A Lifelong Exploration of Wet Felting

12 May 2021

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My first felting experience was not in a classroom, or a backyard. It wasn’t with merino wool, or the fibres of a different sheep. There were no towels, but there was lots of water, and laughter. One summer day my mother brought home a bag of wool and the idea of felting. I was ten years old at the time. Little did I know that even though my first felting project worked out in the end, there were many techniques that could have made the project easier.

Felting is the art of using water, heat, and agitation to bind wool fibres together. Felt can make vessels, sculptures, garments, and cloth yardage. The process of felting is simple at first but has great depth once you see all that it has to offer.

Image description: a yellowish button cuff bracelet made out of felted wool.

On that summer day I made a black felted scarf. I laid the wool out in a single layer on a shower curtain, soaked it in water with ribbons of soap, and then sandwiched the wool between more curtain. I learned later that what I used for my first felting project was a short staple alpaca wool. It was a testament to my tenacity that it felted together at all. The short length of the fibres meant that they took a long time to interlock with each other. In retrospect, I should have sought out bubble wrap so its texture could aid in agitating the wool I should have laid the wool out in layers to make the felt even and shrink evenly, and I should have used much less water and soap to minimize the labour needed.

My mother did not realize the enormity of the mess that we were about to create until it had spread across the kitchen. As a more experienced felter, I now work on a cookie tray or a guttered table to contain the overflow of water. I take my time setting up my space so that my merino wool and other materials are in a dry space nearby, safe from premature saturation. Testing how materials attach to the felt, and affect shrinkage rates, texture, and lustre are a large part of my current felting practice.

When I laid out that scarf as a child, it was a disorganized mess of fibres spread in every direction. Fibres should be laid out in a slightly overlapping pattern at least two layers thick, with the second layer perpendicular to the first. The disorganized alpaca fibres had forced the scarf to shrink in unpredictable ways, causing the edge of the scarf to be rough and uneven. An organized fibre layout would have created crisp, smooth edges in the felt.

My mother, sisters, and I poured hot water haphazardly over the fibres until it was soaked, and liberally decorated the surface with a gratuitous amount of soap. When we enclosed the scarf in the shower curtain and began to rub, hot soapy water streamed out over the counters and floor, but little progress was made.

We were using untextured plastic (a shower curtain). Now I use bubble wrap. The texture of the bubbles acts like little fingers to coerce the wool fibres to weave together. Suffice to say, coaxing that alpaca scarf into soft felt took far too long. Rolling the scarf to make the felt sturdy enough to wear, known as hard felting, could have benefited from the texture of bubble wrap, too. I used too much soap, my ten-year-old self gave her best effort to roll the scarf, resulting in suds on the ceiling. Thankfully the soapy water was easy to clean.

My siblings and I did not know that we needed to rinse our scarves in vinegar to neutralize the soap. I worry that our neglect has allowed the soap to eat away at the fibres and degrade the scarf. The perfectionist in me still wonders and worries about that scarf. Your first felted piece is never perfect, and I regret that I do not still have it to check.

As a child I had no idea what I was getting into, felting on that hot summer day. As I continue to develop my textiles practice, felting, fibre, and colour come to the fore over and over. There is a lifetime of secrets to uncover in the water, heat, and agitation of fibre. I started early, and I have a lot left to learn.

Image description: A woman wearing a multicoloured felted vest over black leggings and long sleeves.

The writer, wearing one of her pieces. Photo credit Ian Mackenzie Humber.

Featured image credit Ian Mackenzie Humber.

Copyright © Magan Wilson except as indicated.
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About Magan Wilson

Magan Wilson is a potter turned fibre artist with a love of plants, experimentation, cats, and the hidden beauty of the natural world. Her love of glaze chemistry and form transformed into a love of dyes, fibre, felt, and knitwear. Her work catches the wholeness of existing in the present. The wild nature of the world that flourishes on the fringes of awareness. Chasing the idea of a 'wild night' you can find her work via her alias of Oíche Rua (EE-ha RU-ah), an Irish phrase capturing the chaos and wild beauty of the night sky. https://oicherua.substack.com/

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