Needle felting basics

Hello!

If you are reading this then you have an interest in needle feting. It can be quite daunting to get started so I decided to put together some information that should help you in getting started.

If you have felted before then you probably don’t need to read any further, but why not keep going anyway, you never know, there may be something of interest for you.

If, on the other hand, you are new to felting then you’re in for a treat. Felting is a relaxing (Stabbing fibre with a needle is very therapeutic and a great way to reduce stress) and fun pass time that allows you to make beautiful works of art out of natural fibre. You can even use it to add embellishments to other wool based material too, such as quilts and clothing.

It is tempting to jump straight to creating an intricate copy of the Mona Lisa or life-sized 3D felt dog and then to become disheartened when it doesn’t look quite like the original. Next thing you know your felting kit has been relegated to the back of a cupboard and you’ve sworn off of felting for life. So, start small, practice the basics and then build up to the big stuff. Felting is like any skill; you need to practice, especially as the best way to learn is to do, so I’d highly recommend having a go. Once you have mastered making basic shapes and joining pieces together you should be able to make anything that you can imagine!

Once you’ve built up some confidence why not search for some inspiration online. Pinterest is a great site for links to further projects or YouTube has many tutorials to follow. Why not check out our videos too, there’s some links on our tutorials page.

So, don’t give up, keep jabbing and have fun!

Before you start…

When it comes to needle felting there are three main rules.

  1. Safety first!
  2. Always remove your needle from your felting at the same angle that you jabbed it in (if you try to pull it out at an alternate angle the needle may snap as they are delicate and very brittle)
  3. Safety first!

Yes, I know that rules one and three are the same, and this is because safety is very important! The needles used in needle felting are very sharp and if you aren’t paying proper attention to what you’re doing you will stab yourself. (Chances are, even if you are paying attention you will stab yourself, that’s what the finger protectors are for, don’t forget to use them!)

If you are working on a brush, or felt pad, then always have them on a solid surface such as a tray or table – never work on your lap without something hard between your legs and your felting surface, it is too easy to miss, or go through your foam!  Always put your needles away when you aren’t using them, never leave them lying about (you don’t want to find them later by sitting on them!) Always keep your felting supplies out of the reach of children and animals, small parts and fibre can be a choking hazard and the needles, as I’ve mentioned, are sharp.  If you hit something hard, or your fibre is too dense when you jab, then don’t try to force your needle in (it may break).

Tools of the trade

Finger protectors– these are leather sheaths for your fingers which are normally leather and look as though they have been cut off of gardening gloves. They are very useful when starting out as they help to protect your fingers from being stabbed by the felting needle as you work.

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Felting pad or brush – As you felt you will normally have to place your work on a pad or brush. These are soft surfaces that can be felted on without damaging your needle. Which one you use depends on personal preference.

Pads are helpful for flat felt and tend to be made of either foam or a block of pre-felted material thick enough to work on without the needle passing through the other side. This should be around 5cm, or more, thick.

Brushes work well for 3d felting as they hold your pieces offering support whilst you work.

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Pipe cleaners – These can be used to make the skeleton of your 3d projects. They are wire covered in wool or synthetic fibres. If you are using these as a base for your creations be aware that they will blunt your needles faster than felting fibre alone.

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Awl – This is a thick metal needle with a handle. It can be used to hold fibres in place when felting instead of using your felting needle that is easily broken. The awl is handy to use, instead of your fingers, when doing detailed work

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Needles – When you first start felting it’s best to start with a basic, and less expensive, needle. This is because there is a learning curve when it comes to felting and many needles can be broken or bent before you get the hang of it. The needles themselves are made of metal, are very fine, and have tiny notches or “barbs” down the edge that are used for catching the wool fibres and felting them together by helping interlock their scales. The number of barbs on a needle can vary and the more barbs the quicker it felts. The smaller the number of barbs though, the more control and accuracy you have over what you’re doing which is great for detailed work.  There are several different shapes and gauge of felting needle and each is used for a different job.

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Needle shapes – these can be triangular, star shaped or spiral.

Triangular needles have barbs on 3 sides. Triangular needles tend to be more common and less expensive than the other needle shapes.

Star needles have barbs on 4 sides. For faster felting star shaped needles are very good, having more sides to catch fibres with.

Spiral needles have barbs that go around the needle. This makes them felt quickly and gives a neat finish minimising the surface holes you can get with other needles. They are less good for doing bulk sculpting work.

Reverse needles – Reverse felting needles have their barbs facing in the opposite direction to standard felting needles. Because of this they can be used to pull fibres out rather than pushing them in. This is used to make your finished piece appear fluffy and is great when trying to recreate fur on a well felted piece.

Needle Gauge The needles gauge refers to the diameter of the needle, and the higher the gauge the thinner the needle. Having a selection of gauges can be helpful as when a larger needle which is quicker to use on larger areas becomes too larger to easily pass into your felted item a finer needle can be used to continue the job and complete more detailed work. A 40 is finer than a 32.

19 Gauge – 32 Gauge: A thick and sturdy needle good for working with course fibres and firmly attaching pieces. Good for making the bulk of a 3D piece. Not suitable for detail work or a neat surface

36 Gauge: A good needle for making the bulk of a 3D piece or for working with coarse fibres and firmly attaching pieces. Not good for any detail work.

38 Gauge: A good all-rounder needle. Good for doing bulk work and adding some detail. Good for sculpting with. Not good for coarse fibres.

40 Gauge: A fine needle for detail work and getting a neat surface. Not good for coarse fibres, rough sculpting or bulk work.

42 Gauge: A very fine needle for adding fine hair, tiny wisps of wool or fine detail. Not good for coarse fibres, rough sculpting or bulk work.

Needle handles – Needle handles come a variety of shapes and sizes and are made of a variety of materials. The most common interchangeable handles are made of either wood or plastic and can house one or more needles depending on their design. These can be used with any type or gauge of needle. Those holders that house two or more needles can be used for sculpting and bulk work or for felting large areas. Single needle holders offer more control and are better to use for detailed work.

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Some come with inbuilt needle guards for when the holder isn’t in use. Others are designed so that the needle can be turned around to point into the handle where they can be sealed in for storage. It is always best to remove your needle from the holder for storage if it doesn’t come with a needle guard or cap. This protects both you and your needles. Safety first!

Other materials such as metal can be used as needle holders. In some cases, the needles come with a plastic or rubberized handle formed onto their end, these cannot be swapped into alternative handles.

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When it comes to needles and needle holders a lot depends on personal preference. As with most crafts you can create a masterpiece with the most basic of materials so don’t worry if your pocket can’t stretch to the most expensive holder or buying every type of needle. Start with the basics and use them to practice all of the techniques. Chances are you will break a few needles, at least, as you’re learning so using lower quality, cheaper needles for the large proportion of your work makes more sense. Once you are comfortable with your equipment you can consider investing in better quality supplies if you like or keep it simple, it’s up to you!

Remember – Felting Needles do go blunt over time, and much quicker if you’re working on wire or pipe cleaners. If pieces are taking longer to felt you probably need to change your needle!

Types of fibre for felting

Wool Batting is wool fibre which comes in sheets. Unlike wool roving, where the fibres run in just one direction, the fibres in batting run in all different directions making it great for 3d projects. You may have to experiment with different ones though as different breeds of sheep produce batting with different qualities. Try a wool that has medium length fibre (as if the fibres are too long the batting will be hard to work with, or too short and the batting will fall apart) or a batting made of different breeds of sheep to give varied fibre lengths.

Core wool is a form of rough, undyed wool batting. It is handy for quickly creating the foundation of your 3D projects as it is easy to felt and less expensive, when using larger quantities, than roving. Once you have created the basic shapes out of core wool you can cover it using roving.

Wool roving – Wool roving is wool fibre that has been carded (drawn between two brushes) in order to get the fibres to all lie in one direction. It can be used in most fibre-based crafts including knitting, felting and spinning. It is used for both 3D and flat felting.

Pre felt – this is another name for sheets of already made flat felt. It can be used over your felting block to help extend its life span. It can also be used as a base for your flat felting projects where your roving is felted into it.

What sheep breed to use

Sheep, sheep are great, they’re like little legged clouds wandering around our countryside, and it is from these fluffy wonders that we get wool. Not many people know this, but wool is not just wool, each breed of sheep produces a unique type of wool with its own unique characteristics. Some are course and hard wearing, some soft and delicate, some have very long fibres and some have very short. This is great because each type of wool has its own uses, from Masham, being used to make carpets, to Merino, perfect for turning into clothing.

Naturally curly wool can be used to add texture to both flat and 3d felt projects and makes a good substitute for dolls hair. Both Mohair from Angora Goats, which has a long length and great sheen, and Gotland sheep fleece can be used.

Most wool is easily felted, something that anyone who has accidentally put a wool jumper into a hot wash can attest to. The reason that wool is so great for felting is its scales. Viewed under a microscope each wool fibre can be seen to be covered in scales and it is these that lock together to create felt, and the more scales, the easier it is to felt. Any natural hair has scales and so can potentially be felted, although very fine hairs and those with small scales will be much harder to felt. Plant fibres on the other hand do not have scales and so cannot be felted. These fibres, such as cotton and silk, can still be used to sew embellishments into your work.

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No matter what type of fibre you use it is always better to tear off what roving you wish to use rather than to cut it. This is because cutting the fibre can leave you with short fibres that can’t be easily felted. To tear, place your hands on either side, a few centimetres away from the point you wish to tear. Slowly and steadily pull your hands away from each other. The fibres should separate. If you are having trouble separating your fibre check to make sure that your roving isn’t twisted. If it is, untwist it, and you should be able to pull it apart. If it still won’t separate then place your hands further apart and then pull. Different fibres have different staple lengths (the standard length of each individual fibre). The longer the staple the further apart you will need your hands to be in order to tear your roving apart.

Which is the best wool for me? 

Well that depends on two main considerations.

  1. How much experience you have with felting? When starting out it is best to use a coarser fibre with more of a crimp to it, such as Corriedale or Eider, as its larger scales makes it easier to felt. As you get better you can move on to finer, softer fibres such as Merino.
  1. What do you want to make? There is flat felting where you effectively paint with fibre, creating images and embellishing textiles. There is also 3d felting, which is very popular right now, where you can create 3d characters and shapes.

For 3d work it is better to use a coarser fibre to build up your shape and then to add colour and details after with a finer fibre.

Merino wool fibre can be used for adding details to your work as its fibres are very fine and have small scales. It is also good for adding hair to 3d dolls or animals as it can be cut and styled in a similar way to real hair. It is not recommended for beginners or for making larger 3d shapes though as Merino can be hard to work with and would require a huge amount of fibre to make a larger 3D shape.

Once you’ve decided on what you want to make, and what sort of fibre you want to use, it’s time to look at colour. There are lots of commercially available dyed fibre to try and it’s great to build up a selection for your work. Commercially dyed fibre tends to be one solid colour throughout and is great for building up images. If you wanted something with more texture though hand-dyed fibres may be the way to go as the variation in tone throughout the fibre can really add depth to your work. Natural fibres are also easy to get a hold of and come in a surprising array of shades. There are some fibre artists who use only natural colours in their work to great effect!

As you develop your work it may be a consideration for you to dye your own wool. It’s a little messy but very rewarding to do and there are lots of books and videos out there to help you. It’s even possible to dye using a microwave which cuts down a lot on time.

Another option for those of you looking for a more customised colour pallet is to invest in some wool carders. These are brushes made up of fine metal “teeth”. Using your carders, you can mix together different colours or add more white fibre to change or tone down a colour. This can be a helpful tool if you are creating artwork with fibre as you can get just the right colour to complete your piece. Working this way, you have much more control over the colours that you use.

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Wool felt and felted wool – Yes there is a difference! Both can be used though as the base for your felting projects or embellished using needle felting.

Wool felt is tightly compressed wool fibre produced by agitating the fibres together with moisture and heat. In some cases, rayon fibre is blended with the wool (usually at a 65% rayon to 35% wool mix) to make the finished felt more pliable and softer. This blended felt is also usually cheaper than its 100% wool counterpart.

If you are using this for an item that you wish to later wash it is best that you wash it before you use it, this will allow for any shrinkage caused by washing – felting of the wool felt

Felted wool is made from a fabric woven out of wool yarn which is then washed and dried with heat causing it to shrink, become thicker and felt. This can be done by placing One of the benefits of this process is that the fibres become interlocked and so the material won’t fray if cut. Knitted or crocheted woollen material can also be felted – as anyone who’s put a wool jumper into the washing machine on hot will know – as they are made from yarn rather than thread though the felt will be thicker. If not felted enough they can potentially unravel so need to be washed for longer.

 

Craft tip – Why not keep that jumper you shrunk and use the material to make something new? Cut out sections from your jumper and turn it into a funky bag. Before you sew the pieces together though have a go at needle felting your own design onto the side. You end up with something beautiful and unique, and you can convince everyone that you meant to shrink it! If you haven’t shrunk anything lately then why not go to your local charity shop and pick something up there cheap, pop it in the washing machine on hot and then tumble dry it for good measure! Don’t forget to check the label before buying to make sure it’s made of wool first though.

Felting types – 

Applique felting: attaching wool yarn, wool felt or wool roving to a flat piece of wool fabric or felt.

With applique felting less is more! It is much better to start with just a few strands of wool fibre, and build up from there, than it is to use a large section of roving and have to try and tear off sections of felt later. So, start fine and build up from there.

Unlike wet felting, where it is important to layer your fibres in different directions, with needle felting it doesn’t usually matter which way you lay your fibre (unless you are needle felting your own piece of flat felt). If you read different books or look online for tutorials you will see many different ways of working, ranging from laying your fibre out over the whole of your shape and then jabbing it into place, to working with a few fibres at a time and working from one side to another of your image. The latter is my preferred way of working but over time you will find your own favourite way to felt. I do find it is best not to stretch your fibre out too tightly though, as you can end up with gaps or lines of fibre across your work. To avoid this, I would strongly recommend (whether you are working with your fibres already laid out across your work or are adding them as you go) keeping your needle jabs close together and working from one corner outward. Working this way, it is possible to get a uniform finish.

Free form flat felting – this is for when you don’t want a particular pattern or one with any rigid lines. It’s great for abstract designs and art work. To create a free form piece simply lay your chosen wool roving in any pattern you like on top of your base material and then jab into place. Repeat jabbing through the fibre and material and into the foam base evenly and consistently until the fibres are bonded and felted to the fabric.

Felting using an image – if you want to felt more complicated shapes it is possible to first stencil or draw a freehand design onto your backing material and this design can then be filled in with fibre. Specialist transfer papers can also be an option and can allow you to produce more complicated designs to work from. Focus on the edges of the design to ensure that they are crisp and well defined. If you have any trailing fibres that go over the edge of the design then fold them back into the design and jab them into position with your needle  [If you are drawing, it is best to be sure that the ink you have used is fully dried before you felt over it as otherwise it may stain your fibre.]

Machine felting – uses a specialised attachment which allows you to needle felt using a sewing machine, enabling the user to quickly felt large areas with very little physical effort. This may be an option later on for those who wish to do large scale felting or who are unable to hold other needle felting tools.

Embellishments – Using needle felting you can add any wool based material to your base material, this includes strands of spun wool and cut out pieces of wool based felt. These can be needle felted into position in the same way that you felt your roving. It is a great way to add felt patches to your creations.

Creating flat felt – Flat felt can be purchased online and from most haberdashery shops, but sometimes it’s nice to make your own, especially if you want to make something specific for a project. There is a specific way to lay out your fibres for making flat felt and that is a lattice, this structure adds strength to the finished piece. To do this tear strips of roving into small strips and lay them over your felting block from top to bottom. Repeat but lay the next layer from left to right. If you have one, use a multi needle tool and felt over the roving (you can use a single needle but this will take longer). Keep going until the fibre becomes partially felted. Peel the partially felted material from the foam block and turn it over. Fold any wispy edges in towards the middle and felt them into place to create a straight edge. Felt this side. Once you have systematically felted this side turn it over and repeat. Keep going until you feel the sheet is securely felted and solid to the touch. Your felt should now be done.

What to felt? Well you can pretty much felt anything you want to, although I would suggest that if you are starting out you build up your confidence (and practice your jabbing) by going for something simple first. Large basic shapes are a great way to start, and for those who want to make something recognisable straight away simple flowers like the one pictured are quick and relatively easy to try.

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Making a felt flower – Take a sheet of felt to use for your petals. Draw a circle approximately 7cm in diameter onto a piece of paper and cut it out. Fold it in half and then fold it in half again and again. Draw a petal shape onto the paper and then cut it out – don’t get too close to the middle as you need to leave enough space to felt on. This will be your template. Lay it on top of a piece of premade felt and draw around it. Do this three times and cut out the shapes. These will be your base. Lay the petal sections one on top of the other. Now take some yellow wool fibre and gently roll it between your palms to make a loose ball about the size of a large Brussel sprout. Place this over the centre of the petal section. Take your felting needle, in its needle holder, in your dominant hand. Jab your needle into the centre of the ball of fibre, through the felt petals and into the foam block below. Be sure to jab in and remove your needle at the same angle. Repeatedly jab into the fibre using different angles to jab in and out. As you work you should notice that fibres are being pushed through the felt petals and through to the other side. This is an indication that the felting is working. Keep working until the fibre feels dense or hard to the touch. Focus on areas that stick out. Look at the overall shape and keep working until you are happy with it. Once you are happy you can trim off any loose fibres.

If you want to turn your flower into a brooch you can sew a brooch back onto a small circle of felt and glue it onto the back of the flower (Modpodge or pva glue works well) this helps capture the fibres that have been jabbed through the felt and keeps everything together. Whilst the glue is still wet sew around the glued-on circle to help keep it in place (if you wait until the glue is dry it becomes harder to sew through the felt).

 

Sculptural felting: creating a three-dimensional piece of felt from wool roving.

Sculptural felting comes in two main types, free form and form felting

Free form 3D felting is where you take your fibres and felt them without using a form or shape to pack them into. Using this technique allows you to make any shape you desire without having to buy forms to use, it can be harder to achieve a consistent shape though.

When free form felting you can start by shaping your felt by hand. This can be done by pinching or rolling your roving loosely between your palms until you have formed a ruff approximation of your desired shape. Once you have the ruff shape you can either hold it between finger and thumb (so long as you’re wearing your finger protectors) or lay it on your foam or brush. When jabbing your felt remember to only jab halfway. This prevent fibres from being forced out of the back of your work and needing to be tidied up later. Remember to remove your needle at the same angle that you stabbed it in, this helps prevent your needle from breaking. Rotate your felt regularly as you work so that you are stabbing it from every side and not condensing your fibres too much in any one area – it is easier to go over an area you missed than it is to build up an area that you have worked too much on. As you work stop every now and then to check your progress. If you find that you have a section that needs to be pushed in then go over it again until you are satisfied. If you find that you have condensed one area too much then it is possible to build this section up by laying extra fibres over the top and jabbing them into place. Once fixed work around the area to smooth it in to the surrounding fibres. Again, work carefully and try not to overdo any one section. Once your shape is completed you can embellish is by laying small sections of coloured roving over the top and jabbing them into place. Remember – less is more! Build up your embellishments gradually.

Form felting uses forms such as cookie cutters or specialist felting forms to make 3d shapes. This technique can be easier than free form felting and is helpful if you need to make several of the same shape. This technique is achieved by filling the chosen form with a pulled off section of roving and then repeatedly stabbing the fibre with a felting needle until the fibre is felted into that shape. For this process you can either use the same needle or start with a thicker needle for the bulk of your felting and change to finer needles as the fibre becomes denser. More fibre can be added on top as you work to make the finished piece thicker and it can be flipped halfway through the process so that the fibre can be worked on from the other side. Whilst working it is best to be careful of the edges of the form as these can dull or even snap the needle you are using. Also, as the shape can be flipped and worked on from the other side it is not necessary to stab all the way through the fibre, just half way should be sufficient. If you are stabbing all the way through the fibre then it is best to have a foam mat or brush underneath to protect yourself and your surfaces.