Batts vs roving vs tops

I’ve just taken delivery of some delicious short fibre merino batts from New England Felting Supply – very exciting! But why am I going to the trouble and expense of ordering wool from abroad when we have some great suppliers in the UK?

new england batts

The reason is that I’m attending a workshop on felting pods with Andrea Graham at Atelier Fiberfusing in a couple of weeks’ time. And in the list of materials she specifies “wool batt – not combed roving”.

I’ve never felted with wool batt – I’ve always used roving (or tops). And I now realise that this is because batts are not very easy to get hold of in the UK – most suppliers sell only tops.

(Quick digression: While  writing this piece I also discovered there is another whole discussion about the difference between roving and tops. It seems to depend on how well the fibres are aligned, which I guess is of huge importance for spinners, as it could make the difference between a smooth yarn and a lumpy yarn. As a felter, I need the fibres to be aligned differently to encourage felting.)

I rang World of Wool, my usual supplier, to ask whether they did batts, and the answer was no, though they said they are planning to introduce some this summer.

I found some Etsy sellers offering hand carded batts for spinning, but they tended to include other fibres such as alpaca and angelina, and they seemed quite small.

So what is the advantage of felting with batts rather than roving/tops? Coincidentally, Fiona Duthie recently published a post about this. It’s quicker to lay out flat projects with batts, as there are already several layers of fibres in different directions. By contrast, using tops gives you more control over the size and shape of your felt, as you can make it thicker or lay out fibres in a particular direction to influence shrinkage.

But if you use the same weight and type of wool and lay out the fibres to the same size, the end result should be the same, whether you use batts or tops. I’ll let you know how I get on!

And do let me know of any wool batt suppliers in the UK. Interestingly, Fiona’s list of suppliers were all outside the UK. Given the current exchange and postal rates, it was cheaper to order from the US than from Europe!

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! 🙂