If you've never heard the term felting, then you are not alone. Despite the fact that this process has been used for thousands of years, for many people the process of hand transforming carded wool into felt is a relatively new and unknown craft. In its most basic form, felt is created by taking wool roving and repeatedly squeezing it together by hand, applied pressure or with the use of small barbed needles. This force causes the wool fibers to tangle in millions of tiny knots that stay joined because the animal fibers are coated with microscopic scales. These tiny scales hold the fiber knots in place and create a fabric that is both tight and dense.
Felting works with any animal fiber including wool, alpaca and cashmere roving or yarn. Plant or synthetic based yarn or fibers don't have tiny scales and won't felt. Different types of fiber produce felt with different and unique qualities, so it's important to experiment a little before you begin a large and involved felting project.
Felting as a form of art is quite popular in many of the European countries; however it is only in the last decade that an interest in working with fibers to create decorations, scarves, purses and 3D art has begun to flourish in the U.S. Let's examine some different methods of felting and the type of results they produce.
Nuno felting is a Japanese technique that uses hot water, soap and a rolling process to meld loose animal fibers with sheer fabrics such as silk gauze. When mixed the silk retains its shape and stability but incorporates its original smooth texture with the added softness and rich color of the dyed fibers. You can find multiple examples of this process by searching the internet for felted silk scarves.
Similar to the Nuno felting process, flat felting uses hot water and soap, but instead of binding the wool fibers to fabric, they are simply bound to each other. Different colors of fiber can be combined for an interesting marbling effect. For a thin flannel that is pliable and can be stitched together, only a couple of layers of fiber are used. For a thicker and more firm end product, more layers are piled on.
Everyone knows that if you wash and dry a wool sweater, it will shrink making it unwearable, but that's what a number of crafters are trying for. Old wool, angora and merino sweaters are being recycled for new handicraft projects by purposely shrinking and felting them in the wash. Other clever crafters knit extra long and loose strips, and then felt the finished product in the washing machine. In both cases, these newly felted fabrics can then be sewn into bags, scarves or other felt products.