If you’re already a fan of fiber arts like knitting, crocheting, or embroidery, you’ve got most of the knowledge you’ll need to start needle felting. The basic principles are very simple, but once you get started, you’ll find that needle felting is so versatile it can do everything from embellishing clothes to creating fine art sculpture!
What is needle felting?
Felt is one of the oldest man-made fabrics, predating the woven fabrics that we’re most familiar with today. It is made by agitating fibers until they become matted together into a dense fabric. There are two ways to make felt: wet felting, which uses water and soap to mat and shrink natural fibers like wool together, and dry felting–also known as needle felting.
Needle felting uses special barbed needles that intermingle fibers from the top and bottom surfaces of your felting project, locking them together to form a dense matted surface. Originally developed for commercial felt-making, needle felting came to home crafters as a way to prepare quilt batting from loose wool, but these creative crafters quickly realized it had many more applications. Needle felting can be used to create flat sheets or three dimensional shapes, which makes it ideal for dollmaking and soft sculpture. It can be used to add wool fiber to knitted or crocheted projects, and even non-wool projects like silk scarves.
What Tools and Materials Do I Need?
One of the great things about needle felting is that it requires very few specialized materials to get started. At its most basic level, all you will need are felting needles, a felting block or brush, and carded wool.
Felting needles come in several different sizes and styles, but all have one thing in common: barbs. Tiny sharp hooks catch on the wool fibers as you stab the needle into the project, tangling them together. Felting needles come in different gauges, with larger needles designed for coarser work and finer needles used for finishing and delicate surface work, where the marks they leave won’t be as noticeable. Felting needles can be used singly, or grouped together in special tools designed to hold multiple needles.
Because they are very slender, felting needles can break if used incorrectly. If the needle is resisting going into your felting surface, don’t force it. Make sure to only apply vertical pressure to your needle; even though you can felt at any angle, pushing sideways on your needle instead of driving it straight in and out of your project can cause it to snap. Even the most experienced felters will break needles now and again, and as they dull over time, it’s best to replace them. Make sure you have extra needles on hand before beginning something new, and check out this handy reference to make sure you’re using the right type of needle for your project.
Felting Block or Brush
Felting needles are sharp! You definitely don’t want to be holding onto your project while you work, but you can’t just set it on the tabletop either, or the hard surface will blunt or break your needles. Instead, use a block of dense foam rubber, like the kind used in upholstery, or a felting brush, also called a mat, as a work surface.
Which option you choose depends largely on your personal preference. Foam blocks need to be replaced regularly since the repeated stabbing makes them break down, but they are initially less expensive than buying a felting brush. These brushes, which look like large rectangular scrub brushes with the bristles standing straight up, need only a bit of cleaning to keep them working like new, but it is more challenging to get a smooth finish on your felt using a brush than using a foam block. Many felters keep both on hand so they can choose the appropriate work surface for any given project.
There are thousands of different types of wool on the market. Not only can you find fiber from different breeds of sheep, but also from alpacas, llamas, goats, and more! Plus all these types of wool don’t go straight from the animal to your felting table. There are all kinds of ways to process the fibers. Here are the most common forms you may encounter:
- Raw Fleece: This is what you’re left with immediately after shearing a sheep. It’s dirty, oily, and far from ready for crafting, but they’re available, often fairly inexpensively, for crafters with the know-how and equipment to process their own wool.
- Scoured Fleece: After the most soiled portions of a fleece are trimmed away, and the lanolin, the natural oil present in wool, has been removed, a fleece is said to have been scoured. If it comes from a curly-coated sheep, at this point you’ll still be able to see those curls in the fleece. Some crafters like to use the texture to embellish dolls or sculptures, but it is difficult to use to actually form sheets or 3D shapes.
- Batting: Just like the polyester sheets that quilters use in their work, wool batting comes in sheets of varying sizes and a huge range of colors. These sheets are already lightly felted; the fibers are arranged running perpendicular to one another rather than parallel. This makes batting an excellent choice for felting, since the fibers interlock quickly.
- Roving: True roving is like a narrow strip of batting, with uncombed fibers running in different directions. It’s easy to felt, and useful for adding color and details to your work. Often, however, what you’ll find marketed as “roving” is actually combed top, which can be a bit trickier to work with.
- Combed Top: Made from the longest, smoothest fibers of a fleece (the “top”), this type of wool is ideal for spinning yarn since all the fibers have been combed into alignment. What makes it great for spinning, however, also makes it trickier to felt into sheets or shapes. Combed top does, however, make ideal doll hair, since once one end is felted into the doll, it can even be cut and styled like real hair!
The other factor to keep in mind when choosing wool to felt with is the length and texture of the fiber. Long silky strands may feel great to the touch, but that slippery texture and added length make them hard to felt. Similarly, coarse, short fibers post a challenge because there’s little for the felting to grab onto. When first starting out, opt for a mid-length fiber, and experiment to see what works best for you and the types of projects you want to create!
The basic technique for needle felting is simple. Just stab your felting needle straight into your project, remove, and repeat. A lot. Of course, there are nuances, depending on what you want to create. Check out these beginning projects for a few ideas!
Simple Felt Shapes
Great for embellishing other projects, hanging as ornaments, or strung together on festive bunting, these flat shapes use cookie cutters to give them their definition. Check out this tutorial for detailed instructions.
Mastering this basic shape is the first step in learning to create three dimensional needle felted sculptures. They’re also great embellishments in their own right. Use them as beads, practice blending colors, or use larger wool balls to safely store your felting needles. Learn how to make them here.
One of the great things about needle felting is that you can use it to embellish or even patch other fabrics, including knitted garments like sweaters. Check out these adorable needle felted elbow patches you can use to embellish a cardigan.
Practice shaping larger forms and adding details to your 3-D felt creations with adorable little owls. Check out the full video tutorial to learn how to make your own.
A Felt Bouquet
These adorable blooms will never wilt or fade. Using the same basic techniques as flat embellishments, these flowers take your skills to the next level by adding 3-D accents and subtle color shading.
Ready for something a little more challenging? Take your first foray into the world of wool sculpting with a little needle felted rabbit! Learn how to securely join different segments, create a smooth finished surface, and give your bunny some personality with this tutorial.
With simple tools, easy-to-find materials, and a quick learning curve, needle felting is a great hobby to pick up if you’re looking for something hands on and creative. With time and practice, you can learn to create anything from gorgeous works of art to practical everyday objects. Do you have favorite needle felting projects? How about handy tips and tricks? Share your experiences in the comments below!