On an outing to Spitalfields market in east London yesterday, I came across a stall heaped with scarves of every shape, pattern and colour – for £1 each. Some were of pure silk – just what I need for my felting.
Some of these I will use as a base for nuno felting; others I’ll cut into strips or other shapes for adding texture and colour to felt. What a great find!
Time to start experimenting properly with felt at home – so I ordered a 500g mixed pack of merino in nine colours, plus 100g of undyed merino, from Adelaide Walker in Otley, Yorkshire. They are very helpful and friendly: you discuss over the phone what colours you’re interested in, they calculate the postage based on weight – and you don’t have to send a cheque until you receive the wool with an invoice (they don’t take credit or debit cards). The wool arrived the day after I placed the order – excellent service.
For my first project, I thought I’d try making a fan case. I dance Argentine tango and often get quite hot, so I usually take a fan with me. The fans are made from carved sandalwood and are quite delicate, so bits break off as they get bashed about in my bag. (They come in a cardboard box, but this is also quite fragile and falls apart after a few outings.)
So, following the instructions in Lizzie Houghton’s Creative Felting, I cut out a template from bubble wrap and covered it with two layers of wool on either side – the first layer was a mix of burgundy and purple, while the second layer was straight purple.
Felting it was remarkably straightforward and quick. But it didn’t shrink as much as I expected – only about 15% lengthwise and hardly at all widthwise – even though I kept on felting until there was no stretch left.
The fan case has pronounced ridges along the sides, where the wool joined on each side of the template. This also makes the shape irregular. I wonder whether this was because the outer layer was laid vertically, so some of the wool at the edges moved and joined up at the side. The bottom, where the vertical layers wrapped round to the other side, has no ridge, and neither does the inner layer, which was laid horizontally. Next time I’ll either lay the first layer vertically and the second horizontally, or use three layers so that the last layer is horizontal.
Finally, I added a some embroidery for a bit of texture.
My experiments with ironing knitted swatches of plastic yarn (plarn) showed that they lost their elasticity. So I thought I could use this to advantage by ironing some crocheted coasters.
The photo below shows a crocheted circle before ironing. It’s a bit difficult to see, but the different types of plastic make the texture quite uneven, and the coaster doesn’t sit quite flat.
The photo below shows the coaster after ironing – interestingly, it doesn’t shrink very much.
And below is a collection of coasters in different colours. Again, the various plastics all behave slightly differently, leading to varying sizes and irregularities in texture, but I think this is part of their charm.
Well, I got my wish for another cold snap so I could wear the felted rose hat, which is growing on me, despite the fuzziness. So I thought I’d have a go at another hat, as they’re so quick to knit.
This time I went for a pattern by Scottish designer Ysolda Teague, based on a sea urchin’s shell (left). I’d bought a few balls of Gedifra Baldini Colori in the sale at John Lewis because I loved the colours, but wasn’t sure what to do with them. The yarn is a bulky bouclé with very thick slubs (55% acrylic, 45% wool). The recommended needle size is 9mm, but after knitting a tension square (I do learn from my mistakes!) I used the 7mm needles listed in the pattern.
The pattern introduced two techniques that I hadn’t used before. The first was provisional casting on using waste yarn. This is undone at the end and the ‘live’ stitches are grafted on to the last row, resulting in a seamless appearance. I followed the method recommended in the pattern, which uses a crochet hook, and it worked very successfully.
The other new challenge was wrapping. The hat is knitted sideways in garter stitch as a series of wedges, so the length of the rows needs to decrease to shape the wedges. When you knit a shorter row and turn, leaving the remaining stitches on the needle, you have to wrap the yarn around the stitch where you turn to avoid large holes appearing.
Ysolda doesn’t include instructions for how to wrap in the pattern, but I found a clear explanation here, with diagrams. It’s not as complicated as it sounds, and it’s an interesting and effective way of shaping. The final result is shown below.
When I was on holiday in Rajasthan in India a few years ago, I visited some workshops where they printed fabrics with woodblocks. It was a fascinating process, so I thought I’d sign up for a two-day relief printing course at Morley College to learn the basics. The course synopsis said that we would learn about lino and woodblock printing on ink and paper, but I thought I might be able to learn enough to adapt the techniques to fabric.
D’oh! It turns out that relief printing usually results in a negative print – that is, if you cut away bits of the lino or woodblock in the pattern that you want and ink up the block, it’s the background that prints, leaving your pattern in the un-inked areas. To get a positive print, you’d have to cut away an awful lot of the block. Apparently, in Japanese woodblock prints, this is what happens to produce a key block. Not surprisingly, it takes a great deal of time and skill to produce such fine outlines, so it’s not something we tackled in our two-day course!
So unless I want to use a lot of fabric paint, the lino and woodblock techniques I learned on the course are likely to be of little use for printing textiles. However, now I have a set of carving tools, there’s nothing to stop me carving simpler shapes on a woodblock and printing with that (like potato printing).
Anyway, I thought I might as well summarise some of the techniques we learned. Starting with lino, which is the easiest to cut, we used the reduction method to produce a three-colour print. So we first printed a yellow square using an uncut lino block (just lightly sanded with wet-and-dry paper).
Then we cut away some of the block and inked it up in red before printing on top of the yellow.
We completed the series by cutting more block away and printing in blue on top of the red and yellow. I didn’t get the registration quite right, so it’s a bit like looking at a 3D picture without the specs…
Finally, we experimented with spreading a mixture of caustic soda and wallpaper paste onto parts of the block. This eats away at the lino, giving an interesting half-tone effect.
Another way to get a positive rather than negative image is to ink up with an opaque white ink and print on black or dark paper. The example below also uses the Chine collé technique, where you print on to a smaller, thinner sheet of paper sandwiched between the press and the main paper. The press helps bond the two papers together.
We also had a go at embossing, using lino blocks. Here’s the same tiger lino cut as an embossed print.
All the prints above were produced using presses. For our final work, a woodblock print, we used a baren, or hand-held disc, to rub the surface of the paper against the block to transfer the ink. The wood absorbs a fair amount of ink, so you need to add more ink than on lino. And apparently the prints get darker after two or three presses.
I finally got round to visiting the exhibition of imperial Chinese robes from the Forbidden City in Beijing at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It’s located in the part where they usually have the fashion exhibits, so the light is quite dim and you need to get up close to the cases to admire the detail.
The emperor had five categories of formal wear: official, festive, regular, travelling and military. Of course, the embroidery and craftsmanship is exquisite, with traditional Chinese motifs of waves, clouds and dragons in goldwork and hues of ever paler pink, blue and green on imperial yellow silk. The emperor even had a pair of yellow silk embroidered riding trousers resembling dungarees!
The robes of the empress and imperial concubines featured a wider range of patterns and colours, including the purple and gold robe embroidered with cranes and golden clouds that adorns the posters and publicity for the exhibition (see above), peonies, and a beautiful simple pattern called cracked ice and plum blossom. Annoyingly, I can’t find a photo of it on the V&A website, but Portland Classical Chinese Garden has a stone walkway in this pattern. Also, to my eye it looked quite Japanese, so it’s interesting to see that it also features on Japanese porcelain.
But what was most astonishing was the condition of the fabrics in the exhibition. The dragon robe shown above is nearly 280 years old, but it looked absolutely pristine. According to the V&A blog, “The well-being of the robes was the duty of the Imperial Household Department staff. In days before the invention of air-conditioners and humidifiers the robes were protected from fluctuating temperature by sturdy wooden cupboards and chests. Insect-repelling incense was placed inside the furniture, and palace eunuchs regularly aired the clothes to prevent the build-up of mildew.”
I could do with some of those eunuchs around here.
So I thought I’d use it as a guinea pig to try felting in the washing machine. I stuffed it into one leg of a pair of old tights, and put it in the machine with a normal washload (mixed coloured, 40C).
The result? The hat didn’t shrink as much as I expected – it’s only marginally smaller than the original. The alpaca (from Toft) has gone quite fuzzy, but you can still see the texture of the stitches, but the rose, knitted in Rowan Cashsoft DK (57% extra fine merino, 33% acrylic microfibre, 10% cashmere) looks entirely untouched. The green leaf, in Debbie Bliss Donegal Luxury Tweed Aran (85% wool, 15% angora), looks slightly felted but is nowhere near as fuzzy as the alpaca.
After the experiment, I picked up Gina Wilde’s inspiring book, Shibori Knits: The Art of Exquisite Felted Knits, in which the author cautions against using all-wool fibres for felting, as they tend to get very fuzzy. “Fuzziness may be your personal aesthetic,” she writes, “but it is not the aesthetic for which these [shibori] designs are written. The fuzzy yarns hide the subtleties shibori provides.”
Even though this wasn’t a shibori knit, her point about fuzziness is well taken. For nuno, it’s obviously easier to felt all-wool fibres and yarns – you can get subtlety in the texture by adding small amounts of non-wool fabrics and yarns, and through shrinkage. But for knitted items, it’s better to use yarns that aren’t all wool, mohair or alpaca if you want to avoid fuzz.
Last night in class we used carders to combine different colours of merino into rolags (rolls of multicoloured wool). Carding adds greater subtlety as well as giving access to a wider range of colours.
Then we used the rolags to make nuno felt. Rather than just using wool on its own, nuno felts wool into fabric. As the wool shrinks but the fabric doesn’t during felting, you get some interesting textures as the fabric crinkles.
We made two samples each, using cotton muslin. For the first one we added small amounts of wool in regular patterns, leaving most of the muslin uncovered. This shows the crinkling effect very clearly. The method we used was the same as last week, except that we laid the damp fabric on the bubble wrap first before arranging the wool on top. After folding the other layer of bubble wrap on top, we also massaged the wool gently through the bubble wrap so that it wasn’t displaced too much when we started rolling.
Once the wool was reasonably firmly fixed (the muslin started to crinkle and fibres had started to work through to the underside of the fabric), we used an old-fashioned washboard to help speed up the final fulling. To do this, we put the washboard in a bowl at an angle away from us, and rubbed the fabric vertically down. The extra friction from the board makes felting much quicker. You can also shape the fabric in this way, by rubbing certain areas to make them shrink more.
For the second go, we covered much more of the muslin with wool. We also had the option of adding other extras, like yarn, glittery sprinkles, or scraps of other fabric like hessian or silk.
I discovered that, although my experiments with felting yarn on its own had been quite successful, it’s trickier to get it to felt to muslin on its own. It’s better to lay it on top of or beneath a thin layer of merino to help it bond.
Next week we’re going to make a scarf or other complete item, using cotton muslin or another fabric of our choice that we provide. So this morning I thought I’d experiment with a piece of black lace to see how easily it felts.
The answer is: it depends. The triangular areas of merino in the corners of the fabric above have felted reasonably well, but the circles still lift quite easily. Maybe I need to felt it for longer – but it is quite hard work! I don’t have a washboard at home, but I have found that wrapping the bubble-wrap bundle around a rolling pin makes rolling a bit easier.
Finally, I went back to using yarn, this time mostly attached with a layer of merino. This worked better, so I think I’ll use this as the basis for my scarf next week.