Photo by Janae Hardy
Want to be an artist? Creativity is a muscle that needs to be worked and tested regularly, so nurture your creative skills by testing new ideas and challenging old assumptions. When I picked up a felting needle for the first, second, and even hundredth time, I wasn’t sure that what I set out to make at that moment was possible, but it turns out that all I had to do was try.
If you’ve never delved into the world of fiber arts, you’ll be surprised at how fulfilling it can be to work with something so textural. Holding and manipulating the fibers, and knowing that each of them passed through your hands is a unique feeling.
Foundations of Felting
Once you learn a few basic techniques, the process of needle felting is easy. You’re just poking fibers to make them stick together. What’s happening is the barbed needle grabs wool fibers and tangles them with the base fabric and other surrounding fibers. Each wool fiber is textured on a microscopic level, so creating friction among the fibers with your needle links them together, creating felt. Here, I’ll help you build basic felting skills and walk you through a fun project.
I hold my needle with my thumb and index finger at the top, near the lip, and then rest the shaft of the needle on my middle and ring fingers. For me, this gives me the most control of the needle and leads to fewer broken or bent needles. Another option is to hold the needle as you would a pencil. With this grasp, however, I’ve noticed that needles break more easily because of the extended range of the needle arc as the needle comes down to the felting surface.
To begin needle felting, poke the needle in and out of the wool fibers that you’ve placed on the background fabric. Most of the felting movement will come from the wrist and forearm. Most importantly, make sure the needle is entering and exiting the felting surface in a straight in-and-out motion. This movement doesn’t have to be vertical; a felting needle can be used at any angle, as long as its path is straight. Avoid movements of the hand or wrist that cause the needle to bend while inside the foam pad. Felting needles will bend and break with sideways stress and pressure, and bent needles aren’t safe to use.
When poking, I insert my needle about half an inch, on average, into the felting surface and foam pad. This is when I’m covering a larger area with wool, without much regard to fine details. Detail work tends to be much shallower. When concentrating on surface details, it’s important for the felted fibers to remain mostly on top of the other fibers, and the deeper the needle is inserted, the more those fibers will be buried.
Needle felting offers instant gratification. When you poke a fiber into place, that’s where it exists, regardless of what happens around it. You can layer on top of that fiber, or lay more right beside it. You can push it and pull it with the needle to alter its line. But my favorite quality about wool as a medium is that it’s extremely forgiving. Unlike ink or paint, if you lay down some fibers and decide that you don’t like that color or placement, up to a certain point, you can simply lift the fibers back up with no harm to the fabric below. Making changes or reworking your art has never been easier — once you pass the “point of no return,” you can still revise your work by simply adding fiber on top! Experimenting with fibers and testing the possibilities with felting needles is half the fun, and will help you develop your own favorite techniques.
Phases of the Moon Tote Project
This is the perfect project for dipping your toes into painting with wool. The design is straightforward and quick to complete, but it offers good practice for creating sharp edges and manipulating shapes. And when you’re finished, you can show off the finished look wherever you go.
The tote shown here is made of thin cotton fabric. It’s possible to felt designs onto thicker cotton fabrics, but it’ll take more time and effort. In an inconspicuous location, test that the felting needle will travel easily through the fabric before getting started.
Tools & Materials
- Moon phase pattern
- Cotton tote bag
- Sewing pins, or extra felting needles
- Foam pad
- Size 38 star felting needle
- Carded wool batt
Moon Phase Pattern. Photo by Dani Ives
1. Size the Moon Phase pattern above to the exact scale you need, either drawing it by hand onto a fresh sheet of paper or enlarging/decreasing the size of the original with a photocopier.
2. Place your pattern exactly where it’s to be transferred onto the bag. Using 2 or 3 sewing pins, or a couple of felting needles, pin the image down so it won’t move.
3. Insert the foam pad between the two layers of the tote bag, and center it under the pattern. Using the felting needle, transfer the Moon Phase design to the bag by poking the outlines. Press the needle down to where the shaft is wider to make a hole large enough to easily see.
If the foam pad isn’t large enough to fit under the entire design, work the design in parts, finishing as much of it as possible before moving the foam pad to work on the rest.
4. Make only a few pokes at a time, then lift the image and connect the holes with a pen. Working with just a few dots at once and comparing the needle marks with the image will help avoid confusion and mixing up outlines. Plus, depending on the fabric, poked holes can easily disappear if the fabric is moved too much. Continue this method until the entire image is transferred onto the fabric, then unpin the pattern.
5. Beginning with a small amount of wool, start filling in the first moon by tacking the wool into the penned point of the crescent and following the curve of the outline. Attaching the wool along the corners and outline first is the easiest and quickest way to keep the shape true to the pattern, without having to adjust the outlines later.
Photo by Janae Hardy
6. Continue filling in the moon phases until all are completed.
Photo by Janae Hardy
7. Fill in thin spots, or level out any ridges or bumps, by adding small amounts of wool. If needed, adjust the shape of a moon by poking the outline from the side at a 45-degree or smaller angle.
Photo by Janae Hardy
8. Carefully lift the tote fabric from the foam pad, and you’re done.
Photo by Janae Hardy
When moving from one part of a pattern to the next, choosing a piece in close proximity to what’s already been felted will help keep fabric buckling to a minimum. I typically move from left to right with simple designs. If the fabric or pattern seems to shift as you felt from one part to the next, just stick to the transferred pattern and everything should straighten out once the foam pad is removed. It’s OK to lift the fabric from the foam pad while you’re in the middle of a project, but keep in mind that the bulkiness of the wool on the back side might prevent it from laying completely flat again. (Ironing the fuzzy back side can help to flatten those fibers, if necessary.) For many projects, this isn’t a problem, but I avoid lifting extremely detailed pieces from the foam until finished.
Photo by Getty Images/Nataly-Nete
Many beginners are curious about how thick the wool of the final piece should be after it’s felted. This is up to personal preference. Some felters like a bit of relief in their work, and others prefer flatter pieces. I keep my pieces as flat as possible, while also making sure the wool is thick enough to prevent any background fabric from peeking through. Keep in mind that it’s much easier to add wool than take it away once you start felting. However, if you find yourself with too much wool in one spot, you can carefully remove it. To do so, use one hand to press down on the wool that’s already been felted to keep it in place, and gently pull at the loose fibers you want to remove with the other hand, taking away small tufts at a time.
Dani Ives teaches in-person workshops and master classes, and leads online courses about needle felting. This project is excerpted from her book Painting with Wool (Abrams Books).