What is wet felting? How do you do it? These are questions I get asked a lot. This article is intended as a brief explanation of what wet felting is, as well as its origins and how this traditional craft has had a new lease of life as an artistic medium for current day textile artists.
It all starts with wool
Wet felting is referred to as ‘wet’ because water is required to turn wool from a sheep into a useable fabric. Natural wool is used, predominately sheep fleeces that have been sheared (like us having a haircut), cleaned and processed to make the fleece more manageable to use.
Sheep fleece was originally used to create practical items such as clothing, shoes and even yurts. Wool is used commercially today for clothing, household furnishings, rugs, blankets etc., the list goes on!
Wool can be prepared in many ways for both artistic and practical purposes. The most common preparation we all probably think of is knitting wool or yarn for weaving, available in a variety of thicknesses by means of spinning wool. Preparation of wool for felt making is similar but stops before the spinning stage. The wool is cleaned, then either carded into batts (like a spongy sheet with fibres laying in different directions) or combed and into longer smoother lengths of fibre aligned in the same direction called wool tops or roving.
As different fleece breeds have differing properties or characteristics, not all breeds will felt particularly well, create the desired look or handle. It is therefore worth experimenting with different breed types. A good wool to start with for wet felting is Merino, prepared as wool tops. Wool tops are what I use with most of my work, the prepared and aligned fine fibres allow for a smoother finish that I prefer, tiny thin tufts can be placed to add areas of interest within the work. Merino is widely available and comes in a huge array of colours. Another breed to try once you have mastered wet felting is Blueface Leicester, a British native.
I strongly encourage experimenting. It is a good way to learn!
For those asking “What is felt making?”, I would recommend further reading on types of wool used for felt making. I recommend the International Feltmakers Association book British Wool for Feltmaking, Crowood Press. ISBN: 978-1-78500-989-1
Wet felting vs needle felting
The second most popular question I get asked. “Is this needle felting?” or “What is needle felting, is this what you do?”, in short, no!
I rarely ever never needle felt, though I do possess a pack of needles and occasionally use one to secure a wensleydale lock that may have come loose during the wet felting process!
There are similarities when comparing wet felting and needle felting.
Both techniques use prepared fleece. Wool tops have a tendency to be used in wet felting and shorter haired carded batts tend to be used for needle felting. However, there are no hard and fast rules for this and both fibres can be utilised in either discipline. Some artists combine both methods within a piece of work.
Needle felting is worked with dry fibres to produce a 2D pattern or picture. Needle felting also allows 3D forms such as animals to be constructed. The pattern or picture is created with either a single sharp barbed needle or multiple needles inserted into a handle. Repeatedly stabbing the fibres, compresses the fibres bonding them together. The technique lends itself to creating precise mark making so exact images can be replicated. As the fibres are worked entirely dry, it is possible to transfer an image onto a background and trace the image by stabbing outlines or guide marks. The finished look being more a facsimile rather than the free form of wet felting.
Wet felting vs needle felting is a personal choice, 3D and 2D works can be made with both techniques. I recommend you try both methods of felting, and see which suits you best.
What is wet felting?
So, we know that wool has many varied uses, and can be prepared in many different ways, so what is wet felting?
Wet felting is the process a feltmaker goes through to turn prepared sheep fleece into a useable cloth, called felt.
A sheep fleece goes through a series of processes before it can be used for wet felting. First it is washed, then combed and carded. This removes any vegetation from the field or hills and aligns the fibres in the same direction, to make it more practical to use.
The wet felting process
Let’s look in a bit more detail at what wet felting is and how I create a piece of felt.
I work predominantly with wool tops.
I typically lay out three layers of dry thin tufts of wool tops, working the first layer in rows, overlapping the fibres as I go. The work is turned 90 degrees and the second layer of wool is laid out in overlapping columns. The third layer is my design. These first three layers are all worked with dry wool.
A light net is then placed over the dry wool. Warm soapy water is added and eventually by means of agitation by rolling and rubbing and applying more soap and water the fibres bond together forming a cloth.
Each strand of wool fibre has tiny scales similar to human hair. When water is added the scales soften enabling them to entangle more easily with neighbouring fibres. The soap being alkaline assists with absorption of water, speeding up the process.
Wool shrinks during the wet felting process, which needs to be considered at the onset. The cloth (felt) once ready is washed cleaned of soapy residue and left to dry.
A basic piece of wet felt can be made in a morning. A more complex design, a larger size, or thicker layers can take considerably longer than this, the laying out of the design and the wet felting can be done over several days if necessary.
Once the piece of fabric has dried the stitch element of my design can commence. Some of my larger works such as ’Moss and Lichen on a Dry Stone Wall’, pictured below, have over 40 hours of stitching time. So, a morning’s work to produce a piece of felt is only a fraction of the time spent creating the entire work!
I love the textures that can be achieved by wet felting. It is a wonderful carrier for other natural fibre too, that in turn create texture and interest.
Handcrafted felt in my opinion is one of the nicest fabrics you can stitch into, whether that be free motion machine embroidery or hand stitching with beautiful hand dyed natural threads. Stitching into a unique piece of fabric, that you have made feels special.
So, what is wet felting? It is the marriage of wool fibre, water, natural soap and friction. It is my favourite medium for creating textile art.
I love the free-flowing effects that can be achieved by wet felting it seems unforced. The fluidity of sustainable fibres, that have only been touched by hand, water and soap, seem to mirror patterns and structures within nature, I can relate to it!
Further examples of my work can be found on my portfolio page. Please contact me if you are interested in purchasing my art. If a piece you like is already sold please enquire as I often revisit favourite subjects.
I run felt making courses in the North Yorkshire area, often in beautiful settings such as stately homes. To see my current workshop availability please see my shop. Or send me an email to be added to my mailing list. Mailing list subscribers will be notified of new workshops prior to general sale.