Needle Felting 101: History, Wool, Tools
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.
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.
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.
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 Elenor Stanwood invented a small, home needle punch technique (a smaller version of the industrial punch) to make wool batts for quilts. Ayala Talpai, a family friend was taught the technique 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.
The basic tools of a needle felter are wool, a sponge used as a felting surface and felting needles.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 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 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/