CRAFT PROFILE: Needle Felting

In the next installment of UK Handmade's new craft profile series Verity Warne of Made by Loulabelle takes a look at Needle Felting...over to Verity.

Hear the term ‘felting’ and most people will think of wool, water and soap; personally the word holds painful memories of accidental, tragically shrunken knitwear. However, ‘wet-felting’ (the type we all know about) is not the only felting method. Needle felting is a dry felting technique - relatively new to hand-makers in the UK, yet a particularly flexible skill to add to the handmade ‘arsenal.’
 
History
The process of tangling or matting animal fibres together to form textiles dates as far back as 6300 BC, making felting the oldest method of creating textile fabric. With the ability to keep people warm in winter and cool in summer, felt was the ideal material for yurts, blankets, hats, boots and clothing.

Whatever the method, agitation is essential to the felting process (and I don’t mean the losing your patience kind!). Agitation (rubbing together) causes the minute scales of hair and animal fibres to interlock – the more agitation, the tighter or denser the fabric.

The traditional wet felting method has remained unchanged for thousands of years. But, a new technique was pioneered during the industrial revolution with the invention of the felting needle to mass produce industrial felt. Used together, thousands of needles ‘punched’ the fibres into fabric without soap or water. However, it wasn’t until the 80s that artisans David & Eleanor Stanwood used an industrial barbed needle to develop needle felting as a hand-craft.
 
The Experts
One of the most appealing applications for needle felting is soft sculpture. Illustrator and toy artist Gretel Parker ‘stumbled upon’ the technique and now uses it to bring her charming characters to life: ‘Over two years ago, someone sent me a kit, anonymously in the post, after several people had commented on my blog that I ought to try creating my artworks of toys into real 3D designs. I was baffled at first as to how it 'worked' but as soon as I'd grasped how simple the technique was, I was completely hooked.’

Jocko by Gretel Parker

Bobby Blue by Gretel Parker

Poppellinas by Gretel Parker

Melanie Ann Green of Feltmeup Designs fell in love with felting after taking a community course and was inspired by the ‘magical process by which piles of fluffy stuff are turned in to smaller neater stronger creations.’ From making bags and purses, Melanie changed her focus to felting bunnies and has since settled on birds: ‘The lovely lady who lived above me would feed the birds everyday … the seed would fall from her window ledge on to my doorstep and all the birds would flock there. I made my first bird for her and she was so delighted with it that I had to make more... and more... and more! Lots of people liked them and they turned out to be much more fun to make than bunnies!’

Blue tit by Feltmeup Designs

Cockatiel by Feltmeup Designs

Owls by Feltmeup Designs

The sculptural and tactile qualities of needle felt are ideal for jewellery. Feltmaker SooSun integrates needle felted beads and flowers with other materials to create her statement neckwear: ‘Needle felting with wool is such a wonderful medium to work with...so colourful, soft and flexible. It enables me to use items from my collection of vintage fabric, beads and buttons, giving me creations which are both unique and beautiful.’

Extra Large Shocking Pink Poppy by SooSun

Two orange poppies head band/choker necklace/wrist band by SooSun


Scarlet, Black and Dark Green Poppy Necklace by SooSun

For those who have already mastered traditional felting techniques, needle felting opens up new possibilities. The beautiful work of felt artists Annie and Lyn, mother and daughter team behind Rosiepink, is a great example of how needle felting can be combined with other felting methods to create spectacular textural art. They find that needle felting ‘adds texture to wet-felted artwork at the embellishment stage, either by itself or used as a tool to apply suitable yarns and fabrics, and it's an effective way of adding precise details.’

Coastal panels by Rosiepink

Meadow by Rosiepink

Methods
The basic principle is simple: jabbing the needle into a clump of carded wool compacts the fibres in the direction in which the needle is inserted. Jabbing from different directions, while turning the clump of wool forms the 3D shape. Repeatedly poking or jabbing in one spot will depress the area, creating a dent - an eye socket, for example. ‘Really the best way is to just have a go!’ recommends Rosiepink.
 

Tools and Materials
The only materials required are:

  • a felting needle
    • carded wool
    • foam pad

Carded wool is un-spun wool cut from the sheep, washed, brushed (or carded) and dyed. It is available from craft shops or specialist on-line felting suppliers.

A great craft for beginners, Gretel sums it up ‘It's cheap, clean and tidy and the only limits to what you can make are your imagination and skill.’

For further inspiration, take a look at Gretel Parker's needle-felting video blog post or read how Christine of 52 crafts in 52 weeks got on with needle felting.
 

Further information

For introductions and how tos:
JulietK, Birds and Friends
Rosiepink

Suppliers
Fibre Crafts
Myriad Natural toys & crafts

Featured crafters
Gretel Parker: Middle of Nowhere blog and toy gallery
Feltmeup Designs
Rosiepink
SooSun

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