: This is NOT a suitable activity for children. These needles are super sharp and can be dangerous.
Needle Felting Techniques:
The basic felting process is the same regardless of the technique used. One or more needles are repeatedly pushed through wool and back out again. Over and over which causes the fibers to mat together.
If you’re using a special mat or foam underneath your piece, you’ll have to lift your wool off the mat occasionally as the fibers will penetrate the mat.
There are basically two different techniques: Flat and Three Dimensional Felting
Flat Needle Felting
Just as the name implies … this means making a flat piece of felt fabric. You can make a sheet of felt consisting of felted wool fibers alone or you can needle felt on top of another piece of fabric.
You can also make shaped felt pieces by using cookie cutters or other molds to shape your felt as you work.
And you’re not limited to loose wool. Yarn, roving, silk sliver or other felt can be needle felted onto other pieces as decoration.
This technique works great for making scarves, decorating pillow cases, wallhangings or purses.
Here is a video which shows you how to make Needle Felted Embellishments. Also, this video shows you the basic steps.
Check out how to make a Needle Felted Pincushion using a Felted Dryer Ball and dyed wool locks.
3 Dimensional Needle Felting
Needle felted soft sculptures seem to be all the rage these days! This fiber art form has really become popular among crafters.
I see a lot of wool animal sculptures, faces, gnomes, Santas, mushrooms, you name it. Some of these little felted sculptures look almost life like.
Personally, I have not attempted to make animals or sculptures but that is definitely on my to do list. I did find a few great basic tutorials.
This video shows you how to make a needle felted sheep.
Here’s a great tutorial on How to Needle Felt a Penguin
This tutorial shows you how to Make a Miniature Needle Felted Dog
This is a very good article on How to Needle Felt which outlines 3 different techniques.
Needle Felting Supplies:
If you’re just learning how to needle felt, you may want to get an all in one needle felting kit. Hint: Make sure that the kit you choose also contains the needles. I’ve seen some that only contain wool roving and instructions.
Felting Wool or Roving
Unlike with wet techniques, the wool you use for needle felting does not necessarily have to be a protein aka animal fiber. Since you are not relying on the scales of the protein fiber to interlock, synthetic wool can be used.
However, animal fiber such as sheep wool may needle felt easier since the fibers are not a slick as a nylon fiber, for instance.
Wool comes in many different forms from raw, unwashed wool to processed roving and yarn. Any of these fibers will work just fine.
Wool roving comes in many natural and dyed colors and is easy to work with. Yarn is good for embellishments and decorations but keep in mind that you may need to use heavier gauge needles.
If you’re just starting out, you may find wool roving easier to work with than raw wool fiber.
As I explained above, these are special needles which have barbs and notches along the sides to help grab the wool. Felting needles come in various sizes or gauges. The larger the gauge number, the finer the needle.
Finer needles are useful for smaller projects or more detailed felted sculptures or embellishments. They will not leave holes.
Larger needles are good when you need to make a bigger piece or you are using coarser fiber. They will leave holes in your finished felt.
For small pieces, you can simply use one needle or a pen style felting tool, which holds 3 needles. For bigger projects, you will want a larger tool which uses 5 or more needles. They’re available with fine or heavy tipped needles, so pay attention to your needle gauge.
As I mentioned previously, these needles are wicked sharp and therefore I also recommend that you use Finger Protectors.
Foam or Mat
What is Felting Foam? Foam or Mats are the base that you place under your project. As you push the needles through the wool, they will stab into the felting mat.
This protects not only you, but also the needles which are somewhat delicate and break easily.
If you’re just starting out and want to save money, you can use a large sponge as a underlayment or mat. These are inexpensive and readily available at any big box or auto part store.
Just be aware though, that sponges are not as firm as felting mats so you may want to lay something tougher underneath. Also, sponges are not as durable and won’t last as long as a mat, but for a beginner, they will work just fine.
Specialized Felting Mats come in a variety of sizes and materials from woolen to dense foam. Some people prefer to use Mat Brushes.
They all serve the same basic purpose. I think the main difference is how much of the wool gets embedded in the mat and how well the mat holds up to the needles.
A few additional thoughts:
Where Can I Find Wool?
Sources of wool other than online ordering:
Fiber and Wool Festivals are usually fun gatherings of many fiber producers and vendors.
Wool Festivals give you the advantage of meeting and talking with the farmers or fiber producers to find out about their animals and the wool.
You can see and touch a large variety of fibers from angora to alpaca to buffalo and yak wool. Plus, you usually have the option of purchasing an entire fleece or just small amounts.
Local Yarn Shops are fun places to browse and usually carry felting supplies. Bonus … it’s always good to support small businesses.
Where Can I Learn Other Techniques?
When you are just starting out, YouTube videos and tutorials are a great place to learn how to felt, however they can’t compare to hands-on learning.
Classes or Workshops are definitely the best (and most fun) way for you to learn. Not only do you get one-on-one attention from the instructor, but you also get to meet wonderful people with the same interests.
I recommend you check your local yarn shops and fiber festivals for workshop schedules.
Is Felting an Expensive Hobby?
As with most things, that totally depends on you! If you use ultra fine alpaca fiber to felt a large shawl, for instance, that can get expensive. On the other hand, it is possible to make smaller pieces for just a few dollars.
Needle Felting is, in general, less expensive. And, once you acquire the felting needles and pad, the only thing you need to replace is the wool. This needle felting kit is a great buy for beginners!
There you have it … everything you need to know to get started with this wonderful craft. I hope you give this fun fiber art a try!