The Wet Felting Process is Done!

The wet-felting marathon continued beyond the mega wet-felting weekend. In my last post, I gave credit to my collaborator Colleen, my sister Shelley, and my husband Jim for coming to the fore when I was too ill to physically do the wet-felting work. The past week has been a duo team effort, with Jim and I finishing up the last panels. As of this past Sunday, all panels have been wet-felted and, as of today, all panels are dry and ready for sewing. Whew! On time, according to my original schedule. I’ll talk about the sewing next week but for now, let me get you caught up on the wet-felting process since I left a lot of that dangling last week.

Wet-felting is a finishing step that secures the needle-felted wool onto the industrial felt panels. The process involves getting the wool wet with very hot water and soap, and gently rubbing the wetted wool until the fibers grab onto each other and create a solid mass of fiber.

Wool is an ideal fiber for the wet-felting technique. A sheep’s hair contains thousands of microscopic structures called “scales.” The scales are arranged on each hair follicle like the overlapping tiles on a tile roof. When the fiber is exposed to hot water and soap, the scales open up. And when agitated (rubbed), the scales grab onto adjacent hairs and pull the neighboring fibers together making a solid mass of fiber. When the fiber cools, the scales close up and that makes the fiber even more dense. Maybe you’re experienced putting a wool sweater into the washing machine, washing it in hot, soapy water, and having it emerge as something a Lilliputian might wear? That sweater just went through a felting process (although, technically, a shrunken pre-structured garment is actually called a “fulled” fabric rather than “felted”). The results are permanent. Any attempts to unfelt a felted fiber will end up damaging the wool fiber. Some have claimed that vinegar will unfelt felted wool but you will damage the wool structure in the process and end up with a weak fabric.

Earthly Coat Wet-Felting Process

Jim and Colleen preparing for the weekend wet-felting marathon.

1. Wetting out the fiber

  • First, we laid out a needle-felted coat panel on a long table and on top of a bubble wrap-type sheet. (Colleen’s bubble wrap is actually something that is used for pool covers. Very durable.)
  • Then, we sprinkled the panel with hot soapy water and, with plastic bags covering our hands (later modified to vinyl painter’s gloves), gently stroked the soapy water into the wool panel until the panel was saturated and no loose fibers were apparent. This step starts the agitation of the wool fibers and settles the design into place.

Saturating the wool panel with hot, soapy water using a very gentle but firm circular hand movement.

2. Preparing to roll-felt the fiber

  • Fabric netting was then laid over the panel, and an olive oil soap was rubbed into the netting and the underlying panel. The netting helps to hold the fibers in place while soaping the panel and keeps them in place for the next rolling step. (Olive oil soap has less suds than other soaps so works well in wet-felting and makes the wash-out less messy. Thanks Colleen for this tip! We used Kiss My Face™ soap—which Jim, ever the contrarian, was prone to continually refer to as Kiss My A** soap! Things were getting silly by the end of the day.)

Placing the netting over one of the wool panels.

Rubbing the soap onto the netting and wool panel below.

3. The Sushi Roll

  • When the panel was well soaped, we laid bamboo window blinds on top of it and rolled up the entire soapy “sushi roll,” tying the roll with nylon stockings and/or rope.

The bamboo layer helps to create a very dense final felted fabric.

Tying of the sushi roll.

  • The sushi roll was then rolled forward and backward, with pressure, at least 100 times; taken apart and re-rolled into a sushi roll and rolled in another direction for 100 times. This step makes the fiber very dense and felted to the point that the underlying industrial felt and needle-felted wool have become essentially one piece of fabric.

Rolling the “sushi.”

4. Finishing

  • Next, the panel is unrolled—revealing a smooth, final material that must be washed to remove the soap residue. We used a garden hose to rinse the large coat panels on our driveway.
  • Finally—dry time. We were fortunate to have nice drying days during this final step, considering every day since has been humid and rainy. Most of the panels were dried outside since we were all getting tired of the smell of the wet wool in the house!

Onto the sewing now!

But first, I can’t leave without finishing up the hanging questions on the spring plant identification from my April 12th post. My neighbor and friend, Amanda, guessed the mystery plant correctly. She thought it was a Trillium. Indeed, it is. A Nodding Trillium. We have very few of these in our woods so it’s exciting to know they’ve survived another winter and the rambunctious dogs. I’ll leave you with a couple of photos of the current state of the spring plants…

The Nodding Trillium! See the flower hanging under the leaves? When it opens fully, it will be protected under an umbrella of its own making.

Here is another Jack-in-the-Pulpit that is being closely tended by its own leaves on a cold morning. I love how tightly it supports itself in its very own hug.


About wendyj-sagahill

I am a textile artist, designer, and author.
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