Felt slippers

Before Christmas I was asked by three people if I made felt slippers. I didn’t but one friend was so keen that she sent me a link to instructions on how to make them. So I had a go at making a test pair for myself.

This is the result – not entirely successful. I used three layers of dark red merino and then three layers of grey Icelandic wool, because I thought this would make the outside sturdier – and they do feel quite robust. And they are reasonably symmetrical.

However, there were a couple of problems:

1. They didn’t shrink as much as I expected, so they’re too big for me (and too small for ESP). In my previous experience, the more layers of felt, the greater the shrinkage, so I expected these to shrink quite a lot, especially as there were three layers of merino. The resist I used was about 30% bigger than my foot – but although I fulled for ages, the final slippers refused to shrink any further. I wonder whether it would be easier if I had a form to put inside while fulling, to give the felt something to shrink against.

2. There are some prominent ridges along the sides where the wool bunched up over the edges of the resist. I couldn’t get rid of these, no matter how hard I rubbed. I think the issue here is that the instructions I followed recommended laying out three layers of wool at a time, each at right angles to the previous layer, before turning the resist over and doing the other side. Although I did trim the layers before folding them over on the other side, they were still quite bulky.

Normally I lay out one layer at a time on each side. With six layers of wool, this would obviously more time-consuming, but it might lead to a better result.

With this pair I could get round most of this problem by cutting away more of the felt around the heel to make the slippers more of a slip-on style. But I’ll probably just put them in the box labelled “Lessons learned” and move on!


Felting on a balloon

I guess one of the advantages of not having sold anything at Spitalfields is that I don’t have to work like mad making new stock for the Tip Top Table Sale on 1 May.  I did feel like a one-woman scarf production line at times, which takes the fun out of it a bit. That would be the other advantage of selling online – you just put stuff up as it’s ready and don’t have to worry about having a half-empty stall.

Anyway, inspired by the gorgeous felt vessels made by Nicola and Zedster01, I thought I’d try making a rounded pot, using a balloon. I’ve made small felt pots before, using a cylinder of rolled-up bubble wrap, and Tess said that felting on a balloon is quite easy, as long as you thoroughly wet it with soapy water.

So I basically followed Zedster’s tutorial, using a balloon instead of a ball. I used two layers of fuschia merino, with an outer layer of grey Icelandic wool. Although I did wet the balloon well, and the first layer of wool stuck reasonably OK, I had more problems getting subsequent layers to stick. In the end, I would add a few strands, wet them, and then cover them with net and rub gently – not to felt, but just so that they stayed in place. This worked better. I also folded back the excess wool around the lip of the vessel before felting so that some of the fuschia showed on the outside (some also worked its way through the outer layer of Icelandic wool anyway).

I removed the balloon by bursting it before fulling, and after fulling I blew up another balloon inside the pot and hung it up to dry so that it retained the round shape. I love the result, and I love working with Icelandic wool – it seems to felt almost instantly!

Hanging up to dry

Another day, another bag

Still experimenting with making bags with integral handles. The proportions of this one are more pleasing; the dark brown wool is Icelandic, and the turquoise is merino with wool slubs.

I stretched the handle more on this one before it hardened, and rubbed the two halves  so they felted together to make a thicker handle.

Now I have to stop making felt and do some gardening!

First nuno scarf

I haven’t written anything about what we’ve been doing in class for the past three weeks, mainly because I’ve been working on one project – a nuno scarf.

We all started with pieces of cotton muslin measuring about 2 x 0.5 metres, to create a nuno scarf or bag with merino tops and any other bits of fabric or yarn that we liked. Some students covered the entire piece of muslin with wool; others left gaps for the fabric to show through for the crinkled effect.

I wanted to create the main pattern using yarn in three different colours and thicknesses, to resemble tide marks left by the sea. I knew these would be difficult to felt to the muslin, so I had to cover them with thin wisps of merino to help them stick. On top of this I put some velvet circles of varying sizes, again covered in wisps of merino. As well as helping them to stick, I was hoping for a scrunchy ‘brain’ effect as the wool shrank, causing the velvet to wrinkle. At both ends of the scarf I laid merino strips at right angles to the main pattern, overlaid with some novelty ‘eyelash’ yarn and more wisps of merino.

The felt took ages to lay out – in fact, I hadn’t finished by the end of the first class (some students had completed their scarves by then!). Trying to keep the strands of yarn in place while I laid wisps of merino over them was tricky, and I had to keep stopping to card more wool. Also, laying out the scarves took a lot of room, and there wasn’t space for all the students to do this at once, so I didn’t really start until halfway through the class.

The second week I finished laying out the pattern, wetted it and started the pre-felting stage. Again, because the pattern is quite delicate and there wasn’t much wool, I had to spend much longer rubbing it between bubble wrap at this stage to ensure that everything was reasonably firmly fixed before moving on to rolling.

To roll it, I folded the bubble wrap package three or four times, so at least it was a manageable size. I took it home and rolled it a bit during the week, then finished rolling in class last night, before rubbing it on the washboard.

So was it worth all this hard labour? (One student managed to complete a couple of bags, including handles, and a necklace in the same time, while others produced two scarves and several cushion covers.) The result so far is below.

Nuno scarf


Nuno scarf

I have to admit that it hasn’t turned out quite as I planned. You can see in the photo that I had to baste the velvet circles in position in white thread so that they didn’t fall off when I rubbed the fabric on the washboard. This was because the orange merino that I carefully arranged over the velvet slid off to one side during pre-felting, so there was nothing to hold the circles on. It also means that instead of the ‘wrinkled sunset’ effect I was hoping for, they look more like strangely coloured ‘peacock eyes’.

So another technique is needed to ensure that the velvet circles are firmly attached. I’m going to try dry-felting some with the embellisher, but in the absence of wrinkling, I think it would be good to add some texture with machine or hand embroidery.

What have I learnt from this?

1. Wool likes to felt to wool. If you don’t use much wool, it’s going to take much longer to felt – and if you don’t have enough, it may not felt at all!

2. No matter how carefully you plan and lay out your pattern, chances are it will move or turn out differently. Accept it and go with the flow.

3. If it doesn’t felt, there’s always another way to fix it (I hope!).

Felted fan case

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.

Merino wool
Merino tops from Adelaide Walker

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.)

Broken fan
Broken fan

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.

Felted fan case and template
Fan case on top of template, showing how little it shrank

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.

Fan case
The inner layer of wool was laid horizontally

Finally, I added a some  embroidery for a bit of texture.

Embroidered fan case

Embroidered fan case

Nuno felt

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.

Purple nuno felt
First nuno effort

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.

Yellow nuno felt
Nuno on yellow muslin with merino, yarn and hessian

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.

Nuno lace
Black lace and merino nuno

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.

Nuno felt with merino and yarn
Most of the yarn in this piece is held on with a layer of merino

My first felt

Last night was the first creative and experimental textiles class of the new term at Morley College, and it was good to see familiar faces from last term, along with a clutch of new students. This term we’re covering felt and cooked cloth, and hopefully will be able to build on some of the work we did last term, combining felt and embroidery.

We started by experimenting with wool tops, which is wool that has been washed, combed and dyed ready for spinning. They come in long, smooth bundles of fibres, which you pull apart into thinner and/or shorter wisps.

Silk, angora, merino mix and fine wool tops (photo by Sarah Dewfall)

To make the felt, we put a layer of bubble wrap (bubble side down) on top of a wet towel, wet the strands of wool tops and arranged them on top of the bubble wrap. When we were happy with the arrangement, we wet the whole thing with soapy water, then put another layer of bubble wrap on top and rolled it up horizontally into a sausage. We rolled it back and forth (like using a rolling pin) for a few minutes, then unrolled it and rerolled it up vertically, and rolled again. We repeated this twice more, rolling it up on both diagonals. When it was ready, we rinsed it in clean water to remove the soap, and dried it off.

When wool felts, it shrinks. So we made our first pieces as grids, leaving spaces, to see how the wool shrank and how the gaps became smaller. We used merino, which is beautifully fine and soft to work with, and came in a stunning range of colours.

Felt web
This felt 'spider web' was originally about a third larger, with bigger gaps
Felt sample
Some parts of this composition are very loosely connected after the wool shrank during fulling
Blue and green felt
Again, shrinkage during felting results in interesting holes!

The piece in the third photo above was felted for slightly less time than the other two. More pressure, rubbing and moisture leads to fulling, which results in a more stable fabric with a harder texture and more shrinkage.

Then we moved on to working with wool tops that were slightly coarser, making felt balls and sausages. Balls are built up layer by layer, adding different coloured strands wetted with water and soap, and rolling them between the palms of your hands. You don’t need bubble wrap or much space, and you can embroider them and string them together to make a pretty necklace. Or you can cut them in half or slices to show the layers of different colours and make a brooch.

Felt sausages work on the same principle, except that you construct all the layers in one go. Each layer must be at right angles to the layer beneath. So if the first layer of red fibres is vertical, the next layer of, say, white fibres is horizontal. Then the next layer is vertical again. Once you have enough layers, wet them all with water and soap, and roll them up like a sausage in a J-cloth as tightly as you can. Then roll. And roll. And roll.

This is quite hard work, as it takes a lot of rolling – several of us got itchy palms from the constant friction! But it is important to ensure that the sausage is as firm as possible – if it isn’t felted properly, the layers will come apart when you slice into them.

Felt sausage
This 'green bean' is my felt sausage, drying out!

One tip to give the layers more stability  is to dip felt beads or sausages into a solution of 50% PVA glue and 50% water. Squeeze out the excess, and leave to dry before slicing.

We will be slicing our balls and sausages in next week’s class – come back then to see the results! 🙂