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I learned to felt using a matchstick bamboo mat or blind (for larger pieces). These still work well as long as you are careful to get them fully dry before storing. They will mildew if stored damp in a warm climate. These days, my preference is the rubbery carpet underlay that you can buy at Bed, Bath and Beyond in either long rolls (for scarves) that you can cut up (for smaller projects), or in larger dimensions made to fit under various size rugs. These are relatively inexpensive, very available, portable and re-usable. They offer grip that prevents your work from sliding around, holes that let you add water as needed, and sufficient texture to provide some agitation on the wool. Look for the thicker version that has a somewhat "honeycomb" look. The thinner shelf and drawer liner can also be used, but it offers less agitation against the wool. However, it rolls up into a smaller roll, making the roll a little easier to handle. Rubber bands or lengths of stretch fabric or old hose can be used to tie the roll and keep things from shifting during the rolling/felting process.
Begin your felting process using cool or cold water. Hot water accelerates the shrinking and tightening of the fibers, and is best used later on. Allow the cool water to open the scales on the wool and begin their migration into the design elements you may have added to the surface.
Many people add a few drops of dishwashing detergent to their water bottle before sprinkling onto the wool. Soap acts as a surfactant allowing the water to more easily penetrate the fibers. My personal preference is to create a separate soap gel that can be applied as needed. To make this, I grate up 1/4 of a bar of Ivory soap and pour a couple of quarts of boiling water over it. Stir to dissolve and leave overnight to cool. Stir to loosen the gel, then dispense it into plastic squeeze bottles using a funnel. It will keep for months...but if you have it around for that long, you need to be doing more felting! Soap in this gel form offers more lubrication to the surface and makes it easier to rub the surface during those initial stages. If you wish to restore the Ph balance on a piece of finished felt (since the soap is alkaline), put a little vinegar in your final rinse water and let it soak a couple of minutes. Rinse again to neutralize the odor.
Netting fabric is used to cover the surface of the felt once the design elements are in place. Seek out synthetic fabric preferably with a slick surface. You don't want the fabric to stick to your felt, but you want water to be able to penetrate. Polyester curtain sheers work well, as does fine tulle or nylon mosquito netting. Do not leave the netting on your work for too long or the wool will migrate into it. Lift often to check underneath, and remove once you have a good "skin" on the felt. If you want to be able to flip the piece over and work the other side, it pays to place netting down first, lay out your work, and cover with a second piece of netting. That way you can flip the whole piece more easily.
There are various tools on the market for initially working the surface of the felt. The cheapest and easiest is a scrunched-up plastic grocery bag. It will glide smoothly while giving some texture to help agitate the fibers. I prefer to rub the surface of my felt for several minutes before proceeding to any rolling. This way I can ensure my design elements do not shift around until they are gently connected to the fibers beneath. It also gives me the opportunity to check the underside of the felt to ensure the water has fully penetrated through all layers. If there are any dry patches, the space between the fibers is too great for the scales to connect with one another. Ensuring the piece is fully wet through (but not sodden) removes any air pockets that might interfere with fiber connection. Rubbing the surface helps push the water through all layers and removes air pockets at the same time.
When rolling felt, work in increments of a few hundred rolls. Unroll and re-roll from the opposite end each time so the felt gets even amounts of pressure from your hands and arms. The goal of the rolling is to fully connect all layers of your work such that nothing is loose from one another. Moving to the fulling stage too early will further loosen any poorly connected elements, and there is a point at which there is no remedy other than stitching at the end. Felting needles can assist in attaching small stubborn areas, but usually requires the addition of small amounts of dry fiber between the disconnected layers. Felting needles can be used to attach surface designs and pre-felts. Also used to add fiber at later stages either for repair purpose or other. Can be used to repair thin spots in felt, and even holes caused by moths. Can be used to create 3-D sculptures in fiber. Other more complete info on felting needles available at other sites.
Various methods of fulling have been found to be successful. This is the stage during which the felt is tightened up by shrinking. Poorly or insufficiently fulled felt will feel somewhat soft and spongy and will pill easily with minor wear. Unless a piece is only to be used in a decorative fashion, it is important to completely full the piece. Indications of a well-fulled felt will produce a somewhat pebbled texture in the wool. During processing, wool roving is stretched and combed such that it loses the natural crimp that is inherent to the wool. Good fulling allows the wool to return to its natural state, which is manifested in a bubbly surface texture when complete. Just as curly hair can be straightened while damp without damage to the hair, so can pebbly felt be ironed while damp if one should wish to have a smooth surface on the finished piece.
Small pieces can be fulled by gathering a handful of the felt, dunk into a bowl of hot water and roll it gently between cupped hands. Work down the length of the piece this way, and then open and gently stretch the felt. Repeat with gradually increasing pressure each time. Keep the felt warm and moist during this stage.
"Throwing" or "tossing" the felt is a more aggressive method of fulling. It can be used after the hand method if desired. Gentler throwing should be applied at first. Simply dunk the piece in fairly hot water and gently drop into the sink. Dunk and drop several times and then open up the piece and give it a gentle stretch all over. Repeat using increasing amounts of force to toss the felt down into the sink. Too much force at the start can cause surface elements to detach, so take it easy.
Large pieces can be successfully fulled in a front-loading washing machine set to the shortest cycle with warm water (not hot) as long as the felt is already well connected. If there is not sufficient "skin" on the surface of the felt (meaning lots of loose hairs are still there) the washing machine can cause the piece to stick to itself in undesired ways. If you have a machine that permits you to open and check every few minutes, that is desirable until you feel comfortable with this process. This method is particularly successful when you are using pre-felts as your base layer(s). A top-loading machine is not recommended unless you roll the felt up in a towel and tie it. The agitator in the center can cause unevenly fulled patches and can totally ruin a piece that is put in there too early.
Some have found the tumble dryer helpful for both the felting stages and the fulling stages of feltmaking. The felt should be fairly moist, with only a light heat setting. My personal efforts using a dryer have resulted in a more softly felted piece that I have not been as happy with. Some use the dryer in the early stages to reduce the amount of rolling.
Glass washboards can be used to "spot-shrink" stubborn areas or provide specific shrinkage in desired areas.
Steam iron can be used to stabilize layers of fiber and surface decoration before adding water and soap. This is especially helpful if you get fiber laid out but will not be able to proceed immediately, needing to put work aside until later. Iron can also be used to "block" finished felt items while they are wet to achieve desired shape. Vital for making hats and stretching out brims.
Stiffeners are available on the market for those wanting to create rigid 3-D felt. Aleene's or Mod Podge are two that come to mind. Elmer's glue can be diluted 50/50 with water, but may leave a cloudy finish once dry. Stipple into the surface of damp, finished felt using a small paintbrush and allow to dry.
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