I don’t know the science behind the inheritance of the crafting gene, but I do know this: My sisters got it, and I didn’t. (For the record, I got the eavesdropping gene, so I guess that’s a fair trade!)
But as a result my skills at crafting are limited to knitting potholders, while my craft-savvy sisters deftly crochet, scrapbook, make jewelry and cross-stitch.
Recently they’ve also taken up needle felting. Last Christmas, they created the most adorable animal ornaments from wool. Watching the process of needle felting seemed almost magical.
Their success in making these beautiful creations inspired me to dig a little deeper. Exactly what is needle felting, anyway? Is it a new fad or a time-honored tradition? The answers might surprise you.
First, let’s clear something up. When people talk about “needle felting,” they’re referring to a “dry” felting process that’s accomplished using a needle, some wool, finger protectors and a small foam pad. The felt is created by poking a special notched needle into the wool, over and over and over, causing friction and interlocking the fibers until they become felt.
There’s also a felting process known as wet felting, which involves hot water, soap and manually agitating the wool until it becomes a solid piece of felt. Wet felting is more commonly used for creating larger, flat pieces of felt. Needle felting, on the other hand, is best for creating smaller, three-dimensional shapes/objects.
There are textural differences, too. Wet felting produces a smoother felt than needle felting. But if you want to make those adorable little felted animals like the ones you see on Etsy (and let’s face it, you know you do), you’ll need to learn needle felting. And that’s our focus in this article.
One of the nicest things about getting started with needle felting is that it’s easy and doesn’t require a huge investment in time or supplies.
Another benefit: It’s perfect for crafting in small spaces. Other projects can require lots of storage space for supplies (we’re looking at you, scrapbooking). But you can fit all your needle felting goodies in just a small box.
You can easily get started by purchasing a needle felting starter kit, which will come with everything you need to make a needle felted fox or owl or mouse. Or you can forgo the kit and simply collect your own supplies. Whether you choose a kit or not, here’s a rundown of the needle felting supplies you’ll need(le).
Of course, we must start here. The needle is as essential as the wool itself. But not just any needle—you’ll need a notched needle especially for needle felting.
These needles are sold in a variety of sizes with different gauges ranging from 32 to 42. Lower numbers equal bigger needles, and the size/gauge of the needle will have a direct effect on the result of your project in terms of appearance.
These are important! The rapid movement of the needle during the felting process is mesmerizing to watch, but also somewhat dangerous to any fingers that may be nearby.
Protect your vulnerable fingers with finger protectors made of leather, rubber, silicone or another protective material. And once you have the finger protectors, don’t forget to wear them!
Safety first. Needles are sharp, so don’t get hurt or poke yourself. When you’re hurriedly poking the wool, it’s easy to slip.
Felting Pad or Pillow
You might not think of this immediately, but as soon as you begin needle felting, you’ll quickly realize the need for a protective pad between your project and the table underneath. Needle felting pads are usually made of foam or of felted wool, and they provide a helpful barrier that gives you a sturdy work surface and protects your table or counter top.
And lastly, you’ll need wool. That’s a given.
What About the Wool?
At its most basic, wool is wool. So when it comes to needle felting, does it matter what kind of sheep the wool comes from? Can you needle felt with any wool? Sure. Will some be easier to use than others? Definitely.
A lot of discussion centers around Merino wool, which is silky and fine. While you can use it for needle felting projects, its silky smoothness makes it trickier to use. There’s an advantage to choosing a coarser wool, such as from a Jacob sheep, because wool that’s a little more course makes it easier to felt.
Obviously, if you have a flock of sheep, you’ll want to try felting with wool from your own sheep, regardless of their breed. But if you don’t have sheep, there’s no reason you can’t hop online and order yourself some wool especially for felting.
It doesn’t even have to be real wool. You could certainly order a synthetic product so you can give needle felting a test drive. But when it comes to choosing wool, here are a few basic things you should know.
- Raw wool is unwashed. You won’t use raw wool for needle felting.
- Scoured wool has been washed once, but you still probably won’t use it for needle felting.
- Core wool is still imperfect, but you could use it if you’re making a large needle felting project and want to use it in the interior (“core”) of your project where it won’t show. But if you’re working on smaller projects, you probably won’t choose to use core wool.
- Carded wool has been cleaned and rolled and is ready for further processing. In most cases, carded wool is what you want for needle felting projects.
- Roving wool, tops, slithers, batts—you may also come across these words and terms that describe carded wool that has been combed into lengths.
Needle Felting 101
OK, so you understand about the tools and you have some excellent carded wool ready to go. You want to know how to get from point A (wool in your hand) to point B (finished craft). Well, that’s the part that’s difficult to describe unless you have experience with it. So I asked my crafty sister to provide some insight.
When you begin, take the wool and form into a shape like what you want, but bigger, because it will shrink as you felt it. So if you want to make an animal head, begin with a vague egg shape. Then, start felting it by inserting the needle into the wool and pulling it out again, until you have a nice sturdy shape.
Depending on the size of the project you want to make, you might not want to use the final colors right away. For example, the inside of my rabbit is made of purple wool. After all, why waste wool of your preferred color on the core of a project that no one will ever see?
As you continue felting, you’ll notice your wool getting smaller and firmer. When you’re happy with the general shape, you can add your final colors over the core piece. (If you’re making a smaller piece, you don’t have to add extra colors later. Just work with your final colors from the very beginning.)
Once your final colors are in place, you can start adding finer details, like the bend in the rabbit’s nose or the sockets for its eyes to fit into.
When you need to blend two shapes together, like a head to a body, just grab some extra wool and wrap it around the place where the two shapes will join. Then continue felting until the two pieces are fastened together with the extra wool. Or, in the case of the rabbit’s ears, leave loose wool at the bottom of the ears as you’re felting them, and simply use that to attach them to the head.
Mixing wool colors is a lot simpler than you might think. It took four different colors of wool to achieve the brown shade of my Dutch bunny: orange, tan, gray and black. To blend colors, just layer the different colored wools on top of each other and pull them apart, long-ways. Do this over and over, and gradually you’ll see the colors begin to mix. (Basically, every step of needle felting is doing the same thing a thousand times in a row.)
With a little patience and whole lot of repetition, you’ll eventually see your creation take shape!
Once you start needle felting you’ll discover just how quick and easy it can be to craft truly creative items that are charming and bring cheer. Have fun!
A Stitch in Time
People have made felt from wool for centuries. Of course, in the olden days they weren’t making cute little woodland creatures but rather making large pieces of felt for utilitarian purposes.
Modern-day needle felting is a much newer method of felting, believed to have been developed in the 1980s. The endlessly delightful possibilities for making three-dimensional felted objects caught on quickly, and needle felting has gained a lot of popularity in a short time.
This article appeared in Hobby Farm Home, a 2023 specialty publication produced by the editors and writers of Hobby Farms magazine. In addition to this piece, Hobby Farm Home includes recipes, crafting projects, preservation tips and more. You can purchase this volume, Hobby Farms back issues as well as special editions such as Healing Herbs and Goats 101 by following this link.