Saturday, February 9, 2008

Magical Felt with the Ranchers

There are loads of books out on felt these days. It seems like it's the new fashion craft of the season and there's little wonder. Making felt is an amazing and satisfying process. It's simple and straightforward, highly creative, and you really can't make a mistake.

Making felt is simply the process of matting and shrinking animal fiber together in a controlled fashion. Controlling the shape and rate of shrinkage are the keys to success. Felting can be done by an individual or in a gang, whichever fits your preferences or your needs.

My good friends at Triangle Cross Ranch will be helping us with this project. Since it's winter and most of the outside activities are either unpleasant or impossible because of the wicked wind and crushing cold, these folk are now bona fide experts in making felt--and they make felt as a gang.

OK, so, rule number one in making felt--there is no having fun or smiling. Absolutely NO fun!! Do you hear me?

Oh dear, I don't think they're listening.

To begin, we'll need either raw washed fiber, or carded batts. I think it's easier to use batts and I think the results are a little more even and predictable.

Lay down a piece of fabric as a base to build your felt upon. We use old sheer, but textured curtains. (Dotted Swiss or polyester lace is perfect, but make sure it's really ugly. That's important.) Next build your first layer of fiber by laying pieces like shingles on your fabric, with all the fibers going the same direction. To build the second layer, place the fiber perpendicular to the first layer. Do the same for the third layer and then check for holes or uneven spots, not heavier or lighter in places, but very evenly distributed. Place another piece of textured fabric on top of these layers.

Wet the fiber with hot soapy water...

...and press the water into all of the fibers under your fabric until they're saturated. The wet fibers will begin to smell like an animal and the people making the felt will wrinkle their noses and perhaps complain slightly. Those who thrive on texture and sensory activities will thrill to the feel of the soap and warm water, the smell of the fiber and the contrast between the rough fabric and the soft wool. It will calm them and they'll look forward to it week after week.

When all the fibers are wet, rub them gently in a circular motion so that none of the fibers shift from their positions. The amount of pressure is similar to the pressure you use to apply moisturizer to your face in the morning. Continue rubbing the entire surface until the fibers begin to hold together.

Keep rubbing... ( much longer?)

turn it over and do the other side, and rub some more... ( arms are tired...)

until you have what we call prefelt. (...are we done yet?)

Prefelt is when the fibers begin to mat together and it passes the "tent test". To test this, pinch a small bit of your fiber and pull up. If it forms a little tent, it's prefelted. Take off the top fabric and rub firmly and aggressively to shrink and harden the felt. We even scrub it on a washboard or a textured drainboard to firm it up.

Rinse in cold water. OK. Do you have felt? Is it fabric? Felt is, indeed, fabric. It may be thick or thin depending on how much fiber was used, but it's very durable--nearly indestructible. There are some details I've left out, like how much water and soap, but that's the gist of it.

We've recently been making our felt in larger and larger sheets by rolling it in a textured rug or mat and rolling it back and forth. It's absolutely magic the way it becomes felt in just a few short minutes. Place the fabric on top of a textured rug or mat (old bamboo blinds or outdoor mats are perfect). Build the layers on the sheer fabric as before, but you can now use larger pieces of fiber in building the layers. We use full sized batts for this. Put the sheer fabric on top.

Wet the fiber and press as before. After the fibers are all saturated, roll the entire works around a wooden dowel rod or a broom handle.

Rubber band it to hold it together and squeeze out the excess water.

NOW, roll, roll and roll some more.

Put on some music and dance and shuffle while you roll back and forth. If you get tired, sit down and roll it with your feet. Hook it to the back of your bike so it will roll as you pedal and let your bike do the work, but ROLL!

Unroll it, do the tent test, add color, and roll some more. Reroll if you need to, but it should be prefelted in no time. In this way, our Ranchers make prefelt in 15 minutes from building the layers to completed prefelt. It's absolutely brilliant and saves us loads of work.

We're learning to make mittens and bags out of our felt fabric and we're only getting started. We made our first three pairs of mittens three weeks ago out of some ugly cast off fiber by simply cutting the pieces out and hand stitching them together.

The Ranchers have been taking turns wearing them to do chores, even thought my oldest daughter thought she was going to have a pair for herself. So far, they're the warmest work gloves they have. Pretty good product testers, eh?

Just think, all this creativity and hard work without an ounce of fun, conversation, or silliness! Looks and sounds like a sweat shop to me...

...maybe not.

You can read more about Triangle Cross Ranch at or at

Friday, February 8, 2008

More Sherpas

We finished another 6 sherpa hats this week and they're ready to ship off. The first batch was received with excitement and complete satisfaction, with the buyer saying, "I LOVE THEM ALL! They're just what I wanted!!" Nice to get feedback like that.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Fibers and fleeces

The question has been asked, "What is the difference between fiber and yarn?" It's actually been asked more than once and I, in my wisdom, have neglected to actually give a meaningful answer. I forget that not everyone lives in my world, so here is my best effort at explaining fiber, at least in the terms that I'm familiar with.

Fiber is a raw material. It comes from plant sources (cotton, hemp, corn silk, flax, soy silk, bamboo, etc,) and from animal sources (wool, alpaca, mohair, silk, cashmere, angora, dog hair, llama, camel down, camel hair, etc.) All animals and all plants produce fiber in some form, but some are more usable than others and some fibers take some real creativity to find uses for them. I know absolutely nothing about plant fiber, so that's the last mention I'll make of that.

In my world, fiber is the bag of alpaca fleece you sink your hands into and breath in the earthy (and sometimes down right stinky) animal smell right after it comes off the animal, enjoying the total sensory experience--including the static electricity. It's still warm from the animal's body and the newly shorn ends look like a silk carpet.

It makes you groan slightly with the richness of color and luxurious softness. In my world, fiber is the mohair that smells and feels greasy until you wash and dry it so that it shines like silk and curls into perfect ringlets like doll hair. By the way, "fleece" is just another word for an animal's coat of hair that is harvested for use, usually some kind of wool. The blanket of an animal is the fiber that is shorn off of the sides, back, hips and shoulders. It the best fiber on the animal. The neck, leg, belly and...well... less desirable areas are normally either thrown away or used for things like garden mulch, lining chicken nests or animal bedding.

The first step in transforming raw fiber into something usable is skirting. This is where the entire fleece is spread out on a large mesh screen and sorted in order to remove impurities, unusable bits, and soiled fibers. During this phase, the wool is also sorted and graded according to fineness, color, and use. Some fiber will be coarse and straight (leg and belly hair) and most will be crimpy and soft (back, shoulder, neck, hip). Crimp is the wave in the fiber that gives it loft. Not all types of animal fleece will have crimp, but if crimp is a consideration, consistency in frequency and amplitude throughout the entire blanket area is important.

This first step is very important, as a poor job of skirting can ruin the fiber for it's intended use and create problems at every stage of processing. Imagine a gorgeous alpaca sweater in lilac and sage with tiny bits of hay stems scratching you every time you wear it!

After skirting, the fiber is washed and laid back out on the mesh screen to air dry. This is washed and dried alpaca ready for the either carding or combing. This animal has two colors in her blanket and the processed fiber should produce a tweedy marled looking yarn or felt.

If the fiber is agitated during the washing, it will mat itself into a shrunken, shaggy mess, beyond rescue and never to be used again. (How, exactly, would I know this? Experience, my dear, experience!) It will be a total loss, so the washing must be done by careful soaking with a mild soap and meticulous rinsing. I use my clothes washer only on the final spin cycle to spin out the rinse water. There's no matting and felting together as long as the whole mass moves in the same direction.

These fibers are mohair and they've been through a picker. You can see the huge sharp spikes in the picker and the resulting fluff. There are spikes on both top and bottom of this wicked thing and they pull the locks apart so they can be rearranged. Because mohair curls and twists, it benefits more than most fibers from being put through the picker unless you're using it for doll hair or spinning a curly novelty yarn. The young man running the picker is one of our Ranchers at Triangle Cross Ranch. He's decided that this is his niche and he loves running this machine--with heavy gloves and close supervision for safety.

After picking and fluffing, fiber is carded or combed in order to arrange the individual fibers so that they're all going basically the same direction. I like to dye raw fibers, right after washing because it adds interest to the carding and combing and it's ever so much fun to blend colors at this stage. Experimenting with different color combinations and imagining the finished products makes the work go quickly. (I've learned more about color theory on my drum carder than any class or instructor could have taught me.) Fiber off of a carding machine is called a batt or roving. If you're a quilter, you know what batting is and this is nearly the same, but made from natural animal fiber rather than polyfiber. You can use hand cards--two curved paddles with carding cloth (teeth) on each, but with the amount of fiber we produce a year, hand cards are kind of like trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon. The white batts are mohair and the brown/gray is alpaca.

From a comb, the fiber is called top or sometimes a roving. This is a thin, continuous "river" of fiber that is ready for spinning. Again, the tools of the trade offer long sharp spikes and look like weapons of mass destruction.

So far, the fiber has progressed from fresh raw fleece, to washed and dried fiber, to combed top or carded batts and rovings. From here, it can be spun into yarn, made into wet felt, needle felted, locker hooked or anything you can dream up. Up to this point, it's been pretty much all work and no play. Dyeing the raw fleece helps, but it's still a lot of production work and not always pleasant. It can be dirty and smelly work, although quite satisfying for me. I just love to see a huge pile of carded batts sitting on the table after a good day's work. More than that, I love to see fewer and fewer bags of raw fleece sitting in my barn.

Enough for now. More later on two preparations that I consider the bridges between fiber and finished goods and the beginnings of the creative process--the magical, incredible, wonderful process of felt and the meditative, reflective, sometimes tedious process of spinning. Just think, we'll be knitting in no time! Whoopee!