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Needle Felting Without Wool

Needle felting—integrating fibers with thin, barbed needles—is a technique that many sewers associate with woolen fabrics

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.

Layers of silk dupioni and chiffon were combined to make the yoke of the pink dress. When these fabrics are felted together, the result is a subtle, unique texture.


Various shades of silk chiffon are felted together to create a sheer fabric for the bolero.

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.

Felt the fabric together.

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.

Use free-motion stitching to secure the fabric. Add trim at the overlapped edges if desired.

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.

Wash away the stabilizer.

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.

Iron to set the stitches.

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.

by Evy Hawkins
excerpted from Threads Issue #144, pp. 26-29


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  1. JanLYoung | | #1

    This is one of the coolest things I have seen since working on my BFA in fiber! I would have never dreamed of needle felting fibers other than wool, I love the effect and my mind started spinning while I was reading the details above, WoW. I love this newsletter so far, keep them coming; I intend to subscribe to the mag as soon as I have the extra funds.

  2. LaDiggity | | #2

    Wow! Utterly inspirational. Don't have an embellishment machine, but will be getting hand-felting tools asap to try this out. Thank you!

  3. User avater
    Jim_Dennison | | #3

    This is a very good article with very useful info and good photos. The only fault I find with the article is the section Get The Tools. It does not sound like the author ever looked at the needles used for hand or machine felting. They do not have a tiny barb at the end. Fishhooks do. Felting needles have a series of barbs along the blade of the needle depending on the needle size and shape(triangular or Star). Most felting (or embellishing) machine manufacturers do not mention that needles come in various sizes or shapes; or that the smaller the needle size, the smaller the visible hole in the felted fabric. I recommend a size 42 triangular needle for felting silk. Most machines are sold with a size 38 triangular needle which does leave a pretty visible hole in the finished fabric. Try Our Designs at http://www.tryourdesigns.com sells a sampler pacof assorted needle sizes at a reasonable price. They fit most felting machines.

  4. User avater
    Jim_Dennison | | #4

    LaDiggity, I recommend that if you use hand-felting needles that you purchase an oz. or two of silk roving(or even wool). You only need a few of the fibers to help lock your layers of fabric together. The fibers will blend in with your silk fabric as it is felted. The reason for this recommendation is that you cannot felt as fast or strongly with hand needles as you can with the machine. It is better to have the little extra protection. Again, my recommendation for the smallest needle4 possible still stands.

  5. rkr4cds1 | | #5

    Jim makes excellent points about adding a bit of ANY natural fibers between to help bind from above & below. And the needles do have several barbs along the sides, not at the tip (using the narrowest you can locate, preferably 42! to minimize the puncture holes.)
    I've needled by hand for 10 years and have only one issue—the generic use of the word 'felted' to cover everything, both noun & verb.
    The verb 'needled' (no, I'm not the grammar police here but this describes the action rather than the result) can be substituted for every place that the word 'felted' is used from #3 on down and it describes the action better and others will begin to associate this with dry felting work instead of the traditional wet felting work, which has always been referred to as just 'felt/felted/felting'.
    Please use needle/needled/needler/needling when referring to our dry techniques?

  6. User avater
    gladrags | | #6

    Great article, will be taking out my embellishing machine to play again. One of the women in our textile group has coined the term "Lisher" for her embellisher, so we all practise "lishing", Fiona "lished" a wonderful piece applying wool (knitting yarn)and other snippets to a background of linen scrim. After free machine stitching the finished piece looked just like the lichen covered rock which was her inspiration. Happy Lishing!

  7. felter | | #7

    This is a nice idea but it is NOT FELT! Many of us who are dedicated to making fine handmade felt are unhappy with the use of felting terms to describe things that are not felt as in this definition from Merriam-Webster "1 a: a cloth made of wool and fur often mixed with natural or synthetic fibers through the action of heat, moisture, chemicals, and pressure b: a firm woven cloth of wool or cotton heavily napped and shrunk."
    The process described in the article is more akin to needle-punching or could be called needling. The use of felting needles does not make the end product felt.
    The reason that some felt-makers are upset with the misuse of felting terminology is that there is some work being produced that is called 'felt' that would fall apart with just a bit of pulling, or would pill with the first use. With true felt the fibers are so entangled that it is impossible to pull apart. For those of us who sell our felt products this an issue of trying to educate the general public about what felt is, and how to recognize a well made piece.
    As a former dictionary definer I know how words change meanings; in fact your use of the word here would be put in a file as evidence that the verb 'felt' is changing. However this felter wishes this change was not endorsed by magazine editors.

  8. User avater
    Jim_Dennison | | #8

    I didn't mean to start a war or words when I first commented on this process, but it seems we have one anyway. I too am an avid felter. I wet felt using wool, wool & silk or bamboo; wool, silk, bamboo, novelty yarns, threads, string, fabric snippets all at the same time in the traditional layer-wet/heat-roll technique I also hand-needle felt using the same materials as above. Felting was originally a cottage craft using whatever materials were available. The end result was very, very stong and could be used outdoors year round, i.e. Mongolian yurts. When the industrial revolution arrived, man wanted to find a way to make the same strong material commercially. Machines using literally thousands of barbed needles were invented to do the same thing the original process did, but faster. Industrial felt is very strong, comes in very thick pieces for industrial use, less than 1/8 in. for retail use and whisper-thin pieces for designer use. The point is, it is still felt.
    I also machine-needle felt on a Huskystar with 5 needles at a time and I use traditional materials as well as modern ones. If done properly, felt can be made very stong on the machine or designer fabrics can be produced as for this article. I produce yard goods on my machine that is beautiful, strong and felt.
    The felting
    Friends Forum recognizes all three types of felting as felt. The ball is still up in the air for items that are first constructed and then felted in the waching machine with hot water and soap and agitation (sound familiar) it is still felt.
    Felting as we know it today would make our ancestors laugh.

  9. User avater
    Jim_Dennison | | #9

    (continuing the previous post) What we do with felt depends on what the market will bear,the same as any other marketable item. The type of fabric produced by the felting process is determined on the use it is needed for. Why would someone want 3/4 inch felt for a scarf or collar?
    Merriam-Webster has not been updated for years, and modern day felters still have not done a good job of informing the world about felting and what it is or what is possible. The Cooper-Hewitt Museum is taking a great step forward with their exhibit on art felt. The rest is up to we felters. This thing we call felting is still in the revival stages and it is our job to explain and demonstrate what the process is, where it came from and what can be done with it. Fabric is fabric, be it silk chiffon or twill. We still call it fabric. Felt is felt if it is made using fiber entanglement. Dictionaries need revision, the world needs to be educated and more people need to know what felt is and what can be done with it. In the meantime our communications media are stuck with existing idoms to describe the process and the end result.

  10. janallyn | | #10

    hi, this sounds so cool, i have yards and yards and yards of silk in several weights and many colors, i am just not to sure of what i am doing as i know how to felt wool, use to weave and spin, so i am having a hard time with the concept. i want to do it like the article says, but i can't get a real clear visual (i see the finished product in my mind just not the process with silk), anybody have tips? could use the help, thanks

  11. janallyn | | #11

    oops me again, hope i do not get into trouble since this is not quite a forum, but i am only interested in doing the silk by hand, that way it can be a project that is portable, thx

  12. Evy | | #12

    What interesting comments! I'm glad other folks are as fascinated as I am with "felting" together silk fabrics. I know that the term "felt" has become somewhat generic with fabric treatments, and I agree that the traditional form regards wool fibers, lots of shrinkage and meshing. However, I would like to point out that many dictionaries include at least one reference to the word felt as "meshing fibers to adhere and mat." That's exactly what this article is all about. Plus, as silk is a natural fiber, it does shrink when exposed to steam, especially when steam ironed! The fibers must be meshed together, matted if you will, so that it forms one sturdy piece. However, I sure didn't intend to infringe on traditional felting techniques, which I find quite awesome myself! Also, I would like to address the comment about the barbs on the needles. My Baby Lock Embellisher needles do have barbs. Very tiny ones, two on each needle and you can find them by running your fingernail down the side toward the bottom of the needle. I do agree with Jim, bad choice of words on my part...should not have been end...but toward the end! Whoops! I've had lots of emails about this technique, and am happy to answer each and every one. I will say that I do recommend using a needle felting machine for making garment sized pieces of fabric and this does not include the multi-needle attachment for the Bernina machines. That attachment works best with wool fibers and fabrics. Great posts from all of you! Thanks for your comments!

  13. jsimonstudio | | #13

    I make mixed media collages and just recently decided to add fiber into the mix. I'm looking for any help in teaching myself how to do this and the silk felting article is a great help.

  14. User avater
    Ciyaa | | #14

    I’m totally in love with your technique!

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