If your experience of felt is limited to kindergarden art projects, or if you think that felt is something that is sold by the square in craft stores, prepare to have your mind blown. Felting is a process, requiring only knit woolens and a washing machine, and once you get started, you too may become a felting devotee.
What is this stuff you call felt?
The primary colored easy-craft staple is one kind of felt, another is an industrial material, used for insulation and other hard core non-craft purposes. But the stuff that we are interested here is an evolution of knit fabrics.
Knit fabrics have the benefit of tremendous give and bias. Felting causes the yarnís fibers to mesh together so they maintain their properties, but will not unravel when cut. You can turn anything woolen (including cashmere and alpaca but not acrylic) into felt. So if you have multiple sweaters made by your grandmother who thinks you are 9 feet tall, or if you canít resist buying beautiful thrift store woolens no matter how badly they fit, or if you have a huge pile of knit test swatches, felting is the magical solution to your problems. Here weíll outline the basic techniques and show a few projects. From there you can take felting wherever you can imagine.
How It Works
When you felt a knit fabric, what happens is that the temperature changes and agitation cause the curly barbed wool fibers to straighten out and then spring back and lock together, so they get all tangled up. This means that you get a tighter, sturdier piece of fabric.
How to Do It
The easiest method of felting is to throw sweaters into a washing machine for a normal cycle (hot or warm wash, cold rinse). A small amount of soap (try 1/8 of what you might normally use) will also aid in felting. In the washing machine, hot water felts more than warm water. Similarly, a long cycle felts more than a short cycle.
Controlling the Process
If sweaters aren't felted to your desired thickness or smallness, they may require multiple washings, but be careful. The first wash may not seem to do much. Then with the second wash your old XXXL fits your 9-year old niece.
So, if you are shrinking a baggy sweater and it is sort of close to what youíd like, stop before it gets way too small.
Arms often become too short during felting. One solution is to wrap them in a 3" wide strip of a non-wool material. Looping, and knotting each loop seems to work best since it wonít come undone in the machine. This technique is similar to tie dying, so you could choose areas you want to pucker out and not felt, tie them off and throw that into the wash.
What to do with your felt
Felting gives you freedom because exposed edges won't unravel. You can tie them with loops of yarn, or crochet them together, or sew them with a machine or by hand. My favorite method involves a latch hook or knitting machine needle. With this you can create seams that have give like the knit.
The magic of felt is now your own mighty saber to wield at unruly wool-based fabrics. Shrink and re-shape away! Felted material can now be cut and sewn into new garments, quilts, rugs, hats, potholders, toilet seat covers, anything requiring the durability, flexibility, density, and dangerous beauty of felt.
Make sure the sweaters donít matter too much to you since felting is something of a voodoo art, and there is always a chance of over felting.
Patterns: A sweater with a graphic multicolor pattern may look bad from the front, but becomes lines of color on the back. These might fuzz together and become beautiful during felting.
Color Bleeding: Sweaters often bleed so make sure that you combine colors that will look good if they tint each other.
Shrinkage: Shrinkage occurs more in the length than the width of a knit. Ribbing, at the bottom and sleeves of a sweater, tends to felt less and sewn seams often donít felt at all. (See more at Controlling the Process)
This was written by Scott Bodenner with help from Callie Janoff. Scott is a weaver living in Brooklyn and a devout follower of the Church of Craft.
Sweaters (or other pieces of knit fabric) of all wool or nearly all wool. Alpaca and cashmere felts are dreamy.
A washing machine (yours or one at the laundrette)
Elsa Schiaparelli by Francois Baudot
Madeline Vionnet by Betsy Kinke
Bauhaus Textiles: Women Artists and the Weaving Workshop by Sigrid Wortmann
I seem to be a Verb by Buckminster Fuller
If You're Afraid of the Dark, Remember the Night Rainbow by Cooper Edens