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


Kathleen said...

Nope! Not a happy face anywhere! :o)

Casdok said...

Your photos of people enjoying themselves working i find very heart warming.
Lovely post. :)

Cait O'Connor said...

Thank you Wooly that was really fascinating. I am so ignorant, I had no idea how felt was made! Thanks for your kind words by the way.

Faith said...

Like Cait I had no idea how felt was made either - and I'm sure most people who go into the craft shop and pick up their colourful squares don't realise the work that goes into it - or the happy smiles!

Debra in France said...

How interesting. I had no idea that felt was made like this, or even what is was made from. Does different types of fibre make different types of felt, what I mean is does alpaca fibre differ from sheep fibre?

Wooly Works said...

When you walk into the craft store and buy the little rectangles of felt, you're buying synthetic felt. It's made of polyester and I have no idea how they get it to stick together. Our felt, being natural animal fiber sticks together because of the scales along each fiber getting expanded and intertwined.

Debra, you ask the best questions and make think. Felt made from sheep's wool is much firmer than alpaca or mohair felt. It makes perfectly smooth and solid felt that translates into firm felt hats with brims that don't need wire. Alpaca felt is very very soft and much more pliable than wool felt, and mohair felt is softer yet. Mohair doesn't make really good felt all on its own, without being blended with another fiber.

The firmest felt of all is made from the fiber from beavers. Isn't that a kick? The beaver hats from history were made with this. I visited a hat maker's a couple of years ago and they still make the very finest felt hats from felted beaver down.

Kathleen said...

You've received a "MWAH" award from me! Come on over to my blog to collect it!

Debra in France said...

Hi Wooly, I really appreciate you taking time to answer my questions. I find the whole subject enthralling. :-)

Debra in France said...

Hi Wooly, I really appreciate you taking time to answer my questions. I find the whole subject enthralling. :-)

Triangle Cross Ranch said...

It has been so much fun watching them show off their creations. It is so obvious how much they hate creating them ;) No fun at all, I'm tellin' ya'!!!
As always Wooly, you are the greatest!! Thanks for your time and your heart with the Ranchers!!

Debra in France said...

Hi Wooly, I have left 2 awards for you over at my place. Stop by and pick them up. I LOVE YOUR BLOG!

Rani said...

What a cool cool project! That is soooo cool! Did I say it's cool?

Love all the pics, too. It's fun to see the process. Quite a bit different from felting a purse in the washing machine!

Inthemud said...

That all looks really interesting and everyone working happily.

Thanks for your comment on my blog.

I'm glad I'm not the only one to fall over!
Take care now!

Pondside said...

Wow! Great music, a great craft lesson and pictures that are guaranteed to make me smile! Thank you!

Kathleen said...

I wonder if you might put an Etsy thing on your blog, similar to the flickr one? I've seem them on other pages, maybe it would intrigue people to take a look! And I might have a black alpaca skirt with a beaded edge to add.