We love all things woolly here at Herdy and are always looking for ways to spark a bit of creativity. That’s why we designed a needle felting kit, to make an adorable Herdwick sheep, and our super colourful Herdywool yarn with lots of ideas as to what to knit or crochet with our downloadable patterns.
Felt, particularly made from wool, is considered to be the oldest known man-made textile. Felt clothing and other items have been found in tombs dating 6,000+ years ago in areas where nomadic sheep herding was the norm.
If you’ve ever wondered how felting works, and even fancy having a go at felting yourself, then read on and let us show you a whole new world.
How does felting work?
The secret to making felt lies in the material itself. Wool, and most other mammalian fibres such as human hair, tends to mat together when it gets wet or agitated.
Why does it do this?
Well most mammalian fibres are comprised of individual fine strands, where each strand features a solid core with a scaly surface. These scales are invisible to the naked eye and point away from the root of the fibre.
The scales are long and pointy, and can even resemble thorns when observed under a microscope. At rest, these thorny scales lie close and flat to the solid core of the wool strand. But when wool is rubbed, or wet, the scales flare outwards from the solid core. These naturally occurring scales hook and become entangled with other fibres. The act of felting, regardless of the felting process, bonds wool fibres together and compresses them, making a dense, flat and warm fabric with all kinds of uses.
Hot water, sometimes with added soap, is sprayed onto layers of wool, while repeated agitation and compression causes the fibres of the wool to hook and weave together into a single piece of fabric.
Only certain types of fibre can be wet felted well. Most types of fleece, such as those taken from alpaca or sheep, can be put through the wet felting process. You can also use mohair (goat), angora (rabbit), or hair from rodents such as beavers and muskrats (but you’ve got to catch them first).
2. Needle felting
This method doesn’t require any water. You use a special needle that has notches along its shaft; these catch the wool fibres and tangle them with other fibres to produce felt.
This is a slightly more niche method of felting, primarily utilised to make hats. Beaver, rabbit, or hare skins were treated with a dilute solution of the mercury compound mercuric nitrate, or Hg(NO3)2, serving as the “agitator”. The name comes from the fact that the skins were dried in an oven where the thin fur at the sides turned orange.
This method of felting is probably where we get the term “mad as a hatter” from. Hatters—that is, people who made hats—were exposed to the mercuric nitrate solution on a daily basis, often with no protection. Consequently, over time, hatters suffered mercury poisoning otherwise known as Korsakoff’s syndrome, characterised by slurred speech, tremors, stumbling, pathological shyness, and in extreme cases hallucinations.
Can you use any type of wool for needle felting?
We’re fortunate in Britain to have a massive variety of wool textures and thicknesses available. In fact there are over 60+ sheep breeds in Britain, more than any other country in the world.
With such variety available there’s bound to be a type of British sheep breed wool to suit your needs.
Need something super soft and fine? Then Bluefaced Leicester is a good bet.
The breed produces a soft, lustrous wool at around 26–26.5 microns (µm) in thickness.
This isn’t the finest wool in the world; that distinction goes to the Merino sheep, originally from Spain but now massively popular in Australia and New Zealand, which can produce wool as fine as 12–13 µm.
Need something thicker that’s still easy to dye? Try wool from a Cheviot sheep.
This ancient breed, largely found in the Cheviot Hills of Northumberland, produce a versatile white wool that’s around 30.5–33 µm.
Apart from handle and texture Britain is also home to a rainbow of natural coloured wools.
Badger Face Welsh Mountain sheep grow fleeces ranging from cream and brown to black, similar to Jacob sheep. For something more tan or “cappuccino”, there’s the Manx Loaghtan, a primitive sheep breed native to the Isle of Man.
And then there’s our favourite, the Herdwick. The colours you can get from Herdwicks range from chocolate brown (shearlings), to all kinds of natural greys from the adult sheep.
For our own Herdy Felting Kit we include wool from three British sheep breeds for their natural colouring: the lovable Herdwick, for the grey body; the Cheviot, for the creamy white face and legs, and the Black Welsh Mountain, for the dark face details.