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How-to

All About Needle Felting

Meld motifs into the fabric of a garment

Threads Issue #212, Dec. 2020/Jan. 2021
Article Image
Pattern: Fit For Art Patterns Tabula Rasa Jacket. Fabric: wool flannel, GorgeousFabrics.com. Fibers: wool batt and roving, BigSkyFiberArts.com.

Imagine painting with wool: golden shooting stars flying across a navy dress, with a blaze of stardust streaming behind, autumnal leaves tumbling down a dark brown jacket, or a Mondrian-inspired abstract color pattern gracing a jacket’s sleeve.

Needle felting, also referred to as dry felting, is an embellishment technique that permanently embeds batt or roving fibers into a base fabric.

To achieve results, you work a sharp, barbed needle through fibers layered on a fabric’s surface. The needle’s barbs carry some of the fibers into the fabric. When the needle is withdrawn, the fibers stay enmeshed.

As long as the fabric and the needle felting fibers match, they can be felted together. In other words, wool fibers felt to wool fabric, and silk fibers felt to silk fabric.

I’ll demonstrate the method for needle felting with wool. Silk fibers are not as readily available, and wools are particularly successful because their natural crimps help mesh the fibers.

Depending on your design, the wool can be needled flat to the fabric surface, becoming an integral part of the textile, or left raised above the fabric in textured designs. You can create any  design you can imagine, involving simple opaque shapes, complex diaphanous webs, and anything in between.

All you need are a few tools, wool fibers, wool fabric, and your imagination. 

Tools and materials

This technique requires felting needles, a cushioned surface, and prepared wool fibers in batt or roving form. A few additional notions may help you manage materials and complete the process more efficiently.

Needle anatomy

Felting needles have barbs, tiny razor-edged indentations, designed to push wool fibers into fabric and enmesh them there. Common felting needle types are triangle- or star-shaped in cross-section, and available in sizes 36 (coarse), 38 (medium) and 40 (fine). Four-sided star needles have more barbs and are better for working with heavy materials.

Use the finest needle that is effective with your materials. Each jab pokes a hole in the fabric, and a larger needle can weaken the fabric.

Needles are available in packages of three or more from sources such as BigSkyFiberArts.com. When a needle gets bent, throw it away as it may break.

Single-Needle and multineedle holders

A single needle is useful for positioning the fibers before enmeshing them permanently into the fabric. Multiple needles are helpful when needle-felting a larger area.

Clover makes single-needle or multineedle holders, shown at right, with a protective spring-loaded needle cover.

There are also metal 5- or 12-needle holders without covers available, good for large projects. Be sure to keep your hands clear of the needles. The holders unscrew to expose a metal disc with holes for the needles. When the holder is reassembled, it holds the needles firmly.

Fiber selection

Wool is sheep’s hair (shorn without harm to the sheep), and like human hair, it becomes smoother and softer when washed, combed, and conditioned. Wool fibers always retain some kink or “crimp,” though, enabling them to lock together or felt. Additionally, the individual fibers have scales that can lock together.

Raw wool or fleece: This is unprocessed wool. It is tightly clumped together and has a rough and greasy texture. It is not suitable for needle felting as is.

Batt: Thick, fluffy sheets of wool fibers that have been scoured (washed), then carded (brushed) to separate the fibers but not enough to align all the fibers. Fibers can be pulled from batts for needle felting.

Roving: A batt that has been carded until the fibers are aligned into a smooth, long untwisted rope. Roving is available with short or long fibers. Shorter fibers are a better choice for needle felting as they are more easily secured to the fabric.

Additional tools

Felting mat: Serves as a place for the needles to jab into after penetrating the roving and fabric and protects your worksurface. A dense foam rubber pillow form, available at fabric or craft retailers, is a good choice.

Combing brushes: These have bent wire bristles and are for pulling raw wool or batt fibers into roving. They also simplify thinning premade roving and mixing roving colors.

Bristle or brush mat: Has a brush-like surface to support fabric. It is good for small felting projects, especially three-dimensional projects, as it will hold them steady while you work.

Prepare the project

It may be necessary to complete some construction steps, while leaving others until after the needle felting is applied. The example garment is a lined jacket; you can apply the same general considerations to your project.

Apply staystitching: Stabilize any curved edges such as armholes and necklines.

Complete the darts: Sew, then press the dart values to one side.

Sew select seams: Stitch only the seams that the planned motifs may cross, yet enable the garment to be laid flat on the needle-felting mat.

Save the fusible interfacing for later: Pattern instructions traditionally recommend interfacing areas as a first step. Wait
to apply fusible interfacing until the needle felting is completed. It supports the garment and locks in the felting fibers, especially in areas subject to friction.

Define the design area: Use painter’s tape, which is easy to remove and does not leave a residue, to outline your design area.

Lay out the design

There are several methods of transferring a needle felting design to the wool fabric.

Draw on the fabric: It is not necessary to use a temporary marking medium, as the marks are covered by the felting.

Work with a quilting stencil: Use quilting pounce powder to mark the design through a plastic quilting template.

Create a paper stencil: Make one with plain paper, heavyweight paper, manila folders, or oak tag.

Trace a cookie cutter: Draw the shapes on the fabric or felt directly

Tip: Test stencil motifs. Print the stencil several times on plain paper. Cut out the design with a utility or mat knife. Arrange the pieces cut from the stencil on the flat garment. Take a picture of the garment in this state as a guide for placing the stencils.

Baste the motifs

Use a single felting needle to introduce fibers from the roving or batt into the fashion fabric before permanent application. Work with small lengths of roving or batt at a time, and create different effects by twisting, layering, or shaping the fibers. The technique is demonstrated with a stencil guide on the sample jacket.

1. Place the motif on the garment section. In this case, the paper stencil is pinned to the jacket. The protective foam pad is beneath the working area.

2. Prepare a piece of roving. Cut a length that is convenient to work with and separate a width appropriate to your motif. A piece of superfine merino roving was pulled into two narrower lengths for the sample. The working roving can be twisted to show varying colors and texture in the applied design.

3. Pin the twisted roving in place. Use large-headed or U-shaped pins, as small-headed pins may get lost in the roving.

4. Begin felting at one end of the twisted roving. Move the single felting needle in a straight, up-and-down jabbing movement, piercing the roving or batt, the fashion fabric, and the protective pad beneath. Keep the needle straight up and down, as jabbing at an angle can easily bend or break the needle. Make sure to keep your free hand away from the needle.

 

5. Work along the length of the roving, following the stencil. Jab the needle into the roving many times in a small area; approximately 30 jabs hold a 1⁄4-inch by 1⁄2-inch section of roving in place. Think of this as “basting” the roving; if the work is not pleasing, the fibers can be pulled out. Once the roving begins to stick to the fashion fabric, move along, continuing to jab into it to enmesh the fibers. Peel the fashion fabric off the foam pad now and then, to prevent them from becoming enmeshed.

6. Finish the roving ends. When a section of the motif is filled, trim any extra roving length. Felt the roving’s ends into the fashion fabric until they disappear.

Refine the design as you go

Needle felting enables you to apply wool fibers precisely, in varying degrees of thickness. By manipulating the fibers before application, it is possible to achieve different effects and textures.

Consider the motif’s qualities. The next section was the stem and leaves. The roving was basted into place without twisting, changing the texture from the flower to the stem, to emphasize their difference.

Apply additional layers. To add texture to the stem, contrast roving was felted on top of the red roving. The roving is only a few fibers thick, creating a web over the red stem.

Mold fibers to add details. The leaf’s center was emphasized with a tiny amount of aubergine batt fibers, pulled and twisted to form a thin yarn. Other shapes, like small squares, hearts or balls, can be formed by hand before being felted to the fashion fabric. You can continue to refine the shapes as they are felted into place by adding fibers or teasing away extra fibers.

Balance the application. When working with twisted roving, color and texture variations come into play. The flower bud on the left was reworked to be lighter. The aubergine fibers were removed, as well as some of the red roving from the top right of the flower bud.

Apply fibers up to unsewn seamlines. Below, the side panel was pinned to the back panel. The felted motif crosses the seamline. The roving on the side panel was felted past the seamline, into the seam allowance. The roving from the back panel was felted almost to the seamline, then the end was left loose. Once the side and back panels are sewn together, the roving from the back can be felted over the seam to create a continuous vine.

Finish the felting process

Once the basted design is pleasing, go over every bit with a multineedle tool to enmesh the fibers in the fashion fabric. Be thorough, and check your work to ensure long-lasting results.

1. Fit the spring-loaded multineedle tool with the appropriate needles. In this case, it was five size 38 triangle needles. The whole design took a couple of hours of steady felting to thoroughly enmesh the wool fibers to the fashion fabric. Again, keep your free hand clear of the needles, and lift the work from the foam pad occasionally to keep the foam and fashion fabric separate.

2. Check the work to be sure the motifs are firmly felted. First, try to peel the felted motifs from the right side. If any bit of the felting can be peeled off the fashion fabric, more felting needs to be done. Then check the fabric’s wrong side. It should reveal a fuzzier but clear, reversed version of the design. Any gaps in the design indicate that more felting is needed.

3. Rebuild any areas diminished by felting. As the roving and batt were felted to the fashion fabric, the fibers thinned slightly, as some of the fibers were pushed to the wrong side of the fabric. If the density of the wool fibers diminishes too much, add a light additional layer of roving or batt fibers.

4. Sew unsewn seams and felt across them. Trim any excess fibers if necessary, and felt the roving’s end into the fashion fabric as previously established.

5. Remove the felting fuzz. When you are satisfied with the design, and the felted elements are secure, use masking tape and a dabbing motion to remove extra fibers and sharpen the lines. Be sure to remove extra fibers on the fabric’s wrong side as well.

6. Apply fusible interfacing. It provides structural support for the garment and reinforces the interlinking of the needle-felted fibers with the fashion fabric. Test the application on a scrap first. After successful application, complete the garment assembly as desired.


Ellen W. Miller is the author of Creating Couture Embellishment (Laurence King Publishing, 2017).

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