Needle felting. What is it? What supplies do you need? And what's with all the different types of sheep's wool and needles?
When I was still teaching, our grade-level team celebrated birthdays. For my birthday, I received the most adorable gift from a colleague. It was a needle felted wool painting, and it was the first time I'd ever seen or heard of this amazingly simple, yet pretty craft. I was fascinated and learned everything I could about wool and felting and after many, many years, I'm still fascinated. I'm hooked on this craft and probably will be forever.
Part I:The Basics
Like our hair, sheep's wool isn't smooth. It has barbed scales. It's made from a keratin-like protein and has amazing properties, which as a science geek, I immediately found out all about! But these barbed scales are key in how felted wool is such a durable fiber. These barbs are what tangles the wool together into its shape or form. How? Thanks to friction and water in wet techniques or the additional barbs on needles that catch the wool and draw it all together in dry techniques.
Merino Wool Fiber under Electron Microscope; Science Image CSIRO Australia
Painted and Unpainted
There are several types of needles to use in felting. We offer unpainted and painted felting needles. The difference is that it's easier to keep up different needles when they are painted. However, the paint can sometimes keep them from fitting into a needle holder tool, which is a completely optional tool that some people prefer and some do not. Needle holders can feel more comfortable in your hand and save you some time when felting something large. However, they also give you less control and are not as good for detail work as holding the needle itself. If you prefer the needle holder tool, buy the unpainted needles.
You can go to our felting needle page to read about the pros and cons of each type of felting needle (triangles, stars and twisted).
Breaking felting needles is common. Why is that? The needles we use in dry needle felting were invented for machine manufacturing. In a machine, they go straight up and straight down. We, on the other hand, tend to change our angles as we felt. It's a natural thing to do, but needle felting at an angle can cause your needle to break-- just as it would in a machine. Therefore any needle felter will always recommend having back-up needles!
Fine & Rough Unpainted Felting Needles (Rough for the beginning and big areas of felting; Fine for the details)
A Natural and Common Hazard of the Craft.
When starting out, you may poke yourself. Goodness! Even experienced felters still poke themselves. It's easy to do. One solution to this is wearing a finger guard. Finger guards come in a variety of materials and lengths. We prefer the longer suede leather finger guards or the shorter, thicker hide leather. They are durable, but if they do ever need replacing, they are biodegradable in a compost bin.
The shorter guard is a multi-tasker, working as a finger guard and a thimble as it's much thicker. The longer ones have to be thinner and more flexible so you can bend and use those fine muscle movements of your fingers. The longer guards cover more of your finger, but being thinner, you have to still watch out a bit. They both work. It's really personal preference. Just ask yourself: where do you usually poke yourself? Finger tips or just, all over the place.
Needle Felting Mats
It probably doesn't need saying, but needles are sharp. And felting needles have additional barbs on them that are also sharp! As you poke your needle into your felt, you need something for the needle to hit that can't be damaged and won't dull the tip of your needle. Enter, the needle felting mat.
There are three basic types of mats for needle felting: Foam, Wool and Burlap.
Foam Felting Mat
Foam needle felting mats are the least costly up front and work well for sculpting and flat 'painting' with wool, but wear out easy, need to be replaced often and are not eco-friendly in the least.
Foam is produced by using a foaming agent to make air bubbles in plastic, such as polyurethane. These do not biodegrade and in fact, will never disappear in any of our lifetimes or our children's, grandchildren's, great grandchildren's and beyond lifetimes. They're here forever. (Hence, once we run out of our current stock of foam mats, we will no longer carry them.)
Wool Felting Mat
Wool that has been felted into a dense mat is extremely eco-friendly, long lasting, works well for sculpting and flat 'painting' and is biodegradable once it wears out (if it does!). The downside is that it's often the most costly up front.
The wool mats we sell are made from natural wool that has been washed and carded and then felted into a mat, but because it's natural and comes from different sheep with white and cream wool (or even a few dark wool strands), you may see different colors of white and cream in your mat or find occasional dark spots of plant matter as it's minimally processed.
For me, I think this adds character to the product. It reminds me of the naturalness of the materials and the felting process that took place by hand, and I love that. I also love that because they are only washed for dirt and not lanolin removal, you can still feel the moisturizing effect of the lanolin a bit.
We sell three sizes of wool mats: Large Needle Felting Mats, Mini Needle Felting Mats and Micro Needle Felting Mats. Large is good for anything. Mini is better for sculpting smaller pieces, and Micro is good for slipping into a pocket or sleeve you want to add a felted design onto.
Burlap Felting Mat
Burlap Needle Felting Mats are another extremely eco-friendly, long lasting needle felting mat that is also 100% biodegradable. Burlap is middle of the road in up front cost and durability. Burlap lasts longer than foam, but not usually as long as wool.
The downside with a burlap mat is that it is NOT a good option for flat felting (painting with wool). So no wool pictures. No wool birthday crowns.
The burlap felting mat lacks the firmness that foam and wool mats have as you fill your burlap mat with your choice of filler, such as rice or flax seed. If sculpting is your goal, burlap is great. If painting with wool is your goal, choose a foam or wool felting mat.
Part II: Types of Wool
Wool....there is so much to discuss! Of course, there are many, many sheep breeds, as well as goats, alpacas, rabbits, camels... and each breed has different wool (or hair) types. Sheep's wool is the most common for needle felting in the U.S.
For our purposes, we just need to stick to core wool, wool roving and wool batting, also called wool batts or fleece from sheep. (Felting fibers can also come from plants and other animals, but these animals I just listed are the ones we gravitate towards the most.)
Sheep's Wool is the Most Common Wool Used in the U.S.
Alpaca Fleece is becoming more popular in the U.S.
An Angora Goat's Fleece is used as Mohair Wool, often as doll's hair (Other goats have hair and fleece---two layers!)
Some rabbit's have very fine hair that is usually mixed with other fibers for felting
And let's not forget the fine hair of the camel, which is often mixed into other fibers for texture, color or to make them last longer. But camel hair is just fine by itself too. It just takes many camels to create one garment.
Core wool is what it sounds like: the center, or core, of wool sculptures. Basically, core wool is a less expensive, typically undyed (though not always), fluffy wool used as a filler to avoid using the more expensive rovings and batts for parts that no one will see to help form the 'forms' of a sculpture. It condenses and felts quickly and easily. It's then covered with wool roving or batt wool to give the sculpture details, textures and colors.
Core wool works great as a natural stuffing for soft toys and pillows, for wet felting, especially for dryer balls, and of course, dry needle felting as the core of sculptures.
It can be wet felted into sheets, as well, if you prefer to make your own felted sheets rather than buy them. You could, essentially, buy enough core wool to even make your own wool felting mat, though that is a lot of work and wool as you need the wool mat to be pretty firm.
Core Wool Used for Dry Needle Felting Called Sculpting, Natural Stuffing & Dryer Balls
Wool roving is a soft, fine wool that has been prepared for, but not spun into yarn yet. It is sometimes referred to as wool tops or tops, but die-hard fiber artists separate true tops from roving as true tops are roving that does not have the slight twist to them that typical roving has.
The processing of roving aligns the long fibers in the same direction and removes any vegetation or short fibers. It's then kept in long ropelike strands that are slightly twisted ready for spinners or felters to use. Some wool roving is treated so that it does not felt. You may see this as washable wool. If your goal is wet felting, make sure you do not get roving treated to not felt!
Excellent types of wool for roving include Merino and Corriedale Wool, but pretty much any wool can be made into roving if processed correctly. Roving is great for wrapping around wires, forming into shapes and flowing pieces like hair, tails, beards and manes. It's also great for dry needle felting, especially landscape paintings with wool or making beautiful birthday crowns with landscape scenes.
Felter's Flowing Wool - Wool Roving
Wool Batting, or batts, is also called fleece. It's a fluffy, rectangle sheet of wool that has been carded to somewhat align the fibers. It can be layered with other rectangles of wool to form thicker, fluffy 'batts' of wool where the fibers in the next layer are not aligned with the fibers in the previous layer. This makes wool batts felt quickly. They can be all one type of fiber from one type of sheep or a mix of fibers from many types of sheep (or less commonly, from goats or even alpacas or rabbits or camels!).
Wool Batting is excellent for wet and dry felting. In dry felting, it helps form the shape and color of objects (often over the top of less expensive core wool) such as the shape and color of a gnome's coat, whereas the wool roving might be used for the gnome's beard and hair.
Wool Batting - Batts - Fleece
Locks and Curls
Locks or curls can come from any long fiber animal, such as sheep, goats, or alpaca. They have been washed, but left uncarded, uncombed and basically left in their 'raw' state. They are usually kept like this to create curly texture for such things as hair and are often found as loose corkscrews or soft zig zags of long wool fibers. Locks and curls are gorgeous, in my opinion, and we usually can't keep them in stock in our shop once they arrive and so rarely go up online. When we are lucky enough to get them at a good price, they usually come from our local alpaca, goat and sheep farms in Washington and Oregon.
Locks and Curls are Raw Wool
This is Excellent Wool for Locks Once Sheared
Part III: Types of Felting
The types of felting you will want to become familiar with are wet felting, needle felting and nuno felting. Needle felting can also involve either 3-dimensional sculpture or 2-dimensional painting.
Wet felting involves four things: water, soap, friction and wool.
Though any wool will felt if the conditions are right (except the treated wool mentioned above), some felt easier or better than others. It’s difficult to say only use roving or only use core wool or fleece. It depends on factors like the breed of sheep, the quality of the wool and how it was processed (or not processed). It’s also a bit of personal preference and a bit of old fashioned muscle on the result you get. Many people recommend Merino or Corriedale wool for wet felting, but try different types and see what you think.
When felting a 3-D figure, you will mostly use your hands. Especially if you are sculpting something like felted balls or bowls. When felting a flat piece, like a placemat, you may want to use a rolling pin.
Technique 1: Making Felted Balls
Technique 2: Making Felted Balls
Nuno felting is similar to wet felting but involves applying felt onto another fiber or textile. Many people use Nuno felting to make scarves and shawls. Some are basic and some have beautiful watercolor effects. If Nuno felting, it’s recommended to use a spray bottle rather than a bowl of water.
Needle felting involves needles, a felting mat and dry wool.
Sculpting involves shaping with your fingers and a needle on top of a needle felting mat. It should be somewhat firm to firm, but you will most likely be turning your piece quite a bit!
Beginner: Cookie Cutter Felting
Beginner to Early Intermediate: Mini Sheep and Highland Cow
Wool painting is completed on a flat but firm felting mat. You rarely move your piece as it needs to remain flat as you work.
If wool painting, you also need a piece of prefelt or base felt to paint on with your wool and needle. Many people frame this work in a wooden hoop, but it can just as easily be completed without one, such as when painting a birthday crown or a large painting that becomes a framed piece of art or a tapestry.
Painting with Wool
Backgrounds for Flat Art, or Painting with Wool
As I mentioned, when painting with wool, you need to choose a base material for your wool painting. The main types that work best are felt sheets, prefelt, fabrics and upcycled wool clothing.
Felt sheets are often called craft felt, but craft felt that you typically find in craft stores is made of synthetic material, is thin, easily tears and has a plastic-like sheen. This is the felt sheet you do NOT want to use for painting with wool.
Instead, look for felt sheets made of either wool blends, usually something like wool and rayon, or made of 100% wool. I prefer 100% wool, but wool blends have a pretty high following due to their increase in strength (though 100% wool is also pretty durable) and their decrease in cost (wool blends cost less than 100% wool).
Wool Felt Sheets used to be difficult to find, but are now starting to pop up many places online. You can find them in precut sizes or sold by the yard. They do tend to cost a bit more so be prepared for a bit of sticker shock, but they are totally worth it. Your painting will be absolutey gorgeous on a wool base.
100% Organic, Bioland Wool Felt Sheets, Plant-dyed by Filges
Another base type is something called prefelt, or preliminary felt. You usually find prefelt in specialty shops that cater to crowds that love the fiber arts. Prefelt is felt that has been partially felted. It's usually a nicely thick base with some texture. As prefelt can vary depending upon where you buy it (vary in its thickness and wool type), I like to make my own by using layers of wool batting and felting it until I'm satisfied with its consistency for my painting.
Prefelt Used as a Base or Backing for your Wool Painting (coming soon to our shop!)
You can also felt on fabrics such as linen. In fact, linen is one of my favorites. A mid-weight linen tends to do best, in my opinion. But honestly, you can try any fabrics you want. You can needle felt onto fabric shirts, skirts, bags...whatever you are willing to try. You will have better results with some than others, but they are all fair game.
Stack of Linen Fabrics, which can be used as a wool painting base. (Linen coming soon to our shop)
Upcycled Wool Clothing
If you have an old wool sweater that no longer fits or you like to peruse the thrift stores for diamonds in the rough, finding old wool sweaters are little treasures. You can upcycle them into children's clothes, pillow covers, mittens or even use them as backings in hoops. You can felt them yourself in the washing machine or use them as is. Painting on this type of wool is really lovely.
Old wool sweaters can be felted at home and used as a base for wool paintings.
That's the basics. I hope it was helpful. I'll add a few links below to other pages that you might find useful. Happy felting!
Wool Painting of a Bumble Bee from a Kit
Needle Felting Kit of a Hare from Scottish brand, Feather Felts
Dachshund Needle Felting Kit by Hawthorn Handmade
6" Wooden Hoop with L Bracket for thick or thin fabrics
Heart Garland DIY Needle Felting Kit