Needle Felting Without Wool
by Evy Hawkins
excerpted from Threads Issue #144, pp. 26-29
Needle felting—integrating fibers with thin, barbed needles—is a technique that many sewers associate with woolen fabrics; however, myriad textures can be created by needle felting other materials. When you needle-felt pieces of silk to create whole cloth, you get a completely new look every time; you never know exactly what the end result will be, so there’s always an element of surprise.
To get the look, simply layer pieces of silk on water-soluble stabilizer, and needle-felt the fabrics into each other. The technique produces an elegant, lightweight fabric—something not typically expected from a needle-felted fabric. Contrasting silk fabrics can be needle-felted as well with diverse and charming results.
Get the Tools
You can create needle-felted fabrics with a hand-held needle-felting tool, but it’s much faster to use a needle-felting machine. Needle-felting machines have several needles, each with a tiny barb on the end. The machine does not require thread; instead, it meshes fibers together by punching them together with the motion of the needles. Many manufacturers produce needle-felting attachments for their regular sewing machines. The samples shown here were created with a Baby Lock Embellisher.
Choose the right fabrics
Other than wool, the best fiber to use for needle-felting is silk. Silk is a strong fiber that resists breakage and fraying better than man-made substitutes. It also holds the texture created with the needles better than polyester fabrics do; polyester fabrics tend to release the texture too soon. Needle-felted silk chiffon becomes finely crinkled with an almost pleated look while dupioni and taffeta fabrics produce a more heavily puckered and tucked appearance. Silk velvets are the most luscious of all, developing rows and clusters of deeply textured wrinkles.
Try experimenting with the different silk types to get the look you want. Whichever silk weight or weave you choose, the results are eye-catching and unique.
Needle-felt the small pieces into yardage
The rules regarding machine needle felting are simple: Do not work on any one area too long, never twist or pivot the fabric while the needles are engaged, and work over thick fabrics slowly. Here, small pieces of silk are layered to create a collage of fabric. With this fabric, it’s best to make simple garments with few style lines so you can felt a design without altering the way the garment fits.
1. To start, cut large pieces of silk. Begin by cutting your fabrics into irregularly sized shapes. Cut off the selvages. Avoid making very small pieces; it’s better to start with larger pieces and trim them down as needed. To conserve fabric, begin with only a few pieces, and cut more as you need them later.
2. Enlarge your pattern by at least 25 percent. Use a water-soluble marker to trace the enlarged pattern onto water-soluble stabilizer. To create a large sheet of stabilizer from smaller pieces, overlap the edges slightly, and sew with water-soluble thread in the top and bobbin. You need as many large pieces of stabilizer as you have pattern pieces you plan to felt.
3. Start felting. Lay a fabric piece in the center of the stabilizer, and felt it into the stabilizer. Work from the middle of the fabric, and move toward the edges in a tight, circular motion.
4. Layer the fabrics. Add another fabric piece to one edge of the felted fabric. Overlap the edges, and begin felting along the overlapped edge. Needle-felt it in place completely. Needle-felt the rest of the piece by working in a half-moon pattern radiating from the attached edge toward the other side. Smooth fabrics while felting to prevent it from folding under the needles. To remove large wrinkles or puckers in the stabilizer as they form, pull the fabric off the stabilizer and then re-felt it.
5. Cover the entire piece. Continue to add pieces of fabric until the entire pattern piece is covered, allowing the excess (unfelted) fabric to hang over the traced line. One of the best things about needle-felting silk fabrics is that nothing is permanent until you make it so. If something doesn’t look right or ends up in the wrong place, pull it up, and start again.
6. Add bias strips to secure overlapped edges. Trim away any long whiskers. If the pieces are only overlapped a little at their edges, as shown in the sample at right, cover the raw edges and give extra support to each overlapped edge by needle felting bias-cut fabric strips or ribbon yarn along them. Begin gently, needle felting slowly along the center of the strip. If your pieces are overlapped by more than 3⁄4 inch as shown in the pink dress (Simplicity 3532) on page 26, you can skip this step.
7. Use free-motion stitching to hold the felted texture. Free-motion stitch in a tight, loopy pattern. Concentrate on securing each area and each edge completely; be sure to avoid any ruffles or loose ribbon bits you want to keep. Staystitch around each garment piece.
Cut and assemble your pattern
Wash away the stabilizer, and cut out all your garment pieces. Then, needle-felt the garment seams together.
1. Fine-tune your pieces. Compare the felted pieces with your enlarged pattern pieces. If the stabilizer has reduced during the felting process, some adjustments may need to be made before you trim away the excess fabric and stabilizer. You may have to add a bit more needle-felted fabric here and there.
2. Wash away the stabilizer. Silk fabrics may shrink when washed, but that’s why you enlarge the pattern pieces before you begin. Follow the manufacturer’s directions to remove the water-soluble stabilizer. Two or three long soakings typically work better than one. Do not wring or twist the wet fabric. Roll the fabric up in a thick towel, and squeeze to remove as much water as possible. Lay the fabric on another towel, and allow it to dry flat until it’s just damp.
3. Iron to set the stitches. Work from the wrong side. Silk fabrics will withstand high heat. The combination of heat and steam from the damp fabric completes the setting of the fabric texture; however, monofilament and decorative threads are not always heat resistant. Test the thread’s heat resistance; you may need to use a press cloth.
4. Cut the pieces. Cut the final garment pieces, and assemble them as directed in the pattern instructions. Needle-felt the seams together, if desired. To do so, trim the seam allowances to 1⁄4 inch, overlap them and felt on the machine with stabilizer. Cover the seam with ribbon, yarn, or bias fabric strips, and secure them with stipple or decorative stitching. Trim away as much of the excess stabilizer as you can. The remaining bits will come off when the garment is washed, but if you want to remove them completely, soak the garment again, as described in step 2.
Fabric Care Tip: Do not machine wash needle-felted silk garments. Hand wash only, and lay them flat to dry.