Knitting, felting and fulling
Is it felting?
Felted slippers. A common item at craft shows, comfy and cosy to wear, a great gift. But are they really "felted"?
The slippers shown here are actually made through a process known as "fulling." They are knitted very large, in a loose stitch, then washed in hot soapy water until they shrink and the loose stitches turn into a dense fiber. We've probably all accidentally done it to a wool sweater - washed it in the washing machine and had it come out tiny and so stiff you couldn't get it over the smallest head! Hot water and agitation, such as in the washing machine, is all it takes to turn wool knitting into heavy cloth. In heavily fulled fabrics both the weave and the yarn are obscured, thus giving the appearance of felt.
Unless you're going for something very tiny, knitted items that you want to full need to be made big. Really big. Like the hat below, which really did fit after a couple of hot cycle runs through the washing machine! Or the slippers shown below the hat. The CD case next to them is a clear demonstration of the size difference. Giant to start with, the slippers ended up about a women's size 7.
Why does it work?
Wool has scales. When washing in hot soapy water with some agitation the scales open up and lock together. You must use non-washable wool, the kind that says "hand wash in cool water only." The wool yarn that says "Superwash" will not felt. You can mix non-felting yarns or fibers with wool for a variety in look and texture, but the best results will be had with at least 80% wool.
As you know if you have ever accidentally fulled a garment, you can't undo the process! Even items that have already been fulled can continue to shrink if washed in hot water, so be careful with your wool!
Once an object is tightly fulled light will barely show through it, and there will be very little evidence of knitted stitches or rows.
So if this is "fulling," what is "felting"?
Felting is done with fibers, not woven or knitted "cloth."
As Bette Hochberg explains in Fibre Facts, felting “is the traditional method of making non-woven fabric” using unspun sheep wool (e.g., from batts or rovings).
Felting is a very old process, much older than spinning or weaving. The oldest archaeological finds containing evidence of the use of felt are in Turkey, dating back to as much as 3000 BC. Llamapaedia describes felting as "An ancient technique that produces a non woven sheet of matted material which is most frequently made from wool, hair or fur created by the entanglement of a mass of fibers that takes place when heat, moisture and pressure are combined."
I started felting because the yarn store I frequented had some gorgeous twists of "roving," which is unspun wool. It can be found in natural colors that come straight off the animal, or dyed into varied and beautiful hues. I was fascinated by the colors and textures of the roving, although I didn't have the slightest idea what one would do with it. Then I found a book, and through trial and error figured out how to do basic felting.
I say basic - I have seen both works of art and garments that are incredibly complex and beautiful. I think I need some help and instruction before I can get that good, but in the meantime I experiment and have fun. This is also a very basic description of how to felt fibers. It's a lot of fun, but it's a little complicated to get started on.
Wool can be purchased in bats, like the reddish pile shown here, or roving, like the purple tuft below. Bats are already laid out in kind of a sheet. Roving must be laid out by hand. Small tufts of wool are pulled off and laid out in layers on a flat textured surface. I use bubble wrap on a table. A large surface is needed because the object you are making is going to shrink, so it needs to be laid out much larger than you intend it to end up. I use a six-foot table, and it's not long enough or wide enough for many things I want to make.
After laying out the roving or batting the pile is covered with a thin piece of netting, and the work begins. Hot water and a gentle soap are applied carefully to the wool and gently rubbed through the netting, without mussing up the layers. This process is MESSY! It's very clean (soap and hot water!) but it's messy. After a bit of rubbing the layers begin to stick together and felting has begun. When the layers are fairly tightly stuck, but not yet starting to shrink, the item is "felted." The yellow square shown is felted, but far from complete.
Felted, THEN fulled
Once the item has been felted it is rolled up around something like a pool noodle, with the bubble wrap and the netting, and rolled and rolled until it begins to shrink. It helps to roll it for awhile, then unroll it and turn it over or around, so that you are rolling it in all directions. Eventually you have to take the netting off, or it will get felted into the project.
How much rolling? Well, this is where the elbow grease really comes in. I find that it takes a good 800-1000 rolls before an object is fulled almost as much as I want. At that time the cloth has become dense and strong, and it's possible to unroll it and swish it and squish it in a sink full of hot soapy water.
The scarf shown below was made using different colors of roving. It started out nearly hanging off the ends of my six-foot table, but ended up only about four feet long. I need a longer table, because in my opinion that's not a long enough scarf! This scarf is very soft. It's much more pliable than a knitted and fulled scarf would be.
Sometimes I will spend an afternoon one day laying out my roving or batting, depending on how complicated a pattern I want, and the next day I will spend the afternoon felting and fulling. Once you start getting the roving wet it's a bit hard to stop in the middle, so you should be prepared to follow the process through once you get the soap and water out.
You can make these wet-felted objects as thick or thin as you want. I made the scarf quite thin (it's still very strong) because I wanted it to drape comfortably. When I make a purse I used heavier layers of roving or batting, so that it's a much thicker fabric.
The finished products compared
Below are two purses. The purse on the left was made using the wet felting technique. The purse on the right was knitted and fulled. Both are practical and durable, although the felted one took much less time to make.
It's a fun hobby, and it can go much farther than I have taken it so far. I have a real appreciation for the lovely felted hats, capes or vests that I have seen. Maybe some day I'll get that proficient at it!