Wet Felting “Failure” & Some Thoughts

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One thing I love about making clothes is the slow accumulation of desire. Usually for me it begins with fiber, either fabric or yarn, and then often a pattern jumps to mind, but it steeps in my mind as I mentally arrange and rearrange all the possibilities. Inspiration gathers and grows until a vision of the project emerges at the forefront of my creative brain, demanding my attention and nagging to be made.

For this felting project, the accumulation was gradual. I was inspired by the Australian participants in the One Year One Outfit challenge (especially Carolyn, Meg, and Nicki) and thought that felt would be the perfect fabric to create the base of my outfit (my “outfit” is actually, at this moment, a collection of 3 sweaters, a hat, and shawl — proper photographs coming soon!).

In October, I attended a workshop at a nearby farm and folk school called “Sheep to Loom: A Journey,” a true whirlwind tour of the process from paddock to weaving. There I purchased a bag of washed and picked wool, which I was drawn to for its deep, almost black color. Prior to purchasing the fleece, I had written a post here about wanting to make a felted wool wrap skirt, and while I originally had a different fiber source in mind, I thought this fleece would take its place.

Though it was washed and picked, I knew the fleece would need to be carded well before I could felt it, so the wool waited patiently, tucked into the corner of my little closet/studio space. I started to see more felt inspiration, stumbling across contemporary artists and designers like Nica Rabinowitz, Tricia Stackle, and Beatrice Waanders, and soon my excitement grew. In December, my friend Maddy generously taught me how to use the carding drum at the Weaver’s Guild, and in one afternoon I turned the whole bag of jumbled wool into smoothly rolled roving.

After a relaxing weeklong holiday with my family, I returned home and began to plot my felting project. I considered what supplies were needed, drawing on the few times I’ve wet felted in the past, and some helpful posts online (including Carolyn’s). I was really hesitant to buy any new or specialized tools for this, especially plastic things, so I decided on a plastic painting tarp that I had used to paint apartment walls over the summer, and bubble wrap collected over the holidays. I chose an empty cleaning spray bottle to fill with hot, soapy water, and set up an episode of This American Life to entertain me.

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I placed the tarp on my dining table, delicately laid out two layers of tufts of roving, spritzed and then soaked the wool, then began to massage with bubble wrap. At first, it seemed to be going swell, the wool appeared matted together and looked like an even, opaque length. I worked section by section, trying to create the initial felting action evenly across the table, then going back in for a second round to solidify the process. That’s when it started to seem off. I peeled back the plastic and saw that the wool was beginning to clump unevenly, and upon closer inspection, was not really felting at all. I added a little more soapy water and decided to try using a second layer of tarp instead of the plastic wrap, and moved my hands in larger, circular motions. I tried working in large areas, and then I tried concentrating on a small spot to see if I could get it to felt in a sample size.

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Stepping back, I realized that the excess water was splashing off the table and forming puddles on the wood floor. Because I raised in an old house by a father who was vigilant about caring for the wood floors — where even an ice cube falling to the floor would sound the alarm to mop it up before havoc was wreaked — I panicked, threw down as many rags as I could find, and alternated mopping the puddles with rolling up the maybe-possibly-partially felted wool and tarp. Then I swiftly moved the wool into the bathtub.

From there, I tried to continue the felting process in a bucket of soapy water, but the wool just seemed to separate further and hang out of the tarp in a sopping pile. I took a break and was disappointed that my plan to finish my One Year One Outfit, seemingly in its final stretches, had spectacularly, soppingly, failed.

A bit later, I rolled the wool in a towel and then laid it out on my drying rack. After some moping around, I began to realize that maybe this fleece just didn’t want to be felt. Not only did not create felt, but something about seeing the fleece all spread out to dry just struck me as at odds with my plan. I think I approached it the wrong way, trying to force (and massage) this fleece into my vision, instead of letting the material guide the plan.

IMG_0058.jpgStill, I was a bit stumped by the lack of felting. I posted my un-felted blob on Instagram and received some very kind and much-appreciated encouragement, but wanted to do some research before trying again. I remembered that during the “Sheep to Loom” class, the teacher had talked about her breeding practices and described that she was working to reduce the crimp in the wool. I could have misinterpreted what she said, but the more I compared the fleece to my reference materials, the more I realized it had a very long staple and not much visible crimp. From what I can tell, this type of fiber can spin into a lustrous, strong yarn, but can struggle to produce felt.

I don’t doubt there was some human error in my felting “failure,” and next time I would certainly portion the project out into more manageable sizes (and thus reduce the splashing and puddles), but I think ultimately this wet felting experiment was an invitation to continue the One Year One Outfit challenge, to deepen my connection to my local resources, and to let my fibershed materials be the guide.

So with a renewed sense of exploration, I’m signing on in 2016 to create a locally grown and sewn outfit. I’m also pledging to take on another part of Nicki’s initial challenge: no new fabrics. I’m feeling truly grateful and joyful for the abundance of beautiful materials I’ve collected, and can’t wait to finally work with them, instead of getting distracted by new acquisitions. Aside from my locally procured fiber, I endeavor not to buy any “virgin” fabrics, but will allow new notions if necessary to complete projects from my existing stash, and secondhand fabrics as muslin materials or special additions.

My goal is to use this renewed challenge to focus on finally bringing to fruition many planned garments from fabrics in my stash, and as a way of incentivizing creativity when I’m looking for “new” fabric. I have plans for a dye garden this spring, and am excited to see what the failed felt can become. I’m pretty sure it’s still salvageable and can be spun, perhaps even woven.

So far January is cold and quiet here, but the days are slowly growing longer, a nod toward the encouragement and possibilities of a new year. Have you set project goals for yourself?

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Published by

Jess

making things & asking questions

2 thoughts on “Wet Felting “Failure” & Some Thoughts”

  1. Hmm disappointing! But I know exactly what you mean about what happens when the material doesn’t quite match where you’d like to go. What kind of wool was this? I did wet felting on a semi-production scale for a while, and I made a ton of samples from different sheep breeds, it was pretty astounding how different the results were. Anyway, if you decide to tackle felting again and you have questions feel free to shoot me a note!

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    1. Thanks so much Tasha! I will definitely reach out before felting again. There is a big wool festival here in May so I hope to buy a fleece or two for different purposes. This one is a mix of several breeds: half Shetland, one quarter Borderleister, one eighth Romney and one eighth Corriedale. The staple is very long with not much noticeable crimp, definitely more of a wave. I tried spinning it last week and it’s a bit coarse but a very lustrous and rather strong yarn — excited by what it might become!

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