I've been needle-felting for a little over three years now. In that time, a lot of people have asked Elizabeth and me what needle-felting is and how it is done. Well, most people actually get a blank look on their faces and say, "What's that?" This entry is as concise an explanation as I can make --- along with some "how-to" pictures to supply a visual explanation.
There are two kinds of needle felting: "Applique" and "In-the-Round". Almost all of the felting that I do is "in-the-round", though some applique techniques apply when making clothing for dolls or any flat pieces. Either way, you need wool roving. Roving . . . it's one of my favorite things. Lots of colors are handy (part of my collection is shown below), but you'll only need one to start practicing.
Needle-felting is accomplished by poking barbed/notched needles into wool roving (or other fibers like llama, alpaca, etc.). As the small barbs are pushed into the wool it "tangles" the roving and felts the wool. The more you poke the roving, the firmer the felt and finished product. It is a rather new art, since felting in the round only started in the 1980s. Methods and techniques are very individual, and no two pieces are ever quite the same.
TOOLS: Needles, Needle Holder & Felting Mat
There are all kinds of tools and methods when it comes to needle felting, but these are my favorites. I use the Clover felting mat (large size) and pen tool. These are very easy to find, being available at large craft stores like JoAnne Fabrics, Hobby Lobby --- and even on Amazon.com. The felting mat has a plastic base and long nylon bristles (giving it the look of a fancy brush). These are made to the height of the felting needles when used in a Clover pen or applique tool. That way, you never break a needle by hitting the base.
The pen tool is a very nifty thing. Lots of felters simply hold onto the top of the needle and felt that way, but I am more comfortable with a larger grip for the hand. The pen tool can hold one to three needles, so it can be used for "In-the-Round" or applique.
Clover also sells their own brand of felting needles, but I don't recommend them. I used them for about a year, but the amount of breakage is incredible. The needles are very thin and flimsy, so they don't last very well. For the past two years, I have been buying needles in bulk packs of fifty from Fine Fiber Press. They sell on Etsy and through their own website. They offer a variety of needles at a fair price --- and the quality is excellent. I don't break many needles at all and they last through a lot of felting before the notches wear off.
Picking the size of your felting needle can seem a bit daunting, but a lot of it comes down to personal preference. I would recommend a sample pack, then you can try different sizes and see what works best for you. Needles range in gauge from 32 (coarse) to 42 (ultra-fine). The larger/coarser the needle, the faster it will felt. Unfortunately, there is always a drawback to speed. The larger needles also leave visible puncture marks in your felt. Because of this, I only us size 40 and 42 needles. It takes a bit longer to achieve a firm felt, but I find that the "pock mark" effect of puncture holes is not visible (or rarely visible) in the finished product. When I started felting, I was using a 36 needle, and that leaves very visible marks.
FELTING APPLIQUE STYLE: Large Flat Pieces or Flat Accents
Applique felting is fun, easy and the results are rather quick. In fact, I've taken one picture to show a piece of flat felt (made from wool roving). All you do is place the desired amount and general size of roving on your mat. Insert all three needles into the pen tool and "felt" away. Don't be afraid to push your needles down into the roving --- you don't want to "prick" the wool with only the first 1/8" of your needle. Use all those barbs and you'll have nice, firm felt at the end. Once you've got the hang of this, you'll find the you can achieve some good speed while stabbing the needles down into the wool. Felt until the wool looks firm and smooth, then pull it off of the mat. You'll see that the underside is now very wooly with all of the fiber that you've pushed down from the top. Lay that furry side up on the mat and felt it down. Continue felting each side in this manner until the felt has the consistency suitable for your project. This same technique would apply to any large, flat piece (such as felting a design on a scarf or hat), however, I don't have much experience with this kind of felting --- so, I would suggest finding another online article for more info on that!
FELTING "IN-THE-ROUND": Dolls, Animals and 3D Work
Felting in the round is a lot of fun. You start with a pile of wool roving and end up with a doll (or animal) that has character and personality. There are no "right ways" and "wrong ways" when it comes to felting in the round. Every person will develop their own techniques and tricks, so if you have an idea that makes your work easier --- go for it!
I only ever use one needle to felt an object in the round. I have two pen tools, one loaded with a size 40 needle and the other with a size 42 needle. This saves time when wishing to switch between sizes during a project. Sometimes, if you are making a large round object (such and a head), then I will use three needles in the pen tool to felt a long piece which is then rolled into a sort of ball shape. Back to one needle and I work on turning this rough-felted ball into a smooth oval shape for the head. This is a time-saving measure, but I'm sure that each person comes up with their own methods for that. :)
To achieve a three dimensional shape, you must turn the wool on the mat as you are felting. Never felt in one area or side too long, because the wool will flatten out and you will end up with a flat piece before very long. The biggest challenge in 3D felting is keeping each side of your sculpture symmetrical. All I can say is --- practice makes perfect. I am working on my twentieth needle-felted doll, and I still concentrate on symmetry. The series of pictures below shows the basic technique for felting in the round (feel free to click on the pictures to enlarge them). I just made a small ball-shaped piece, but there is no difference whether you make a ball, a foot, a leg or a head. For details like noses and knees, you can add small pieces of wool onto the main piece as you go, but making the basic shape is always the same.
This should give you a rough idea of how needle-felting works. It's a great hobby and art that is relaxing and fun. Possibilities are endless and you can develop your own method as you learn and invent "tricks of the trade". Have fun and thanks for stopping by!