Monica Bennett
Felt Artist

 

What is Felt and how is it made?

Felt is a non-woven fabric made from unspun animal (protein) fibres.  When protein fibres are subjected to heat, pressure, agitation, moisture and alkalinity (soap), they felt.  Microscopic scales covering the individual fibre strands open up when moisture is added. (Dreadlocks are felted hair).  During felting, the fibres tangle with one another, as the scales catch and lock together.  This is an irreversible process.

Hand felting is what it says - all the felting is done by hand. The fibres are rubbed and rolled by hand to get them to move around and tangle together to make felt.  Hand felting requires a lot of physical work.  Each felt piece is rubbed and rolled hundreds of times before the wool fibres become felt.

I make all my pieces completely by hand, without the use of rolling or felting machines, sanders, a washer or a dryer.  This gives me good control of the felting process as my hands can feel the fibres moving, tightening and can direct how and where the wool fibres become felt.

Terms

"Felting" is the stage where the loose fibres are holding together and the felt can be picked up as a solid piece, but the fibres can be pulled apart.  Hand rubbing with soapy water makes the fibres come together into felt.

“Fulling” is the stage during which the felt shrinks, tightens and has its final shaping through hand rolling and throwing. The fibres cannot be pulled apart and have become one solid piece.  Pieces can shrink up to 40% fromthe original layout size.

“Wet felting” is a process that uses hot water, soap gel and a lot of hand rubbing and hand rolling to get the fibres to tangle together, changing from loose fibres into a piece of material.

"Needle felting" is a dry process that uses a barbed needle (or needles) to poke the fibres through a wool fabric or felt base or to tangle the fibres to each other. This technique is often used to create three dimensional sculpture or to add details to a felted piece. In order for needle felting to be permanent, the piece must be wet felted after.

"Three Dimensional, Resist Felting" uses a thin but strong and flexible foam sheeting in between layers of wool. The resist material keeps the two sides from felting to each other, so that the piece can be turned into a three dimensional form.  Three dimensional elements can be attached to the outside of the piece at the beginning of the felting process and are worked at the same time that the base piece is felted with the resist material inside. Once the wool fibres are felted well, but before the fulling stage, the piece is cut carefully and the resist material is removed. Then the piece is fulled and shaped into its final form. 

All my sculptural pieces are made by hand, with wet felting. I do not use needle felting to create my three dimensional pieces.

"Nuno felting", or felting through a fabric base, is the technique I use to make my scarves and wraps. My pieces are made from a variety of wool, mostly Merino, and specialty fibres such as alpaca, mohair, bison, possum and hand dyed silk. The wool fibres are drawn out and laid into thin layers under and on to fine silk fabric on top of a big piece of bubble wrap. Then, I layout the design using the specialty fibres and hand dyed wool yarns, if using them.  Once the fibres have been laid out, the whole piece is covered with mesh (to prevent the fibres from being disturbed or moved) and wetted out with warm, soapy water.

When the fibres are all wet, I roll the piece up in the bubble wrap, tie it off and then roll, roll and roll some more. Periodically, I stop to check how well the fibres are felting and to change ends, rolling up from the other end to ensure even felting. The rolling encourages the wool fibres to migrate through the fine silk material and attach to the silk and to the wool fibres on the other side of the silk.  I use 6mm iridescent silk chiffon for the silk material. It is fine enough for the fibres to migrate through it and has a beautiful sheen to it.

When the fibres are attaching well, I stop rolling and start using my hands to rub the fibres, making sure to keep my hands wet and soapy. This rubbing is the ‘fulling’ stage, where the wool fibres felt tighter and tighter to each other. The silk itself does not felt but the silk material gets gathered up as the wool felt gets tighter, creating beautiful ruffles and texturing on the surface. Fulling increases the piece's wearability, making sure that the fibres are well attached to the base material.

Although the pieces look delicate, they wear very well, are warm but lightweight and are easy to pack for travel. They do not need ironing and should never be dry cleaned.  A light hand wash with mild soap and a good rinse in clear water is all that is needed, just as one would wash fine lingerie.