Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Felting 101

History of Felt:

Felt is the oldest known fabric. Wall hangings using felt appliqué were found in Turkey from 6,500 to 3,000 B.C. Lore claims that St. Clement, patron saint of hatmakers, discovered felt when as a wandering monk he put wool in his sandals. The resulting sweat and agitation from walking created felt. The historical use of felt is widespread.

What is felt and how does it happen

Felt is the textile created by the interlocking mesh of animal fibers. Wool and animal fibers have scales. (See the above photo of wool fiber taken with an electron microscope) These scales are shaped like barbs on a hook i.e. if rubbed in one direction it will catch. Heat and moisture cause the scales to open and interlock. Wool fibers contain keratin, which chemically bonds the fibers together when the material cools the scales close and the keratin chemically bonds the fibers together.

How to make felt.

If you have ever accidentally thrown a wool sweater in the washing machine only to find a shrunken facsimile come out you have some idea how this works. Technically, felting only refers to the meshing of FIBERS not fabric or yarn. The meshing of fabric or yarn is referred to as fulling. In either case, the principal is the same. In order to mesh wool you need 2 things, agitation and warm water. The use of a little bit of soap can quicken the process allowing the scales or barbs of the fiber to slide more easily across each other.

The easiest method for meshing the fibers is to start with wool fabric and use a washing machine. Top loaders are the best as you can stop the process at any time you feel the fabric is meshed enough. Simply load the fabric. I tend to add something else to the wash to increase the agitation. Keep in mind that fibers will be coming off the wool so don’t use anything you can’t get wool pills off. I usually use a pair of jeans. Add a small amount of detergent and run the load using hot water. Stop the cycle every so often to check the progress. When it’s shrunk enough take it out and allow it to completely dry. While it is still moist you do have the opportunity to add some shaping. For my hats, I place them over a bucket to create a head shape.

This is the basic technique. I will be adding more advanced felting techniques such as Shibori and needle felting in further posts.

Try it out. I swear it’s just like shrinky dinks.

Photo by Gerry Danilatos

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