Alexander Wang, AW11, New York.
Felting is a fabric technique that can produce a variety of different effects depending on the method, from wet felting and nuno felting through to needle punch felting. There are many wonderful resources online that show quite craftsy looking projects using different felting methods, but don’t be put off by the projects themselves as the techniques can easily be adopted to create contemporary garments.
Felt as a fabric is essentially a non-woven material made from loose fibres that have been matted together. In wet felting the fibres are joined by essentially using hot soapy water and friction to cause the “scales” on the wool fibres to lock together.
Different felting effects are created using different methods so while wet felting can be used to create whole pieces of felt, nuno felting and needle punch felting are the techniques that are more likely to have been used to create the blended felting look that can be seen in some of the images below.
As a general overview of the differences between these different methods, where wet felting is made entirely from loose fibres, nuno felting has been developed to felt loose fibres on top of a fabric base using a similar technique to wet felting. For example, using a nuno felting method you could wet felt wool fibres over a silk organza or synthetic fabric backing.
The following excerpt from the Dharma Trading Company website» describes the different steps taken depending on whether you are choosing the wet felting or nuno felting technique:
Wet felting and Nuno felting instructions:
The Wet and Nuno felting techniques are the same except for one slight variation in step 4, and water temperature. Many substitute cold to room temperature water for the Nuno felt process as things have to happen more slowly. See below:
1) In the dish tub, make a bath of hot soapy water about an inch or so deep, and place a piece of the textured material you choose in the bottom for friction. Hot water and soap help open the wool scales (microscopic ‘hooks’ on the wool fibres that lock together, or felt). Use cooler water for Nuno technique.
Note: You can also lay this out on a flat protected work surface if you need a larger area than a dish tub allows. Do this outside or someplace you can drip soapy water without worrying about the floor. Things are going to get wet, including you!
2) Lay down your roll-up mat (the roll up mat needs to be wider than your project, long enough to roll up all around the project, and stiff enough to hold it’s tube shape when rolled up. We have seen sections of pool cover used, as well as sushi mats, and others. The keys are that water should be able to move through it, and there should be some texture, which helps the felting process).
3) Now, lay down on top of your roll-up mat the tulle fabric.
4) Lay out thin layers of wool roving and/or wool yarns on the tulle fabric, building up evenly as you go. You can use all kinds of colors and designs just by laying out different shapes and patches of roving. Remember that your piece is going to shrink as it felts so you want to make it slightly larger than you think you will need. Also keep in mind that you are creating a flat sheet of felt, so building up your layers unevenly will result in a piece of felt fabric with uneven thickness.
*4a) If you are doing Nuno felting with a silk scarf or fabric, at this point you want to lay your scarf or fabric out on top of the roving and tulle and then repeat step 4, placing more roving and/or wool yarn in the same places on top of the scarf or fabric. You can also have design elements on top made with yarns or roving. You will then have roving on both sides of the material, like a mirror image, so that they tangle together through the fabric. Like a sandwich!
5) Next, wet down everything on your roll-up mat with some of the hot soapy water (a squeeze bottle is handy for this), and then roll up the mat and secure it closed with some string or strips of fabric. (cool water for Nuno technique)
6) Now immerse the bundled tube in the hot (cool water for Nuno technique) soapy water bath and start rolling/rubbing it on the textured liner you placed in the bottom of the dish tub. Push down while you roll to increase the friction on your felt.
Note: If you are working on a table with a big bundle, you will need to continually soak the bundle with hot soapy water (you need to keep it warm and wet. Some squeeze bottles filled with hot soapy water can help). Make sure you put pressure on all parts of your bundle at some time, rather than rolling in the same places over and over, as the friction is the main catalyst for felting. Using your forearms to roll it can create more pressure and friction, and help keep you from getting tired.
7) There is no set amount of time it will take for your wool to felt. Too many factors affect the speed, such as the water temperature, the amount of friction, the amount of material to be felted, etc. So, every now and then, open your bundle and take a peek at how your felt is doing. If it is solid felt it is done; if it is still loose in places, just roll it back up and keep rolling. If the water starts to get chilly warm it up with some hot water. You need to keep it warm because this keeps the wool scales opened up, allowing it to tangle/felt faster and easier. You also want to keep your bundle wet and soapy throughout the process (a squeeze bottle with hot soapy water helps).
8) When you are happy with the degree of felting, unroll your project and rinse out the soap (a shower spray works nice for this and helps things felt up just a bit more). You can rinse and dry the piece before or after removing the tulle base. Though the wool fiber may ‘adhere’ slightly to the tulle base, but it should mostly just pull off. When you have rinsed out all the soap you might want to rinse the felt in a bit of water and vinegar (or citric acid). This will help to smooth out the wool scales a bit, locking them more in place, as well as helping neutralize the slight alkalinity of the soap, which over time can be damaging to protein fibers (i.e. wool).
9) Dry out your felt by blotting it with a clean towel. You can also roll up your felt in a towel and press on it, or just lay the wool out in a dry location. It can take some time for heavy felt to completely dry out, on the order of a day or two. Essentially you now have a piece of wool fabric, and it should be treated as such in regards to laundering.
10) Enjoy your felt!
The following images show the work of designer Shaun Samson who beautifully blended different plaids and linens in his MA collection at Central Saint Martins. There is a wonderful interview on StyleSalvage with Shaun Samson» that goes into more detail about the process of creating the collection and how he used a needle punch machine to create the effect. There are also some great photos of small textile test swatches that help to show how Samson developed his felting ideas.
You can see more garments from this collection in a previous post on The Cutting Class Manipulating for Menswear: Shaun Samson»
Shaun Samson, Central Saint Martins MA, AW10. Images from Totem»
In the images below taken from an Alexander Wang collection you can see how the fabrics may have been seamed together first and then loose fibres could be used to blend the seam line using needle punch felting techniques.
You can see more images from this Alexander Wang collection in a previous post on The Cutting Class Alexander Wang’s Felted Knitwear»
Alexander Wang, AW11, New York. Images from Vogue.co.uk»
The following video gives a brief explanation of how needle punch felting works by hand, and you can see that this would be a technique that could be easily adopted for a wide variety of applications.