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Beginners Guide to Needle Felting

Needle felting is a modern twist on the ancient craft of felt making. Here we look at the history of felt making in general and the evolution of needle felting (or dry felting as it is also known). I have included a general guide to the craft and some tips and ideas to inspire you. If you wish to learn more or have a go yourself please visit my shop. Here you will find books, needle felting supplies and a unique range of needle felting kits which make perfect gifts. 

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 A Brief History of Felt Making

Felting is the process of compressing and matting fibres together to create a dense form and is one of the oldest known fibre crafts. Thousands of years ago our ancestors felted wool to create basic footwear, blankets, clothing and yurts. Traditionally, felt is made through a process called wet felting which requires wool, hot water and soap. In this process the wool is placed down in layers with the fibres running in alternate directions and hot water and soap are added. The wool is then agitated, the more it is agitated the tighter the final fabric. Wool fibres have tiny scales which interlock during the felting process.

Crafty Little Sheep is dedicated to the craft of needle felting which is also known as dry felting. In this form of felting the fibres are tangled and compressed using a felting needle, without the need for water or soap. The felting needle was invented for industrial use in the 1950s when large machines with thousands of needles started producing non woven fibres such as car carpets. The first use of the felting needle for artistic purposes is reported to be in the early 1980s when Eleanor Stanwood used a single needle and developed the craft of needle felting. Other early pioneers of the craft are Ayala Talpai of the USA and Birgitte Krag Hansen of Denmark who both wrote books and spread the word, rapidly increasing the popularity of this growing craft.
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wool fleece (raw fleece which has been cleaned and carded)

 needle felting the wool fleece fibres to form a dense felt structure the finished needle felted item 

Needle felting requires the use of very sharp, barbed felting needles to matt the wool fibres together. The tiny barbs near the tip of the needle only work in one direction, as the needle is pushed down. As the needle is inserted into the fibres, the barbs snag onto the fibres and pull them down, interlocking them. Repeated stabbing of the fibres with the felting needle ('needling') will result in a firm felt mass. This is the basic principle of needle felting.The craft of needle felting is extremely versatile. By gradually adding fibre and defining the shape through needling, detailed three-dimensional structures such as animals can be created entirely from wool fibres.

         needle felted rabbit

The basic tools required for needle felting are: a felting needle, a work surface (felting pad), wool fibres and your imagination. Felting needles are available in a range of sizes each with a different function but there are 3 common sizes (gauges):

  • 36-gauge needle - a coarse needle, ideal for coarse fibres and fabrics. A strong needle that will felt quickly but will leave visible holes in finer fibres (such as Merino).
  • 38-gauge needle - a medium needle and general all-purpose felting needle.
  • 40-gauge needle - a fine needle ideal for adding fine detail or for finishing as they do not leave visible holes.

Felting pads are available as dense foam pads or the Clover felting mat (a brush-like surface). Foam pads are good value and easy to use but will not last forever. The Clover felting mat is a sound investment for any needle felter and the fibres do not become entangled with the mat as they tend to with the foam pad. It is also ideal for needle felting wool fibres or a wool based material to a foundation wool fabric (such as needle felting a wool appliqué to a wool sweater)

Almost any fibre can be needle felted but wool fleece is most commonly used and is a wonderful, tactile material to work with. For further details of suitable fibres for needle felting please refer to our page on wool fibres.

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The fantastic range of dyed wools available encourage the creation of needle felted flowers, decorations and so much more! Larger three-dimensional projects can use a core of raw fleece, which is washed, uncarded fleece, as this felts more rapidly and can be readily covered by a finer fibre for the outer surface. For added stability, a wire armature (skeleton) can be created and wool fibre wrapped around this prior to needle felting. This can provide strong, poseable skeletons for larger animal projects. A polystyrene form (such as a ball or star) can be directly needle felted onto. Simply lay wool fibres over the polystyrene and needle felt them on to firmly attach them to the polystyrene core.

 
   felted baubles                            needle felted sheep                                     
 

We hope you have found this page a useful introduction. A glossary of the common terms used in needle felting and further information is available in our wool for felting page. The books available in our on-line shop provide more detail on the application of needle felting and include many wonderful projects. So, get yourself some felting needles and wool fibre and get felting! Enjoy!