How I felt

Exhausted, after a night of vivid dreams interspersed with ant farming. The update on the ants: They’ve brought in the big guns to investigate the chemical warfare in the bathroom. Previously, they were eensy, beensy, teeny, tiny. Now there are a few with big heads, relatively speaking. But I don’t know if they are relatives or not, perhaps they are the head ants. Or perhaps the bait has attracted a whole new variety. Anyway, bigger heads mean bigger ant jaws, right? Now I put on my ridiculous orange felt clogs before going into the bathroom in the wee hours.

Speaking of felt! Okay, for those of you who have enquired:

Wool “felts” with soap, water and agitation. That’s because it’s an animal protein fiber with little cuticles all along the shaft of every single hair. The soap changes the pH, the moisture opens the cuticles and the agitation tangles it all up. Think of your hair on a high humidity day. Better yet, think of the Snarl’s hair when she decided she would look better in dreads. See? Felted animal protein-based fiber. And just as some human hair is more inclined to dreads, different sheep have wool that is more or less inclined to felt. Dozens of different breeds of sheep- some with fine fleece, some with coarse, some with curly (we call that crimp) and some with shaggy. And then you can throw into the mix alpacas and llamas and rabbits and camels and Samoyed sled dogs and so forth and so on. For thousands of years humans have been using animal fleece for clothing and shelter, and much of it has been in the form of felt. Knights in armor wore it underneath. Mongolian nomads use it for their homes-yurts- to this day. It’s strong, warm, cool and hydrophobic. Almost waterproof.

When I felt, these are my basic tools. Hot water, a ridged mat that works sort of like a washboard and a soap gel I make out of pure olive oil soap in the blender. I’m not sure it’s doing wonders for the blender but even after hours of felting, my hands stay soft and unchapped.On the mat you see wool in 3 stages: straight off the sheep, washed and carded and finally, blended into an artistic and copasetic ball of fleece. This one is a wonderful combination of alpaca, merino wool and angora rabbit. Today I wanted to see how well this combination would felt together, what the final texture would be and what it would look like, so I felted a tiny sample. First thing I do, while my water is boiling, is spritz the fiber with some olive oil soap dissolved in water. Then I sprinkle it with really hot water (I prefer felting this way. Wool will felt with less hot water but it goes more quickly when the water is very hot. Then comes the laying on of hands. With a fair amount of experience under my belt I sometimes have a good sense of how to balance the felting pace and agitation and still have it all hold together. Sometimes. Early on, I had big clomps of wool sliding every which way, partially felted and full of holes but not so much, now.Moving right along (and skipping the process part, because I’m ‘splaining it to you rather than teaching you), it turns into felt. See? This is a really super combination- pretty luxurious- and I think I will make some slippers out of it. Stay tuned.Oh, look. When you weren’t here, I dyed some wool (Another time, if you’re interested, we can discuss natural dyes, acid dyes, why all my clothing is blotchy with odd colors and so forth and so on.) and now I’ve made another sample. This one has 3 layers of fiber: a very soft natural light brown camel- camel is SOFT but doesn’t felt all that well by itself-and some corriedale dyed orange and an icelandic wool dyed in shades of yellow and gold with a few incidental streaks of random bright color. Since different wool felts differently and sometimes felts to itself but not with other wools (again, think of the variety of human hair types)I do another sample. My sample says they will work okay together.Here I have pulled the fibers apart and then laid them out in layers (skipping through a lot more steps). I want to make a bag to carry knitting projects in when I travel. I calculate the size of my layers taking into account a shrinkage rate of about 30%. That was another reason for doing a sample; different wools shrink at different rates. Consider the cashmere sweater you accidentally threw into the wash and now fits your daughter’s American Girl. Lots of knitters purposefully knit giant projects and then throw them into the washing machine so the visible stitches shrink and disappear. That’s another way of creating felt. Here’s something I wonder about: after a particulariy rainy spell, why aren’t there miniature sheep all over the place?

Okay, then. For this project, I want it to be three dimensional, i.e., I want to be able to open it up as a bag, so I wrap my layers around a plastic place mat. The place mat acts as a “resist” and keeps the inside from felting to itself.Layout and wrapping takes practice, lots, to get a feel for making an even fiber, without holes and, in this case, strong sides. Back into the kitchen (or the back porch where I have a large table or into the Morean art studios where we have really large tables and lots of light and space for classes). I begin applying hot water and soap and working the whole project carefully as it starts to take shape. In the beginning all those loose fibers want to fall apart but then, slowly, they begin to pull together and I gradually increase the agitation and pressure. This is basically the process I’m teaching in my wet felting classes so you’re just getting the brief overview here. Come on by for 6 weeks or so.Here, you can start to see it taking shape around the mat- but it’s still loose and floppy. All those wrinkles? They have to be carefully worked out. After I have the felt holding together well enough that I can maneuver it, I liberate the place mat.Even the insides have started to hang together and once the resist is out I carefully work the fabric evenly and consistently against the ridges of the plastic mat I work on. I’ll turn the whole thing inside out, back and forth, taking special care with the cut edges so they felt rather than remain raw. Depending on the nature of the wool, it takes more or less water, more or less soap. This project “ate” soap like crazy. Among other things the soap keeps the surface slick and from sticking to my hands in the early going. Periodically, I have to wring out the water and soap and start over with more hot water.Ruh-roh. Somebody didn’t set all their orange dye and it’s running out. Somebody has a big orange wet swath across the front of her shirt today. This happens often, depending on the dye and oranges and reds do it more, I think. It doesn’t bother me because the orange is so intense and even after the excess bleeds out there will still be great color. There’s only so much color a fiber can absorb. Also, I’ll ‘set’ the color in a minute……by giving it a final rinse in water with vinegar. The acid sets the dye and also neutralizes the alkaline soap, closing up the cuticles of the fiber (think “cream rinse”). In between these two pictures I’ve gotten my fiber the thickness, strength and size I want it. In addition to felting the wool, I’ve “fulled” it by throwing the whole wrung out mess repeatedly into the sink (or tub). That’s like a final tangling. ¬†Flinging this stuff with all my energy is also a good way to release a lot of pent-up frustration. About ants. Remember, this needs to be a tough little project bag. If I were working on a fine silk and merino nuno felted scarf I would not be aggressive with it.Now that I’ve blocked the piece, pulling it into the right shape and toweling a lot of the moisture out, it’s outside in the 65 degrees and sun, drying. Sorry about that, you in Minnesota and Chicago and Michigan…I’ve moved on to picking out a fabric to line my bag and I’m pretty sure I like this colorful dyed cotton fabric. It’s a little small so I may have to piece it but the colors are perfect.

Okay. I’m going to bed. If you come back tomorrow, I’ll show you the finished project and you can tell me what you think. And as long as I’m using up all my image space, I’ll share a blurry cell phone photo I took today when I went down to feed the raptors after felting. After I got a blue moon haircut and pedicure. Wow. Today FELT good!(Spirit has nice gams for an old girl. She says hello to me when I show up in the afternoons.)

8 responses to “How I felt

  1. I love seeing all the photos and hearing about the process. I’m not sure I have the patience to try it, but I can surely admire those who do, and greatly admire the finished products.

    My mom hooked rugs and she also dyed all her wool with vegetables and natural dyes (witness the 20 or so enamel pans in her basement when she died. The dyeing process was so interesting to watch and the colors so natural and organic. She tried to get me into it, but my lack of patience was not a virtue then or now.

  2. Terrific! Hello Spirit! I remember you!

    This was a terrific blog. I remember these wonderful steps and the feel of the soap on my hands and the wool and the hot water and the mat. *sigh* I want to come take classes. That was so much fun…

  3. I’m with Kenju. No patience or desire to do it, but very impressed with the process and the fiber artiste who has taken the time to show us how it’s done.

    My question is: How do you shape the little wrens, snowmen, etc?

  4. I would love to take a class from you, Vicki. I have 14lbs of alpaca and a couple of angoras that will need a shave come April.

  5. Jeez–I think I’ll stick to knitting. I mean, I get impatient grocery shopping–which is a necessity.
    But I loved this tutorial. Now, could you do it all on video and throw it up on YouTube? Especially the part where you fling it on the floor.

  6. WOW!

    Where are you doing classes?

  7. A post like this comes along once in a blue moon. It gave me the warm fuzzies.
    Though your Spirit is one strange goose-a-laying.


  8. I am awed. There is so much potential to the material (as you’ve already shown in past posts) and who would have thought that one would have to be so careful in blending different wools? Absolutely fascinating and I look forward to more “how I do its”. Thank you for taking the time to share.

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