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IF YOU'VE EVER MISTAKENLY THROWN A WOOL SWEATER IN A WASHING MACHINE, YOU KNOW ABOUT FELTING—THE PROCESS BY WHICH CERTAIN ANIMAL FIBERS EXPOSED TO WATER AND AGITATION GRAB ONTO EACH OTHER TO CREATE A DENSE, SOLID FABRIC. WHEN IT HAPPENS BY ACCIDENT, FELTING CAN BE RATHER DISTURBING. WHEN ACHIEVED ON PURPOSE, FELTING CAN BE BEAUTIFUL. THIS BOOK IS DEVOTED TO PURPOSEFUL FELTING WITH BEAUTIFUL RESULTS.
TECHNICALLY, THE TERM "FELTING" REFERS TO THE PROCESS OF MAKING FELT OUT OF UNSPUN FIBER AND THE TERM "FULLING" REFERS TO THE PROCESS OF MAKING FELT OUT OF KNITTED OR WOVEN FABRIC. HOWEVER, THE TERM "FELTING" IS NOW COMMONLY USED FOR BOTH PROCESSES.
FELTING IS NOT AN EXACT SCIENCE. I HAVE TESTED AND RETESTED THE INSTRUCTIONS FOR ALL OF THE PROJECTS IN THIS BOOK, BUT TO BE SURE YOU ACHIEVE SUCCESSFUL RESULTS, YOU NEED TO UNDERSTAND THE FOLLOWING BASIC GUIDELINES.
Most but not all animal fibers will felt if exposed to moisture and agitation—in my experience, pure wool, alpaca, mohair, and llama all felt well. Some blends that include small percentages of fibers that don't felt on their own, such as silk or nylon, will also felt, although it may take a while.
When it comes to felting, all feltable fiber is not created equal. The speed at which, and the extent to which, a fiber will felt is affected by how the fiber was processed, including the chemicals it was exposed to during manufacturing and, if it is yarn, the way it was spun. Yarns that have been treated to make them machine-washable, often called superwash yarns, will not felt at all. Sometimes even certain colors of the same yarn will felt differently. It used to be that many chemically treated white yarns wouldn't felt at all, however these days that isn't as much of a problem. Still, I never skip the swatching step when I'm working with white or other very light-colored yarn for the first time.
Moisture is vital to the felting process. As wool and other feltable fibers absorb moisture, their scales begin to swell and push open, helping the fibers to tangle. Although any type of moisture is likely to cause felting, for the projects in this book I stuck with water. The temperature of the water determines how fast your fabric will felt—typically the hotter the water, the faster the felting, which also means the less control you have over the process.
Shocking the fiber by alternating between hot and cold water will also speed up the felting process. However, changing the water temperature dramatically creates a rather dense, stiff fabric not suitable for many uses. Therefore, generally, I stick with hot water only when felting and cool or lukewarm water only when rinsing in order to be able to fine-tune my results.
Although felting can be done with water alone, detergent helps to jump-start the process by causing the fibers' scales to swell and push outward and by changing the pH level of the water. It also softens the fibers so that the fabric produced isn't too coarse. Although any detergent will work, I generally use special wool washes like Eucalan or Soak.
During the felting process, you want to generate some lather, but not so much that your water is slippery to the touch. Too much detergent will slow down felting as it will cause fibers to slip over one another instead of tangle together.
Generally, the more you agitate fiber, the quicker it will felt. Unspun fiber is typically agitated by hand by rubbing or massaging it. Knitted fiber can be felted by hand or in a machine; naturally, felting by hand takes significantly longer than felting by machine. To felt projects made with knitted fabric in this book, I ran them through one or more cycles in a washing machine. It's always important to check progress frequently when felting a project in the washing machine since felting is not reversible.
Knitted fabric does not shrink proportionally when it is felted (that is to say, the length and width do not shrink equally). This is because stitches are not square. For example, when you are working in Stockinette stitch, each knit stitch is wider than it is tall and this affects the way fabric shrinks during felting. After years of felting, I have found that Stockinette stitch shrinks to approximately 85 percent of its original width and 65 percent of its original length. Every project is different, but I use this as a general guideline when I'm starting something new.
When working with a yarn I haven't felted before, I always begin by knitting two identical approximately 6 x 7" swatches in the stitch pattern I have planned for my project (basically, any size larger than 4" wide and tall is sufficient). If I don't know what stitch pattern I want to use at this point, I swatch in Stockinette stitch. Following is the process I use.
1. Before felting, on a tag, record yarn name, fiber content, stitch and row gauge of swatches, and needle size used.
2. On both swatches, tie 2" long pieces of cotton yarn in a contrasting color at four points as follows (and shown above): one piece about 1" down from the top and one piece 4" down from there; one piece about ½" from the right side and one 4" to its left.
3. Felt one swatch (using the same method you will use for the final project, if possible), then air-dry.
4. On the felted swatch, measure the distance between the cotton ties for both length and height. Divide this measurement by 4" and you'll have the percentage of shrinkage. For example, if the width measurement between the cotton ties of the felted swatch measures 3 3/8", divide this number by 4"—the original width between the cotton ties before it was felted—and you get .84 or 84 percent. If the height measurement between the cotton ties is 2 5/8", divide this number by 4" and you get .65 or 65 percent. You now know that this yarn worked in Stockinette stitch on whatever needle size you used shrinks to approximately 84 percent of its original width and 65 percent of its original height.
5. Assess the results, considering how the fabric might be used. For example, if intended for a bag, is it sturdy and dense enough to withstand use? If it is for a scarf or something else you want to wear, how is it going to feel and drape over the body? Keeping these considerations in mind in the early stages of your work will help to ensure that you will be happy with your final results.
6. Tie the felted and unfelted swatches and the tag together. Store in a safe place so they can be referenced later.
Felting in a Washing Machine
Felting can be done in a top-load, front-load, or portable washing machine. The process can take as little as 5 minutes or as long as 45 minutes, depending on the properties of the swatch or project, the action of the machine, and the desired result.
FELTING HANDKNITS IN TOP- AND FRONT-LOAD MACHINES: In my experience, front-load machines create softer pieces of felted fabric than top-load machines and take longer to complete the felting process. This is because the agitation cycle rotates more slowly in a front-load machine and is more gentle on your knitting. If you are using a front-load machine, check your manual to make sure you have an interrupt setting so that you can stop the machine to check the progress of your felting and then reset the wash cycle, as necessary. If your machine does not have an interrupt setting, you'll need to use a different machine.
1. Choose detergent and set washing machine to the following settings: hot water, lowest water level possible (you may not have a choice if you're using a front-load machine), highest agitation level possible
2. Fill the machine's tub with water. Add approximately 1 tablespoon of detergent.
3. Place your project into the machine and begin the wash cycle. To speed up the felting process by increasing friction, include a pair of clean jeans, tennis shoes, or tennis balls with the project to be felted. Do not use bath towels! Towels create lint that will felt into your project.
4. Approximately every 3 to 5 minutes, check on the felting progress by removing your project from the washing machine, gently squeezing it to remove excess moisture, and assessing how close it is to the desired size and texture. If necessary, return the project to the machine, resetting the wash cycle. Repeat this process until your project is felted as desired.
Your project is the most unstable at the beginning of the felting process. As you check on your work (especially at the beginning when it is still fairly loose and shapeless), make sure that pockets, handles, or other elements are not becoming tangled or sticking to each other in places where they are not meant to. If caught early enough, you can gently pull apart areas that have begun to felt together.
5. Once your project is felted to your satisfaction, remove it from the machine and rinse it in the sink with lukewarm to cool water. Roll project in a bath towel to remove excess water. Reshape project if necessary and air-dry on sweater rack. If you don't have a sweater rack, which allows air to circulate on all sides and speeds up the drying process, place project on a folded bath towel to dry.
Although some people run their felted work through the rinse cycle of the washing machine and/or in the dryer, I do not recommend either because these steps can create permanent creases and/or alter the finished shape of the project.
FELTING MACHINE-KNITS FROM THRIFT STORE IN WASHING MACHINE: For machine-knit sweaters and blankets that I pick up at thrift stores, I'm much more relaxed about the felting process. Since I didn't do the knitting and, in most cases, I can find a comparable item relatively easily if something goes wrong, I'm willing to take some risks. Here is my method.
1. Place thrift-store item into washing machine with same settings as given for handknits (see page 11). Run it through a complete wash and rinse cycle. Repeat the entire cycle until it is felted to desired thickness and size.
2. Place in dryer or set aside to air-dry. If needed, use a steam iron on the warm setting to smooth out creases or wrinkles in the felted fabric.
CLEAN UP AND CARE FOR YOUR WASHING MACHINE: The felting process causes fibers to come loose from your knitting as it felts. Left in your washing machine, these loose fibers can, over time, clog pipes or your machine. Putting your knitting in a standard-size zippered pillowcase or a net lingerie bag will help cut down on the amount of loose fibers left in your machine.
To prevent damage to a top-loader, after you have removed the felted project from the washing machine and while the drum is still full of water, dip a kitchen strainer through the water and remove as much excess fiber as possible (or put on dishwashing gloves and comb your hand through the water to gather fibers). Set your machine to drain and before the rinse cycle begins, wipe the sides of the drum with paper towels. If your drain hose empties into a utility basin, place a strainer under it to catch any additional fibers. When the rinse cycle is complete, wipe the drum again with paper towels, removing any additional fibers.
To prevent damage to a front loader, place a strainer under the drain hose before beginning the wash cycle.
PORTABLE WASHING MACHINES: I recently tried out a few portable washing machines and was really impressed with the Wonder Washer (see Sources for Supplies). This economical machine looks similar to a giant blender and can felt a knitting project that measures up to 14 x 14" in size. Here's the process I use.
1. To felt in the Wonder Washer, fill the bucket with hot water from the sink until the bucket is ½ to 2/3 full (you need enough water to submerge your project). Add about 6 to 8 cups of boiling water from a tea kettle to the water in the bucket. Do not pour the boiling water directly into an empty bucket.
2. Add approximately 2 teaspoons of detergent to the hot water, enough to generate suds but not so much that your water is slippery to the touch. If you need more detergent, add it in very small increments; if you realize you have added too much detergent, pour out some of the suds or add more water to dilute them.
3. Place your project into the bucket. Set the timer for 3 minutes and turn the machine on. After 3 minutes, transfer the partially felted piece from the water to a sink or extra pail. (You may want to put on a pair of dishwashing gloves to protect your hands from the hot water.) Squeeze the excess water from your work and check the felting progress. Return your work to the bucket, reset the timer, and repeat this process. Since the bucket of the Wonder Washer is plastic, the water temperature will cool rather quickly. Check the water temperature, adding water from the tea kettle as needed.
4. Once your project is felted to your satisfaction, remove from the bucket and rinse with lukewarm to cool water in the sink. Roll project in a bath towel, removing excess water. Reshape project if necessary and air-dry on a sweater rack or on a folded, dry bath towel.
5. When felting is complete, pour the water in the bucket into your sink or bathtub using a sink strainer to prevent excess loose fibers from washing down your pipes.
Hand-Felting Knitted or Woven Fabric
Although you can also transform your knitting into felt by hand, it is a time-consuming and labor-intensive process, so I only recommend it for small projects.
To felt a project by hand, fill a basin with 2 to 3" of very hot water and add a teaspoon of detergent. Wearing dishwashing gloves to protect your hands, place your project in the water and scrunch and roll it around in the water. If you have something with a textured surface (such as a wash board, dish drain mat, bamboo sushi rolling mat, or even bubble wrap [as long as your water isn't hot enough to melt the plastic]), rub your project up against it to create friction and speed up the felting process. Change the direction of the rubbing and scrunching as you work and eventually, your knitting will begin to felt. Continue (prepare to be here a while—a small bag may take up to an hour to felt by hand) until work is completely felted and rinse. Air-dry as explained on page 11 for machine-felted projects.
HAND-FELTING UNSPUN FIBER: I used unspun fiber to create the balls and buttons, and the pincushions. Instructions for hand-felting are included with those projects.
Needle felting is the process of drawing or sculpting with unspun fiber. It is done by pressing a particular type of needle with a star-shaped point and barbed or notched shaft into the fiber in order to simultaneously grab, felt, and manipulate it. All of the needle felting in this book is done with clean, carded fiber, which—depending on the source—might be labeled as fleece, roving, or batt. Felting needles are available in a variety of sizes ranging from 32 to 42 gauge—the higher the gauge, the finer the needle and the finer the work you can do with it. A 36-gauge needle is a good all-purpose size and will work well for all of the projects in this book. You can also get a special tool that holds and allows you to felt with up to five felting needles at the same time (thus speeding up the process). Felting needles are fairly fragile—it's easy to break one (or more) as you figure out how much pressure you need to apply—so keep several on hand. To get started needle felting, you will also need hot, soapy water, a clean sponge, and a felting block, which is a foam block (usually about 4 x 6 x 2") that acts as a cushion to absorb the impact of the felting needle. I like using polystyrene foam blocks; regular foam rubber works as well but breaks down more quickly. Unspun fiber, felting blocks, and felting needles are all generally available at yarn and craft stores.
Excerpted from Alterknits Felt by Leigh Radford, John Mulligan, Melanie Falick. Copyright © 2008 Leigh Radford. Excerpted by permission of ABRAMS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted January 2, 2011