What is felt?
Artisanal felt, or nonindustrial wool felt, is a man-made textile created from loosen wool fibers. By rubbing wool fibers with hot water they fuse together into a non-woven nor knitted material. As a 100% natural product, felt has excellent properties: it offers sound & thermal insulation and it is water repellent, flame retardant and isothermal.
There is not only one material “felt”! In function of the wool variety, the amount of wool used and the employed technique, felt can be thin, soft, fluid, strong, thick, stiff or sculptural. It’s no stretch to say that there are as many different felts as there are feltmakers. To answer the question of what felt is, let’s get some insights into the diversity of this amazing material.
The term “felt” is used for all textile material that is produced by matting, fusing, condensing and pressing fibers together. As it is neither woven nor knitted, it won’t fray when you cut into it.
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.
Felt can be an industrial product made with harpooned needle machines that mechanically condense the fibers. Although this works with wool as well as with synthetic fibers, most industries produce the much less expensive synthetic felt. This is what you will generally buy from hobby suppliers.
In French there are two terms to distinguish artisanal felt (Feutre) from industrial synthetic felt (feutrine).
This post is focused on man-made or artisanal felt which is exclusively made of sheep wool.
Diversity of artisanal wool felt
Felt describes a large rang of materials. In function of the ingredients and techniques employed, there is a multitude of different felts!
The properties change according to:
- Wool variety
- Employed felting technique
- Additions of other materials (fibers, fabrics …)
- Thickness & wool layout (number of layers)
- fouling degree
(at the end of the felt process the material is condensed by fouling, this raises its density)
Just to be sure we are talking about the same thing: by wool I mean “sheep hair” obtained after shearing. I specify because unfortunately some people are still surprised that their acrylic “wool” doesn’t felt!
There are as many different wools as sheep breeds. Wikipedia counts 57 different breeds of sheep in France, more than 300 in Europe … Even if some breeds have hairs that do not felt, the choice remains gigantic. It is amazing to see how the texture of artisanal felt changes depending on the wool used!
Here are 3 examples of felts made from different wool fibers: Merinos, Wensleydale, and Bergschaf.
Merino wool is probably the softest existing wool. It’s the one used to manufacture woolen tights. It’s the one most feltmakers use for felted garments. Composing felt in two thin layers of merino wool allows us to create a very soft and fluid felt.
Wensleydale wool has an amazing texture. It allows us to create a transparent felt.
Bergschafis a very hairy and rustic wool. It makes a compact and strong felt. It’s perfect for creating volumes. However, avoid making a hat with it because it gets very scratchy.
II Felting techniques
There are two techniques for artisanal felt making: wool fibers can be mechanically merged with felting needles, or fused by rubbing with hot water.
For needle felting, special needles with small harpoons are used. These harpoons intertwine all kinds of fibers. As already indicated above, this is the technique used by industrial felting machines.
There are also small domestic needle felting machines. They look like sewing machines and are called an “embellisher” or ” punching machine “. They are used to embellish textile surfaces with fibers (wool or other). They aren’t made to create entirely felted surfaces by the meter.
Needle felt artists use felting needles attached to a wooden handle. By manually picking into the carded wool, they transform carded wool into woolen sculptures.
Here are my favorite artists in this technique:
Personally, I use wet felting techniques only. This technique uses a natural characteristic of wool: wool fibers are composed of microscopic scales. When fibers are rubbed, these scales bind to each other.
For more efficiency,fibers are wet with hot water. Most felters also add soap to the water. Heat and soap open the scales, making the felting process easier.
Personally Idon’t use soap. Felting may take a little longer first but I don’t have to rinse out the soap afterwards. It’s very important to completely rinse the soap, otherwise the felt work will become crumbly and white marks may appear.
In the wet felting technique, loosen wool fibers are juxtaposed to each other by slightly overlapping them like roof tiles. At least two perpendicular layers must be crossed. You can cross as many layers as you wish. Depending on the thickness of each layer and the number of crosses, the quality of the felt changes.
- Maria Friese – felt design
- Strong felt by Lisa Klakulak
My felt work, signed Ariane Mariane – art textile / Paris is exclusively wet felted !
III Diversity of felt
Transparent felt & fine felt
Generally, to obtain a homogeneous and solid material, at least two layers are crossed. Wensleydale wool is to my knowledge the only one that is possible to felt in a single layer and still obtain a solid felt. Due to its very curly structure this wool “weaves” intersections in all directions while being felted. The result of a one-layer felted Wensleydale wool is a very open, almost transparent felt.
Felting other wool varieties with a single layer will create a very fragile felt. Holes are randomly formed. This type of felt is called “cobweb – felt”. It’s a handsome material, interesting for scarves or curtains but it has to be handled with care as it easily tears.
To obtain a thin, soft and supple felt for garments and accessories, I recommend 2 to 4 very thin layers and extra-fine merino wool tops (16 to 18 microns).
nuno felt is a mix of wool and fabrics. The name was given by the Australian feltmaker Polly Stirling and her Japanese employee. “Nuno” is Japanese and means”woven textile”.
Even more supple, and therefore perfect for garment making, is nuno felt.
Nuno felt is wool merged with fabrics. Indeed, fiber scales like to bind with all kind of fibers even if they prefer natural ones due to their rougher structure. Synthetic fibers are extremely slick and therefore harder for fibers to attach themselves to them. To merge wool with synthetic fabrics, they have to be open weaved.
The thinner the fabric, the better it works for nuno felting techniques.I advise my students to start nuno felting with silk chiffon. As it’s a very open weave, wool fibers will easily adhere.
However, a thin chiffon silk disappears almost entirely into the wool. This is interesting as it can change the surface. Printed patterns will be visible on the felted surface, too, but there is no special texture.
Most of us associate nuno felt with the awesome crackled texture. This texture is due to wool shrinking during the felting process. When fibers become fused, the space between the fibers decreases. This is the reason why the fiber layout “shrinks” . Depending on the layout, the wool quality and the felting technique, shrinkage varies from 30 to 70%. The fabric is “trapped” by the fibers and compacted. It makes a multitude of small folds and this becomes the crackled nuno felt texture.
The denser the fabric, the more intense the texture! But beware: when the fabric is too thick, the wool fibers won’t fuse!
Even before arriving at “rien ne va plus” (nothing works anymore) you’ll have to take in consideration that the denser the fabric is, the rougher becomes the resulting nuno felt.
My tip for nuno felted garments: place the fabric on your hand. If you can still see your finger tips shining through, it will work. Silk fabrics create the softest and most flexible material. It’s my favorite fabric for creating clothes and accessories.
Cotton, and even linen fabrics more so, will produce a rougher nuno felt. It becomes really itchy with synthetics.
On the other hand, synthetic fabric creates a very impressive texture. Even so, I never use synthetics on larger surfaces. I like to play around with them in smaller parts or on sculptural work. For ecological reasons I mostly work with recycled synthetics!
Video shows how I make a pair of fingerless gloves in nuno felting techniques.
When felt gets thicker and denser, it becomes sculptural. This is perfect for 3D Felt used in making hats, bags or sculptures. In my workshops I advise working with at least 6 to 8 layers. Personally, I cross up to 12 extremely thin layers for my volumes. The thinner each layer and the more layers are crossed, the more sculptural the material is.
And this is what’s awesome:sculptural felt memorizes shapes!
When felt is highly fouled, it will behave like dough. As long as it is wet, it can be molded and sculptured. When drying, felt will keep the formed shape. When completely dry it can be twisted or distorted. It will remember the initial shape and return to this original form. This works as long as it’s not rewetted!
To change a given and dried shape, felt must be kneaded with force to make water penetrate. Indeed, felt is a water-repellent material. Without pressure the water pearls on its surface.
So don’t worry if you wear a felted hat in the rain – just don’t start kneading it!
Vegetable, animal or synthetic fibers can be added to a wool layout to change the aspect and properties of the felt. Wet felting stills works when at least 70 % of the employed fibers are wool. It’s possible to add silk fibers or Angelina fibers for a shinier surface. Linen, bamboos or synthetic fibers add interesting textures and make the felt work stronger.
Another great asset: felt can be worked directly in volume to create sculptural objects like hats, bags and sculptures.
To create 3D felt, a plastic template is “wrapped” with several layers of wool, then felted. When fibers have connected, it’s possible to cut the form open, pull out the template and sculpt the hollow shape.
To create tridimensional felt objects, we will work with a sculptural felt quality (see above). It allows us to sculpture the hollow form in any imaginable shape. Once dry, it keeps this form and memorizes it.
As many felts as there are feltmakers
As you may notice – there is no limit in felt making. I believe there are as many different materials as there are feltmakers! In addition to the multitude of combinations, each felter has his own techniques and recipes!
I’m even persuaded that the quality of a felt depends on the personal energy of the felter! I have noticed that my physical and moral state of mind translates into my work – my felt never turn out the same way! Happily I’m most often in very good mood when creating!
As we have seen, the properties of artisanal felt vary in function of so many things that each felt is different. But all felts have some awesome properties in common:
- excellent sound & thermal insulation
- hardly flammable
- Filtering air (anti dust) for healthier interiors (anti dust)
Wool felt is a gift of nature – 100% natural and 100% FUN!