In this first of a series of blog posts, we're going to take a look at what needle felting involves, how to get started, and the basics you need to know. We'll also briefly explore a little bit of the history offeltmaking, and see how needle felting compares with other types of felting.
So, what is needle felting?
Needle felting, sometimes referred to as dry felting, is a craft rapidly growing in popularity, owing to the wide range of creative possibilities it affords. The barrierto participation is low. By simply taking some wool fibres (or non-wool alternative) and a specially designed felting needlewith small notches that grab and entangle the fibres when inserted, it is possible to create almost any 3D shape.
Over time, as the needle is continually inserted and removed, the fibres reduce in size and firm up, allowing the crafter to sculpt and shape the wool into their desired shape.
Wool as a medium has the potential to closely replicateanimal fur, and so needle felting is becoming the preferred method of many artists looking to create lifelike animal sculptures, from every day cats and dogs, to a far wider variety of curious creatures. Equally, the vibrant range of colours available in felting wool and fibres lend themselves to the production of artistic jewellery, charms, décor, paintings, wall art, plant holders and much more besides!
It can take thousands of mini stabs before a creation is complete so it’s fortunate that the felting process is one that can be considered relaxing, and even therapeutic for those in need of some minor stress relief. That said, we would advise any budding felter to be mindful of their fingers when working as the needle tips are incredibly sharp and do hurt if you accidentally catch yourself!
One of the great benefits of felting is that you can easily rectify and improve aspects of your creation as you go along, without having to go back and undo the work that has got you to a certain point. If you feel the size is too small, you can add more wool and continue the felting process. If you feel that the shaping is not as you would like, you can work over that area with your needle to refine the shape accordingly. Like any craft, the more you do, the better you’ll get!
History of Felt and Feltmaking
While there may be variances in opinion about the absolute origin of feltmaking, it is evidenced to have been around since ancient times, and felt is considered to be one of the oldest known textiles.
Remarkably in more recent times, examples of artistic felted blankets, clothing, jewellery and more have been discovered in ancient Siberian tombs dating back to 700 BC. From here, the use of felt making techniques are believed to have travelled through Mongolia into Turkic regions.
Felt has many useful properties including being biodegradable, flexible, sound and vibrationdampening.More recently, in the 19th Century, industrial felt making began to take place, with the advent of needle punching machines.These are essentially a large bed of felting needles that are mechanically inserted and withdrawn, binding wool (and other synthetic fibres) together without the need for water, producing non-woven fabrics. These are widely used in a great number of industries, perhaps most commonly in the automotive sector.
In fact, the felting needles we stock are produced in Germany by one of the world’s foremost specialists in needle manufacturing for the non-woven textile production industry.
It wasn’t until the 1980’s when David and Eleanor Stanwood were credited with inventing what we know today as needle felting. David realised that by taking a single needle and stabbing into a ball of wool fibres, it was possible to mould and shape into a desired form.
Over time, various techniques have been invented and perfected to turn needle felting into an artform, and there are a few highly-skilled exponents worldwide whose work is so refined and lifelike that it is almost difficult to tell whether the creation is real or felted!
We have ourselves been very fortunate to work with some amazing needle felting artists, some of whose work you can find in our Featured Artists section for some added inspiration!
Other types of felting:
Whilst this article seeks to focus on needle felting in particular, there are other forms of felt making that are made possible by the versatility of wool.
One of the most common is wet-felting which uses a combination of layered wool fibres, warm water and typically soap(which provides alkalinity). Theseare then massaged between firm surfaces such as bamboo sheeting until the fibres matt together to form a finished fabric.
Also popular is the technique known as Nuno-felting which was developed by an Australian artist named Polly Stirling in the early 1990’s. It takes its name from the Japanese word for Cloth -布 (Nuno).
Similar to wet felting in that it utilises animal fibres, water and soap to agitate fibres until they bind, nuno felting differs in that it also utilises an open weave fabric – commonly silk to produce a lightweight fabric than can be used to make garments such as shawls, scarves and more.
2D Felting, sometimes known as Felt Painting is also growing in popularity, and this involves felting fibres onto a fabric backing to form a flat 2 dimensional picture, that can then be framed and used as wool art. As with other methods of felting, there are some truly remarkable artists producing sensational artwork designs, from scenery and landscapes to pet portraits and more!
Materials for needle felting:
With just a few felting needles, some wool fibres and a foam block work surface you will already be able to start needle felting. There is a lot more to discover though, so we’re going to briefly discuss the various types of fibres and needles required for various stages of the felting process. For a more detailed look at each of these, please head across to our dedicated blog posts - The Best Wool for Needle Felting & Everything You Need to Know About Felting Needles.
Stage 1 – Initial shaping:
So once you’ve decided on what you’re going to make, the first thing we need to do is to create the overall shape. With complex shapes such as animals, typically we make the individual body parts (i.e head, body, legs, tail etc) separately, before felting them all together with our felting needle at a later stage. It is much easier than trying to create such a difficult shape from one piece of wool.
These parts are usually made with a coarse fibre known as core wool. The reasons for this are primarily economical as the bulk of the creation can be made with a less expensive fibre, with only the top surface utilising more expensive refined fibres such as roving and slivers. Core wool, generally being more dense, with lots of criss-crossing fibres also aids the felting process in terms of shaping and speed.
At this stage, we are looking to firm up the fibres and mould into roughly the ideal shape and size for our creation. It doesn’t have to be perfect at this stage.
Most initial shaping is done with a lower gauge, “heavy” needle such as a 36 triangular, which binds fibres together quickly. It will also tend to leave more indentations on the surface, but as we are going to cover them later on this isn’t a problem. Speed and efficiency can be increased by using a multi-needle tool such as the popular Clover Pen.
Stage 2 – Shape refinement:
Generally at this stage, we’re still going to be working with the core wool and looking to refine aspects of the shaping. Often this can be achieved by felting more in certain areas, or by adding additional layers of core wool to build shape and definition.
As by now the wool is firmer, this is generally the time to moving towards using a slightly less aggresive needle, such as a 38 triangular or cross star. This will have the benefit of still grabbing a good amount of fibre per punch (ideal for shaping), but will be easier to penetrate the firmer core.
Stage 3 – Assembly:
Once all of the individual felted parts are looking good, we can start to think about adjoining them together. There is no right or wrong order for doing this and everyone finds their own way. We personally would normally attach head and body first before then attaching the smaller parts such as legs / tails etc.
To attach, hold the relevant body parts into place, ensuring you are happy with their orientation, before felting through both parts to lock the fibres together. We recommend working from both directions, and equally from each side until securely connected.
Typically we want to use a mid-heavy needle (36 or 38 gauge) for this, as it’s important to entangle as many fibres as possible to ensure a solid joint. Once attached it can be a good idea to add a little extra fibre around the joint sections to both add strength and build up the muscle shape.
Stage 4 – Top coat / finer detailing:
Once we have our needle felted 3D body shape, it’s time to have some fun and get creative adding the top coat. Depending on what we are making, and the finish we are looking for, there are a wide variety of different fibres suitable to give our ideal finished appearance. Something we discuss in more detail on the next blog post.
At this point, whether adding a fur coat, or perhaps some facial features,we do want to avoid those pesky needle marks on the surface, so as to give a nice refined finish to our work. Moving towards a finer tipped needle with less notches, such as a 42 gauge triangular or twisted needle, can help us to achieve this. Whilst the felting process takes longer with a finer needle, we’ve already done the bulk of our fibre entanglement, so we can prioritise refinement over speed and make sure our lovingly handmade feltie looks as good as possible!
Hopefully this has inspired you to get those creative juices flowing and give needle felting a try! Stay tuned for our upcoming blog posts introducing the various types of wool fibres and non-wool alternatives used for needle felting, as well as an in depth look at the different types of felting needles and their uses.