Needle Felting 101: History, Wool, Tools

needle felting
What is Needle Felting?

Needle felting is the art of sculpting wool with special, barbed needles. Stabbing the wool over and over again meshes the wool fibers together, creating a firm, textile object. I started needle felting in 2004 to make toys, puppets and dolls; I’ve since added fine art sculpture to my repertoire. I love needle felting, it’s a versatile medium and it doesn’t take much space to needle felt or to store your wool.

needle felted apple
Needle felted Apple vessel

The Origin of Needle Felting: Felt is typically very strong and industrial, needle felted- felt is used in a variety of ways. From the 1950’s, needle felting (needle punch) was originally used to make felt for industrial purposes, for use with musical instruments and as building materials. Industrial felt is made with large plates filled with special barbed felting needles that are mechanically moved up and down to felt wool and other materials together such as polyester or nylon. Industrial felt is used as a damper; it’s placed between car parts to damp the vibrations between panels and to prevent dirt from entering some joints.

needle felting
needle felted mushroom

Felt is also used on the underside of a car bra to protect the car body. Felt is used extensively for musical instruments; it is used on drum cymbal stands, it is used to wrap bass drum and timpani mallets. In pianos, piano hammers are made of wooden core, wrapped in wool felt. Industrially made felt is placed under the piano keys and it is used in accordions and as ukulele picks.

needle felted
Peace Man!

There are many uses for industrial felt in home construction such as: weather protection in roofing felt and a moisture absorbing layer for floor layouts. Recently, the clean white scraps of felt from industrial uses are ground up, colored and put in an aerosol cans and sold as spray to cover up bald spots!

In the 1980’s, David and Eleanor Stanwood bought a Sampling machine for needle punching; it’s a 12″ wide industrial loom that factories used for running small test samples. Eleanor, a wool artist, used it to inlay colored wool onto her dyed batts for a striking effect. During a quiet winter in the 1980’s David figured out that he could take a single felting needle and by hand he could use it to make shapes from loose wool.  Ayala Talpai, a family friend was taught the technique one winter (they were making Christmas ornaments) and she further developed it into the single, needle felting craft technique we know today. Ms. Talpai wrote the book: The Felting Needle, from factory to fantasy. 

Eleanor Stanwood’s website: http://artfelts.com/history.html

David Stanwood’s website: http://stanwoodpiano.com 

needle felting
Needle felting a dog.

The basic tools of a needle felter are wool, a sponge used as a felting surface and felting needles. Eleanor’s website: Eleanor’s website: http://artfelts.com/history.html

Wool: Different types of sheep yield different types of wool(Merino, New Zealans, Lincoln, Romney, Drysdale, Rambouillet to name a few); there are many types of wool available, but not all of it is good for needle felting. The finer the wool, the softer it is; fine wool such as merino is used in the clothing industry and a coarse wool such as Karakul is used to make carpets. I prefer to felt with medium-coarse wool (Sheltland, Bershaft, New Zealand or wools marked short haired felting batts). These coarse wools felt quickly and easily, a fine wool (such as merino) takes much more time to felt and the needle marks are easily visible; I like to use merino wool for doll hair.

wool
A flock of Roman sheep

Felting Surface: I buy my sponge from industrial upholstery shops; I buy large squares and cut them into smaller square (depending on the size of the project I’m working on). I prefer to buy upholstery sponge because I can get very thick pieces; I always needle felt on a piece of sponge 2″ to 5″ thick. I find that the small, relatively thin sponge offered in craft stores for needle felting wears out very quickly and I often stab through to the table when I’m working with one of these craft sponges.

sheep
Needle felted sheep

Needle felting Lingo: The farther back you go in the wool process, the more wool lingo you’ll need to understand, for example if you want to buy your wool from the source (sheep farmer) you’ll need to know what a fleece is (sheared wool directly from the sheep without any processing), what kind of wool you want (depends on what you want to do with it) and whether you want your wool carded (brushing the wool with special paddles to get out tangles and dirt). If you buy a fleece, you’ll receive the sheered wool from a sheep in one big, dirty lump of wool, you should wash it several times. See this blog post about raw fleece . Wool roving is wool that is rolled up in thin (about 5″ wide) strips and wool batting is wool that is rolled up in sheets (about 20″ wide) and is a little fluffy.

needle felting
Felting Needles

Felting Needles are the key to great needle felting; there are quite a few gauges and they all felt a little differently. Felting needles are usually three sided, with barbs on the side for meshing the wool together and super sharp. It’s a good idea to mark your needles by color coding them; dip the top of each needle into a bottle of nail polish to color the handle and make a chart of what color corresponds to which size.

Needle Felting Needle

Gauge Triangle – very fine-for surface finishing work
40 Gauge Triangle – fine-for surface finishing work
38 Gauge Star – less surface area than standard, with an extra corner of barbs,  for quicker felting-for shaping a piece and attaching pieces together
38 Gauge Triangle – standard-for shaping a piece, for shaping a piece and attaching pieces together
36 Gauge Triangle – medium-for shaping a piece, pushes chunks of wool
36 Gauge Crown Tip – one barb on each corner set 1/8″ from the tip, for shallow surface work
 – coarse
Reverse needle – pulls the wool out instead of pushing it in. This needle is good for blending colors or inserting special hair (like mohair) into a felted piece.

needle felted toys
Needle felted pirate ship and pirate pigs

Needle Felting Terms

Batt: A length of pre-felt prepared commercially using a carding machine.
Blending: Mixing fibers of different colours or different types together.
Carders: Paddle brushes for separating wool fibers, cleaning the fiber or blending different types of colors of wool for spinning or making felt. Carders have fine wires set in leather or synthetic rubber cloth attached to a wooden base.
Carding: Using carders to tease and open wool out to separate the individual fibers.
Combed tops/Wool Tops: Commercially prepared fibers, combed into long loose ropes.
Felt: A fabric in which wool fibers are interlocked and entangled. With the application of moisture and friction, they are transformed into a compact mass and become felt.
Felting Needle: A long needle with barbs on the end. Used for hand, machine and industrial felting. The barbs on the needle hook on the fibers and interlock them with each other.
Fleece: Unprocessed wool shorn from a sheep.
Fulling: The process after the felt has matted and shrunk. It is rubbed on a rough surface, thrown gently and even slammed on the work surface to force the fibers to intertwine, shrink and become firmer.
Inlay: Technique in felt design in which pre-felted pieces are placed on a background batt of wool fibres and the whole piece is then felted together.
Merino: A breed of sheep producing fine wool that is best for making clothing from when it is felted. They are bred mainly in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa
Micron: The measurement of fiber thickness. The lower the number the finer the fibre
Needle felted Batts: Fine batts of carded fibres pass under a bed of barbed felting needles. As the needles pass through the fibres the lower layers are pulled up through the top layers. The continuous process produced a sheet of wool fibers that may then be wet felted.
Nuno Felt: The name given to a fabric made with wool laminated to silk. The wool is laid on to the fabric and then rolled in the usual way. The fibers of the wool penetrate the silk and when the wool shrinks it gathers the silk forming beautiful decorative patterns.
Pre-felt: The fibres are laid for felting but are only felted until they are matted but not yet shrunk. It is then rinsed, allowed to dry and used in a design.
Rovings: A long thin rope of wool fibre which can be used for spinning or to make felt
Scales: The hooks which can be see on the wool fiber under a microscope. Felt is made from the wool when these hooks interlock and tighten the fabric.
Staple: The length the wool grows on the sheep. It can be long or short staple

needle felting
The Bone

Needle felting artists:

Laura Lee Burch:  www.lauraleeburch.com

Natasha Fadeeva: www.fadeeva.com

Victor Dubrovsky: http://www.chushka.com/static/index-5.html

Helen Priem: www.pipspoppies.blogspot.com

Stephanie Metz: http://www.stephaniemetz.com/index.html

Domenica More Gordon: http://www.domenicamoregordon.com/index.html

Irina Andreva: http://teplenkaya.livejournal.com/

Chrissy Prusha: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cprush13/collections/72157611341226056/

needle felting
Needle felted bug with big pincers:0


Roman Holiday

for inspiration
Roman Inspiration-at Dusk

Many of my friends have told me that I am very disciplined as far as work is concerned and I tend to agree, but it’s not easy. Everyday I get up, get the girls off to school, clean up, do the dishes, start a load of laundry, clean the cat box and do other sundry jobs like perhaps going to the post office to send out Etsy purchases or pick craft supplies that I’ve ordered from abroad. After the little daily jobs are finished, it’s down to work for me creating art. My husband teases me as he leaves for work in the morning “I wished I could stay home everyday, don’t eat too many bon-bons!” and I ignore him and try to put myself in creative mode.

inspiration
Inspiration to create

Being serious about creating for a living means not going out for coffee with friends a lot during the day, not watching t.v. (not a problem for me) not being distracted by housework, phone calls, taking Hebrew or French lessons (which I should be doing) or other odd jobs that need being done around the house and the list goes on. Keep your eye on the ball and your nose to the grind stone as they say. I need to keep my concentration, to be in a good mood and most of all I need long periods of time and Inspiration to make art. I’ve written about this before, but it’s an on-going search. My long term goals have  a lot to do with the energy that I need to plow through the daily distractions and continue to make art for a living. It can get fairly depressing and start to feel like I’m running around in circles and what’s the point if I create things all day and no one notices or buys them. I need to feel that I’ve accomplished a task to feel good and not like I’m “staying home from school and playing” My goals and accomplishments keep me going: Etsy and local store sales, book deals, teaching jobs, my handsome website and plans for future needle felting exhibitions give me strength.

artistic inspiration
Vatican statues

Recently, I took my youngest daughter Emili on a mother-daughter trip, we went to Rome, Italy for a week! I’ve made it a tradition to take my girls on mother-daughter trips, the one on one time with my girls is priceless, the adventure is forever memorable and the photos and inspiration that I get from it is good for my soul. Emili chose to go to Rome, I think because she has been studying Rome in school and maybe because spaghetti, pizza and ice cream are three of her favorite foods! She has several Italian friends in school, so we received lists of the most interesting places to go the best places to eat, maps and valuable travel info. from them-thanks Marcello!

Rome
St. Peter's square at dusk

Our favorite time to venture out was mid-day; we shopped, walked around, ate and talked as the sun began to weaken and the best time of the day for Emili and I was seeing the sights as the sun began to set. All the touristy sights were packed with people (not my scene) in the early part of the day, it’s not easy to take great photos when there are throngs of tourists everywhere. But in the evening, St. Peter’s square in the Vatican was empty! and I was thrilled! These long walks afforded us time to talk; Emili and I talked about things that don’t come up on a regular basis at home. Walking through St. Peter’s square and around the Vatican, we talked about religion, it seemed appropriate. Emili had a lot of questions about nuns and priests, about how they dressed, what they believed in and how they were connected to The Vatican. She told me that she and her friends at school have had discussions about religion and religious differences and respecting those differences. I was impressed at this level of discussion for 9 and 10 year olds and the mention of respecting their differences made my heart sing!

Pinocchio in rome
Pinocchio wood shop in Rome

We found the small Bertolucci Shop while wandering around the tiny street of Rome; they specialize in wood carving and Pinocchio dolls. This was right up my alley of coarse, I bought I small finely carved Pinocchio for myself. I believe I will needle felt a Pinocchio doll in the future, I’ve always wanted to make one! There was a corner of the store showing the wood carving tools and pieces of wood in different stages of carving, a real artist’s workshop-you don’t see that very often.

Tiber statues
Statues along the Tiber River

After walking around the Piazza Navona area, we started to cross the wide and highly adorned Ponte’ Sant Angelo (one of the bridges with the statues) and Emili started dancing. We were listening to a very talented guitar player, his playing put a pep in our step, we dropped a few coins in his hat because we admired his talent and we continued to boogie across the Tiber River on our way back to our hotel.

crumbly walls
Roman, textured walls- LOVE

I studied in Florence, Italy when I was in university, so Italy has a special place in my heart. Italy was a place of firsts for me and it was a new world that I never knew existed! I’m hoping that our travels will inspire things in my girls. My oldest daughter asked me once why should she read “old classic literature” when she liked “the new stuff” better. The answer to this question was was so obvious to me, that I had a hard time putting my answer into words. But basically, I tried to explain to her that there are a lot of ideas, experiences, thoughts and feelings out there in books and music and foreign cities that have never crossed your young mind and once you find them in one of these places you will be “delighted” and want to seek more.

inspiration in Rome
Emili in the Colosium

Classic architecture, crumbly old buildings, ancient, chipping, ochre-colored walls, tiny narrow alleyways, beautiful, tiny shops, tall pointy trees, bumpy, black, cobblestone streets, colorful markets and teeny-tiny cars (all of which Emili had to have her picture taken with) were the sights that delighted us in Rome. It’s good to get away every now and then, away from my daily routine and surroundings, it gives me the time to realize how lucky I am and the chance to make life-long memories. Emili says her favorite part of our trip was the Colusium, because we lied down on a grassy hill outside of it, snuggled up together and took a little nap in the sun after we had roamed around the big circular stadium for a few hours.

Roman vacation
Ochre walls and shutters

After Emili and I had walked, eaten, shopped and sight-seen for the day, we went back to the Casale de Cedri (the ochre colored 19th century villa we stayed at on the outskirts of Rome-owned by an aristocratic family as their summer home). We spent the evening in the living room that over looks the manicured grounds full of vines and flowers, fountains and maze-shaped bushes that Emili described as an Alice and Wonderland type garden. Emili played games and watched Pet Shop videos on my computer, which are her passion right now and I read my book. We sat on the elegant, white sofa together, but every evening, she slowly inched toward me so that our legs touched and our elbows got in each other’s way. I looked over at her because maybe she didn’t realize that she was crowding my space, then she gave me an adoring smile and this was my favorite part of our trip, every evening on the sofa together!

architecture
Architectural flourish in Rome