Friday, November 25, 2011

the great felting post

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.
 Like so. Ta da.

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'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!)

 Find a safe place where the cat won't lay on them and let them dry for a couple days. For some reason they take days to fully dry out after the initial felting, but after that, they dry very quickly (like after playing in the snow). Score another point for wool.

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?

 Here are the hand-felted mittens. They are thick (though not quite as thick) and not nearly as fuzzy - I didn't even need to trim them. And I had control over the process, so there was no fear of over felting.

So, that is how we do it here. Any more questions? Leave them in the comments and I'll be happy to help. ♥


bananaorangeapple said...

can you ever felt something too much?

Great post, I really like the pictures and I feel like I understand the process now, well except for my random question.

I put a cable knit cardigan in the wash once to felt it. It was much too hot for me to wear with all those cables, and I thought it would make a nice cushion instead - it is fully felted now but waiting for me to sew it up somehow.

Angels and Everlastings said...

Enjoyed this post - felting is something I've always wanted to try.

sammysgrammy said...

Very good tutorial, Shannon. I felted the little ballet slippers I have in my needleworx shop. I usually to this by hand. When I use the washer, I have a pair of old jeans that I throw in there for agitation. Sometimes I'll use a mesh lingerie bag to keep the fuzz clinging to the sides of the washer,under control.

NaturallyComfy said...

Great post! I don't knit but I love to felt wool sweaters I find at thrift stores. One thing I have done for when I need some more vigorous agitating is I saved an old pair of jeans that were going to get thrown in the trash anyway and I throw those in the washer with my things I'm felting. It works great.

v + s + m + i + a + c said...

bananaorangeapple - Yes, you can definitely felt something too much if size is important. If it's just for a pillow or cushion (and doesn't have to fit a pre-made pillow form) then it probably doesn't matter - the longer you felt your item, the thicker (and smaller) it will be. But for things that will be worn, take care to not over-felt. :)

Kathleen said...

Wow! So that's what happened to my lovely Scottish wool sweater... LOL - in a sink in Scottland years and years ago! Great post - I really enjoyed seeing this and now I want to try it with the grand girls =)

luvncrafts said...

Great post!! I love felting!! I don't knit, but crochet. I have not tried mittens yet. I have done mostly purses and cell phone bags, and a couple of hats. THAT was fun! I am working on the gagues. Like, how much bigger to I make something so that it will be the correct size after it's felted? I recently had TONS of fun trying to make an adult hat. Pray First, then felt...right? LOL