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Tips and Resources for Felting with Kids

Kids love to felt!  What’s not to love about it? It’s wet and sudsy. It’s joyful. It’s really fun (sometimes hysterically so- just what is it about suds?) to share with a pal or a group. It’s a process that is magical and full of discovery. It’s possibilities are endless. And when the pieces are finished and dry, they are cozy and warmly inviting, and beg to be handled and touched (who can resist tossing a felted ball). The newly initiated felters will never look at fleece or a felted piece of work the same way!
Felting is the original low tech non-woven textile. It predates woven textiles by thousands of years. It is and ancient and intrinsically simple process that can be reduced to the following equation:

Fleece + water+ soap + pressure + agitation= FELT

And yet the permutations and variables by which this equation is interpreted are endless.  There are many, many different strategies and techniques. Each experienced individual felter uses and develops different techniques depending on the project and breed type (or breed cross) of wool they are using. Water temperatures, type of soap used….. etc. etc. There is not room in this article to address a comprehensive “how to” on felting. What I hope to accomplish is steering you towards some excellent resources and share some tips that have worked for me and will hopefully serve you well.

Purchase the book The Art of Feltmaking by Anne Einset Vickrey. It was originally published in 1997 and is still in print. This was the book that initially introduced me to the incredible world of wet felting in the late 1990’s. There are many good books on the subject that have been published in the last 15 years. I personally own many of them and have used them to expand my knowledge of felting techniques and strategies, but this one stands alone. It has comprehensive coverage of felting history, techniques, scope of projects (large and small), terrific, clear and well photographed how-to style,  and pictures of a wide range of wonderful and inspiring completed projects.

Obtain some wool that is suitable and recommended for wet felting (as opposed to needle felting- though some are fine for both) and GET TO KNOW IT!  There are many breeds of sheep and crosses and their fleeces are wide ranging in character- crimp, length, luster, coarseness, softness, etc., as well as in their wet felting properties. Obtain some fleece either in a sliver or carded batt that is specifically sold for wet felting. Make several small flat pieces, small balls and short ropes. Practice.  Experiment.  Find out by experience what you  have to do to coax it with your hands to come together into the different shapes. Felting is all about FEEL. When to just press down lightly, when to change to rubbing lightly, or to use hard pressure, when to add soap to make it more slick, or when to add water or squeeze out the water to make it less slick. It is something you need to experience yourself to have the insight to teach others by explaining with words and actions how to transform fluffy fleece into a tough, durable felt. It’s a simple process but one filled with many nuances.

I have experimented with a wide range of fleece from different breeds. When I am teaching however, I use almost exclusively fleece from Merino cross sheep that I purchase from Harrisville Designs in Harrisville, New Hampshire. (Contact information at the end of the article.) There are several reasons for this. This fleece is versatile enough to use for small projects,  balls, ropes, dolls, and critters, as well as hats and very large felted wall hangings. This fleece comes in carded batts which I prefer to work with. It comes in  64 wonderful colors, many of which are subtle heathered mixes which I love to use. There are varieties of wool that will felt more speedily and maybe with more ease for small projects, but I have a lot of this wool in a wide assortment of beautiful colors that are leftovers from my hat making and are perfect for small projects.  More importantly:  I know this wool and how it behaves extremely well!  I have been using it for 13 years and know how to coax it into felt using a variety of strategies that I can share with others. I know well its limitations and good qualities. Even with Harrisville Design striving for uniformity in the character of the fleece that it sells, the character of the fleece can be quite varied from batt to batt.  Some don’t want to “wet”, some are more “fuzzy” even when they are fully felted, some felt fast, some take “forever”…Perhaps it is better for me to say that I know well the “wide range” of character for this particular brand of Merino cross fleece!  Change breeds and it will be an entirely different “wide range of character” to get to know!

Hand Felted Toys

Pick a soap!   Get to know it too!  Many felters have a particular soap they like to use, these include but are not limited to both Ivory and Dawn brand liquid dishwashing detergents, clear shampoos, or pure olive oil based soaps.  I have had great success using both the Ivory dishwashing detergent and olive oil soap when felting.  Olive oil based soap works fantastically well.  It is “The Best” in my opinion and has many, many wonderful attributes when used for felting , to name just a few ways in which it is superlative:  it has enhanced wetting and lubricating properties that actually speed the felting process along as well as a very “snappy” water and time-saving rinse out!  However, I am going to recommend for working with young, first-time felters, that you use Ivory dishwashing detergent!  It really does work very well and it is especially well-suited for small projects.  You will not only skip the considerable time needed in creating and bottling the olive oil soap gel and wetting mixtures, but will also avoid the potential “troubles” caused by a unique property of the olive oil soap when used for felting—it loses its very important lubricating qualities as you rub with it and must be frequently reapplied during the felting process.  This can be difficult to monitor, especially with a young group that is learning for the first time “the feel” of the felting process.  The big advantage of Ivory, aside from ease of purchase and ready-to-use quality, is that it does not lose its lubricating quality as you rub it.

Set up and Work Space Tips

Yes, felting is a wet and sudsy experience, though it does not need to be a messy affair too!  Though water is an integral part of the process, you actually need very little water for most of the steps in a small project—enough to initially saturate, “wet” to fleece, just enough to maintain the right degree of “wetness”, and a small amount of hot water for the fulling process—once again enough to just saturate the piece.  The only time you really need access to running water is when the piece is done and the soap is being rinsed out!  Knowing this should help you understand that much can be done very easily to mitigate the unavoidable wayward drips and dollops of suds and soapy water!

Have some extra adult help!

Working outside is best either sitting at picnic tables or standing at portable tables.  Outside is more relaxed—but my recommended set-up is identical whether inside or outside.
Cover the table tops with beach or large towels.
Provide a pint squeeze bottle of water for each pair of kids.  This should be plenty.  They can always refill them if needed.
Place either dish washing basins, shallow, wide diameter utility or salad type bowls or trays between pairs of kids.  They will work over these, especially initially when saturating the piece and getting the felting underway.
On its own separate table, if there is no hot water source nearby, have a rapid heating electric hot water kettle plugged in.
You, and only you, or another adult, parcel out the soap from a squeeze bottle.  A very little goes a very long way!  One  24 oz bottle of Ivory concentrated dishwashing detergent will be plenty for an entire classroom of kids!
Use a communal hot water bath basin for the hot water treatments to control and limit the amount of hot water access by the kids.  Use wooden spoons to fish out the hot pieces of felt.  Let the pieces cool on the spoon a bit if needed, before returning them to the kids for more hand felting.
Clean-up is uncomplicated and easy, especially if you’ve used towels to cover the tabletops.  Gather up the wet towels and to take home and launder.  Then rinse out the basins.  After all, all you’ve really been using is soap, wool and water!

First Project

The first thing I do, whether I am working with children or adults when teaching felting is to have them make a 4” or 5” square piece of felt fabric.  Simply taking 2 squares of fluffy fleece batting and transforming them into a sturdy, unified wool fabric through the felting process is an experience of incredible discovery and awe for most people—kids and adults alike.  They can examine their finished piece closely and see for themselves how the fibers have truly migrated, co-mingled, locked together and tightened into the dense fabric we call felt.
It only takes about 15-20 minutes from initially selecting 2 pre-cut 4-5” batt squares to go completely through all the steps to a fully felted,  completed piece of felt fabric.
In a classroom situation, once you are all set-up, the time it takes to get a group started until they finish takes closer to an hour.
I use a modified version of the technique outlined in “Making Flat Felt in a Plastic Bag” from The Art of Feltmaking by Anne Einset Vickrey.  I have adapted it in a couple ways:
I use 2 approximately 4-5” square pieces of fleece batting placed inside a zip lock baggie.  By using two different contrasting colors, or 2 colors that are very in different in tone—when the piece is fully felted—the degree to which the fibers have mingled and migrated in the felting process is wonderfully apparent!  When initially laying out the batt “sandwich”, before it goes into the baggie, little wisps of color from scraps of batts can be incorporated into one side (or both) to add some personality to the piece.  This can also be saved for a second effort!
Don’t zip the zip lock.  Once the piece is saturated with water let the rest of the water drain out.  As the piece felts it loses its ability to hold water—so you are always needing to let a little drain out!  Work over a basin while this is happening..
Take the piece out of the baggie as soon as it is possible, when it holds together in its initial soft felt stage.  Continue to work it, over a basin if needed, between hands.  At a certain point the piece is really just damp but slick—not very drippy at all!
Usually you need to add a small drizzle of soap after each hot water treatment during the fulling process.

In closing, I would like to offer an even simpler equation…

Feltmaking  + Kids = FUN!

Good Luck!
P.S. You are welcome to contact me…sfgperlman(at)gmail.com

RESOURCES

The Art of Feltmaking Basic Techniques for Making Jewelry, Miniatures, Dolls, Buttons, Wearable, Puppets, Masks, and Fine Art Pieces by Anne Einset Vickrey, Copyright 1997. First published by Watson-Guptil Publications

Harrisville Designs, Harrisville, New Hampshire 03450
(603) 827-333
Harrisville.com
8 oz. carded fleece batts, Merino cross blend available in 64 colors and heathered shades. Retail price $19 per 8 oz. bag plus shipping.

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