Wool is a magical thing. It has stretchy properties like no other fiber...that is, until your husband washes your favorite sweater and it suddenly fits an American Girl doll. Surely this is how felting was discovered, yes?
Felting happens when you take wool (or any other animal-derived fiber) and agitate it in water (preferably the hot, sudsy kind). It becomes thick, practically impermeable, a little stiff, a little fuzzy, and ultra warm. The wool fibers have scales that interlock and irreversibly attach to each other. The important word here is irreversibly. Can't be undone. No amount of tears, sweat, or cussing will get it back to normal. So my motto is: Pray first. Felt second.
Before you felt, you need to know just a few things - first, synthetics won't felt, cotton won't felt, and usually, light colors won't felt either. I do have some white felted mittens that I make (they're actually my top selling mitten color!) but they do take a little more work.
If you're not sure if you've got wool or acrylic, here's a quick test - take a few inches of the yarn and burn it. Stop looking at me like that, I'm being serious. *smile* If it's acrylic (or some other synthetic blend) it will turn to a nasty plastic lump. If it's wool (or another natural fiber) it will turn to ash. Wool is fire-resistant, which is another thing in its favor over other fibers, and a great reason why it's a terrific fiber for children and babies.
I do our felting two different ways, by machine and by hand. Most of the time, I will knit up a big batch of mittens (and formerly, booties) until I have at least ten pairs or so, and I will set them loose in the washer on the smallest load setting. For single-item custom orders, when a customer wants something in a color I don't currently have for sale, I will knit it up and felt it by hand, which is a lot more work and takes more time, but the result is (mostly) the same. I'll show you the difference in a minute. Either way, the items are knit large and baggy, and are fairly indistinct. Lumpy, and a little goofy looking. Bear with me. They get much cuter.
Here is a mitten. With thumbs, even (if you're familiar with our shop, you'll know all of our mittens are thumbless for babies and toddlers!). This is a great example of felting, because the mitten poses an extra problem - you have to take special measures so that the thumb doesn't actually felt itself closed, and for that I cut some special filler (um, plastic from a grocery bag) and stuffed the thumbs. Not too tight though, because the stitches are baggy, remember? We don't want that plastic to work it's way out and make a permanent hole in the thumb as it felts. So, lightly stuff the thumb (or small part of whatever you're felting) and make a few stitches with some cotton thread to hold it in there. The cotton thread won't felt, so you'll be able to pull it out easily when the felting is done.
I felted these guys in the washing machine - lowest setting, hot water, a little detergent, for about 6 minutes. Prayed first. Then I checked, reset it for another six minutes, and checked...and the darn things were still not done. There were only four items (a pair of booties and mittens - I was being lazy and didn't want to hand-felt them, and needed some photos for this post anyway) and there wasn't nearly enough agitation going on in there. But...
Here is another tip - do not, under any circumstances, add other laundry to your felting. Even if it is clean laundry, it may leave ugly fuzzles all over your knits that are impossible to remove. This is experience talking, and I just saved you a ton of grief. No charge, you're welcome.
So anyway, I looked around for something to throw in the washer with the knits to create more agitation, and finally decided on a bunch of sippy cups sans lids. Worked beautifully (it was a little noisy, though). You want them to be in the wash cycle until they are almost as felted as you want them to be, but not entirely - they will continue to felt a little in the rinse and spin cycle.
When wool is wet, it is very sticky. And when it's felted in the washer, it is also very, very fuzzy - depending on how many things you felted (or the size of them) there may be a lot of stray, wet wool fluff stuck to the sides of your washer and to what you felted. You will need to trim your items, but I suggest waiting until they are mostly dry or you will be covered in wool fuzz that is incredibly difficult to get off of your hands. Imagine sticky biscuit dough...it's like that.
Here they are after they're trimmed up - this is only a small pile of the fluff that I cut off of them. The rest took off flying when our forced-air heating kicked on. (wheee!)
Small knitting needles are great for picking locks and puncturing plastic wrap. Large knitting needles are great as drying props.
I had another order for a single pair of mittens last week, and we hand felted those. The principle is the same - hot water, soap (I just use dishwashing soap), and lots of agitation. It helps to have rubber gloves and a few kids around who want to take turns helping.
It's fun to do it this way because you can actually see the process of the fibers coming together. It reminds me of making butter out of cream by shaking it in a jar - there's no change for a long time and you don't think you're getting anywhere, and then suddenly you see a little change in the texture, and then poof! It's done. Well, maybe not "poof" exactly - maybe more like ten or fifteen minutes later. But after an hour of shaking, who's counting?
So, that is how we do it here. Any more questions? Leave them in the comments and I'll be happy to help. ♥