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


Fairy Real Estate-Needle felted Tree Stump Playscape

play house
Gnome Home-Needle felted tree stump playscape

FOR SALE: Magical Luxury Villa, 606 Forest Floor Way-Loft/Studio space, pond view, spacious interior with a nice mushroom garden, a quiet and friendly neighborhood, close to the Cricket Kindergarten, a good location: 5 minutes from downtown Snail Square, the Toad and Stool Pub and Forest Mini Market. 
Listing Price: 6 acorns, 2 snails and a pile of leaves

The gnome seller of this beautiful home must sell quickly as he’s bought a mushroom condo in a warmer climate. -Please contact Forest and Fauna Fairy Real Estate agent Laura Lee Burch to make an offer. 

The tree stump is spacious
The tree stump has a spacious interior "home space".

I’ve deemed myself a fairy real estate broker, qualified to help fairy folk find the home that best suits them.

fun for kids
Let your imagination run wild!

I’m holding an open house at the property: Come one, come all! Truffle Beer and gnome nummies will be served.

needle felted gnome home
Open house guests mingle in the garden

Waldorf Needle Felted and Felt Mushroom Houses

doll houses
Red spotted Mushroom houses

Welcome to the fungi neighborhood! I’ve wanted to make a habitat for awhile now, so I started with the mushroom houses and this is what I’ve come up with. I had some industrial felt sitting around, I decided to use this because I needed a firm material for the base of the house. The industrial felt is so hard you can’t felt into (it is about 1/4″ thick and comes in many thicknesses) but it’s perfect for “building”.

needle felted and felt mushroom house
Needle felted and felt Mushroom house.

I really got into the felt details of the mushroom stem, in this house I’ve added a rabbit, deer and owl into the flower and vine design.

felt owl
An owl in the forest, felt detail
felt details
Deer in the forest, felt detail.

  I had needle felted the tops of the mushrooms earlier as hats, so I reused the hats for the mushroom caps. The houses have 2 floors; you enter the bottom floor by entering the front door and you can access the top floor by lifting off the mushroom cap.

hello neighbor
There are two floors in the mushroom houses.
upstairs
The upper floor of the mushroom house.

The mushroom houses are the perfect size for my wood-felt-wool dolls!

mushroom houses and wooden dolls
Imaginative play with mushroom houses and wooden-felt-wool dolls.

You can find both of these mushroom houses for sale on my Etsy site: http://www.etsy.com/shop/lauraleeburch

Laura as Marie Antoinette

marie antoinette
Laughing Marie Antoinette

I decided to change my Laura Lee Burch Studio Facebook page photo to something fun, so I donned my Marie Antoinette felt wig and asked my oldest daughter Lili to shoot some photos of me. She must have taken 50 photos of me or more, none of which I thought did Marie nor I justice. I just felt like I had a plastic face (my girls make modeling look so easy-it’s not), then Lili told me she thought I looked like a drag queen in this wig, which made me laugh really hard and voila-I like this picture. My kids say the darnest things to me like, you know mama, if you dyed your hair you wouldn’t look so old and if you put more cream on your face you wouldn’t be so wrinkly! My youngest daughter asked me recently if I voted for Abraham Lincoln and she asked if I had  ever seen a real dinosaur!!! She also once told me that I was a real mother felter, which I wasn’t sure was a compliment or a misguided insult disguised as a compliment.

felt wig
I'm trying not to laugh

Are those train tracks around your eyes? Lili assured me that I didn’t look bad and that I’d be 28 this year on my birthday (since I was 29 last year-I have a Jack Benny/Benjamen Button thing going on). We decided that if the wig was blue, I could pass for Marge Simpson; that gives me an idea for the upcoming Halloween costume! All I need now is a doughnut for Doron and we’re set as Marge and Homer.

Emili wearing a Marie Antoinette wig
Emili wearing a wool Marie Antoinette wig

Marie Antoinette has played a major role in my artwork for the last several years. I made this wool wig for Emili to wear in a fashion show; it was so big she could barely walk in it! The Marie Antoinette dress was the most popular princess costume in my shop.

princess dress
Marie Antoinette princess costume

I think it’s the elegance and excess that appeals to me about Marie, she was something that I’m not. I don’t wear makeup or big puffy dresses. The last time I wore a big,  puffy dress, the girls were little and they crawled up under it and used it as a tent, while I was wearing it! Even my puppets have gotten into the action.

Marie Antoinette puppet
Needle felted Marie Antoinette Puppet and Emili in matching wig and dress.

This Marie Antoinette puppet is one of my favorite pieces; I woman bought her last year after she persuaded me to sell her. I was paid a pretty penny for her, but I had this emotional attachment to her. I felt terrible after I sold this puppet. I said I’d make another one, but I haven’t yet…..I will.

Marie Antoinette puppet
Needle felted/sewn Marie Antoinette puppet