Introduction To Needle Felting
The term needle felting encompasses a variety of fibre art techniques. However, all forms of needle felting are made using a sharp tool that comes in several sizes and with different shaped barbs and blades called a felting needle. From one dimensional designs made by applying a thin layer of fibre to a fabric backing, to three dimensional sculptures made only with a fibre (such as wool) and a needle, the possibilities are many, surprising and wonderful. This series of posts is written from my personal experience, and since I am to a large extent self taught there are technical details I do not know much about. Some years ago I was corresponding with designer Brenda Franklin. In passing she mentioned doing needle felting. I had read the term before and was curious, so I was very happy to have an opportunity to ask someone knowledgeable about it. She replied with an in-depth explanation that included a description of fibre sculpting, a craft she thought I might enjoy. I was very excited by her description of it. In the end she sent a “kit” to me with all the supplies a beginner needed along with an email with instructions on how to make a teddy bear. While I made that bear she continued answering questions and sending helpful advice and suggestions. Regrettably I lost touch with her a short time later. Luckily by then she had taught me enough that I was able to continue experimenting on my own, for which I am very greatful and owe her many Thanks!
Felting needles come in several sizes, and since the higher the number the smaller the needle is I suspect their sizing is probably a similar system to wire gauges. I have seldom worked with the larger needles (the largest I have seen was 19), preferring the medium 36 and 38 needles for most of the basic work, and 42 and 43 needles for detailing and delicate work (such as attaching small ears or firming thin edges).
All these needles are very sharp. The most common have triangular blades but they also have star and spiral tips. Each tip produces a slightly different effect, but they all work by compacting the fibre and pressing the top layer down into (and often through) the lower layers.
The fibre is worked by repeatedly jabbing the needle into (or if it is thin through) it. For this reason felting is done on a pad or mat. A solid surface won’t let you push the needle in the way you need to. Different people work differently, and some jab harder than others. It is important to make sure your pad (usually a solid piece of foam) is thick enough. If you are working on a table and your pad is too thin you may mark it and will bend and probably break your needle. If you are working on your lap your pad must be thick enough or else your project will be over before it begins . Most pads aren’t very large, for the kind of pin we are showing you how to make today a smaller pad (usually about 4-6 inches square) would be fine. Since I do a lot of “painting” with fibre (a technique I will discuss in Part II of this series) I use a much larger pad. Many of my “paintings” are several inches high and/or wide and need to be spread out for me to work on them. Any firm, thick piece of foam should work as a pad. It can be helpful to cover your pad with a thin piece of cotton cloth. As you work your project you will be pushing fibre through into your pad. It is important to remember to lift your piece frequently so that it doesn’t become too firmly attached to the surface you are working on. (If you look at the surface of my pad you can see how fibres have been “needled” through and into it.)
Fibres To Felt With
Animal fibres such as wool, mohair, alpaca, llama and any combination of these are the easiest to felt. Most felters buy rovings dyed and undyed. While you can use yarn or other forms of fibre the rovings are the simplest to work with for many reasons. Plant fibres are more difficult to work with but some can be used. Silk can bond well to animal fibre. Synthetic fleece and wool felt well together and I use fleece as the backing (or canvas) for my paintings. I would suggest starting with one of the easy fibres or fibre blends. Once you’ve made a couple of projects and have a feel for the process experiment with different fibres and fabrics.
Felting A Pin
We decided to demonstrate how to make a pin shaped like a flower. It is a simple design and a good choice for a first project. Once you understand how to position and work the rovings into place you can experiment with any design that appeals to you.
(For a kit of supplies to make similar pins please visit here on Les Belles Bouclettes.) To Begin: The first step in this project is to choose the piece of fabric to be your pin’s backing. We chose a machine felted fabric cut into a rectangle. Think of the shape your design will be when you have finished it. You want to match the shape of your backing as closely as possible to that finished shape. Your backing fabric should also be larger than you want your completed pin to be. First Colour: Next, take a small piece of roving. In this case it is yellow, our main colour for this flower. Shaping: To give it a slightly raised (two dimensional) shape I folded the roving in half, and positioned the fold in the centre of the bottom (short) edge of my rectangle. This will form the curved (cupped shaped) base of my flower. Using The Needle: I used my needle to felt this piece of roving into place. At this stage I was focusing on this folded bottom section. Once the bottom fold was attached and the edges were tacked into place I began working with the middle of the piece and then the top edge. When making this particular flower I only had a general idea of how it would look so I let the roving take its own shape. I could have split it in two and made two “petals” going up each side, but it was forming into more of a solid cup shape with an outward curving edge. So I let the fibre fall into place along its own lines, and used the needle to felt it firmly into shape and give the edges more definition. Second Colour: Making The Flower’s Centre: To form the centre of the flower I used a small amount of blue rovings. This time I coiled it into more of a tear drop shape before placing it in the middle of the flower’s top edge, tucking it under the outward curve of the yellow felt. The needle is again used to felt it into place. The needle smoothes out the joins, felting and blending the fibres together. I didn’t take enough blue the first time so I took another small piece, formed it into an oval and added it. And the needle blended the new piece into the blue that was already there. The needle is also used to blend the blue down into the yellow. Here’s The Flower!: The method really is that simple. It takes a little time, punching the needle repeatedly in and out of the fabric, but it is not difficult. The more you felt the firmer your fabric will become. Some people like a lightly felted fabric which creates a soft fuzzy texture. Some want a firm or even hard fabric which is created by densely felted fibre. Some times the type of project dictates the density or texture of the final piece. While this flower is quite firm this type of pin’s texture is really a matter of personal preference. Finishing: Trim away the excess fabric to give the piece more definition. (This step also allows you to tidy up any little bits you accidentally felted along the edges that you don’t want included.) Lastly a pin back is glued (or you can sew it) in place. Your pin is ready to wear! General Felting Notes: Additional refining and shaping can be given to a piece by pressing, or pinching and holding the fibre as you felt. Effects can be changed or emphasized if you hold the needle at different angles; it doesn’t have to only go up and down! You do need to take care because the needles are truly sharp and chances are you will jab your own fingers at some point especially if you are holding small pieces of fibre while you work them. Try to move the needle more slowly and gently when you are working close to your finger tips. One of my favourite designs for these pins are birds. I would have like to have demonstrated how to make one but since holding and shaping the beak and head is half the work, and the whole time the small amount of fibre is pressed between the thumb and index finger of my left hand while I felt with the right I really didn’t think we’d be able to show you much of what was happening. But this flower and my birds are only two examples of the variety of charming designs you can create and wear as small decorative pins. Felting is very forgiving and flexible. If you do something you are not happy with chances are you can gently tug the roving off the background and just redo it. If you didn’t make a feature big enough just add to it and blend it in. You can create different effects, layer and blend colours, and decorate the final piece. Or if you learn how to sculpt with fibre you can make a completely three dimensional little figure like this rabbit pin. Also this art form lends itself to embellishment. For example beads were used as eyes on the rabbit and birds. So let your own taste, preferences and imagination be your guide and enhance and personalize each pin in whatever way appeals to you. In Part II of this series we’ll demonstrate how to paint with fibre, and in Part III we’ll show you how we sculpted Taffy-Belle, this little teddy bear! Giving Away Taffy-Belle and the yellow flower pin! One Could Be Yours!!! We’re holding a draw for the flower pin and Taffy-Belle! To enter all you need to do is leave a comment on any of the three posts about needle felting, between now and midnight (EST.) June fifth 2015. You are welcome to ask questions or simply make a comment about anything related to needle felting. We will draw two winners using a random number generator and announce the winners in the post on June 7th. So please share your thoughts and enter to win one of these miniature examples of fibre art!!!