Saturday, 26 November 2011

Elephant No. 55: Needle-Felted Picture

Although I made a three-dimensional needle-felted elephant for the very first post in this blog, I've never tried flat needle-felting. Since I don't have a lot of time today, and I'm assuming this might be something I could do quickly, I figured it was worth a try.  

Felt is non-woven cloth produced by pressing and matting woollen fibres. It can be made in virtually any thickness, colour or pattern, and ranges all the way from garment quality to heavy construction weight.

Many cultures have legends related to the origins of felt. In the Ancient Sumerian culture of the Middle East, it was claimed that feltmaking was invented by Urnamman of Lagash. In Europe, feltmaking is said to have been created by chance: fleeing persecution, Saint Clement and Saint Christopher stuffed their shoes with wool to prevent blisters. At the end of their journey, the combination of movement and sweat had resulted in felted socks.

Many cultures still practice feltmaking to a significant extent. In Central Asia and Mongolia, for example, nomadic peoples commonly make rugs, clothes, footwear and even tents—including the traditional yurt—with felting techniques.

Felt has also long been used in the making of hats. From the mid-seventeenth to mid-twentieth centuries, good-quality felt was created through a process called "carroting". Rabbit, hare and beaver pelts were soaked in a diluted solution of mercuric nitrate, then dried in an oven. The thinner fur at the edges of the pelts turned an orange carrot colour.

The dried pelts were then stretched over a bar in a cutting machine. The skin was sliced off in thin strips, releasing the fur. The fluffy fur fibres were blown into a cone-shaped colander and hot water was added, causing the fur to clump.  The cone was then peeled away and the clump of wet fur was passed through a set of wet rollers to make it compress and felt. The resulting felt shape was called a "hood", which was dyed and blocked to make a hat.

The vapours given off by the mercuric chloride resulted in many cases of mercury poisoning among hatters. In addition to a wide range of physical symptoms, mercury poisoning causes various forms of mental impairment, likely giving rise to the character of the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland and the expression "mad as a hatter". 

The Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland,
illustrated by John Tenniel.

Commercial felt today is made by feeding wet wool and other fibres through a series of rollers to compress the fibres. Commercial felt of various thicknesses is used in musical instruments, clothing, footwear, home construction, and even the automotive industry. There is a good video on commercial felt production here. 

Dry needle-felting is a fairly simple process. It involves stabbing barbed felting needles hundreds of times through wool roving (carded but unspun wool fibre). The needles are the same ones used on some industrial felting machines, and are extremely sharp. When making a three-dimensional needle-felted object, I can count on stabbing my fingers at least a half-dozen times. Hopefully, two-dimensional needle-felting will allow me to keep my fingers a little farther away from harm.

The more you stab the needle through the wool, the denser the material becomes. This is because the microscopic scales on the fibres hook onto one another, snarling and matting together. It's similar to what happens with wet felting (or if you accidentally wash a wool sweater in the washing machine). Needle-felting gives you far more control over the process than wet felting, but it takes more actual felting time.

For today's elephant, I was originally going to felt into a backing of wool or felt. Then I thought it might be more interesting and challenging for me to felt into nothing, and just add layers of wool until a picture built itself up. 

To do most needle-felting—but especially a flat image—you need a block of high-density foam like this.

 And you need wool roving and at least one of the nasty-sharp needles.

I started first by laying in the background. At first I thought I might do a daylit scene on a savanna or something, but then I decided to do a circus elephant against a starry night sky. 

It took me about half an hour to make a thick enough background, mostly because I wanted it to be firm enough to support the rest of the design.

After I had the background, I added the elephant in stages: first the head, then the ear, then the trunk. The beauty of needle-felting is that you can add wool anywhere you like. By stabbing the needle through the wool, you can matt the fabric enough that the joins don't show—unless you want them to, of course.

After I had the elephant shape, I added pink in the ears, the tip of the trunk and mouth. After that, I added the tusk and eye, then the main part of the headdress.

Once I had the general shape thick enough and felted enough, I added the other details in the headdress, and other accessories.

The last thing I did was add dots for stars in the sky. 

I found needle-felting on a flat surface quite different than needle-felting in the round. For one thing, until the fabric really starts to matt, the wool fibres get all stuck in the high-density foam. This means that, when you pull the design away, it stays a bit stuck, and you have to be very gentle, or it will deform the design. As you can see from the view below of the reverse, the wool fibres really work their way through to the other side. I kind of like this ghost effect as well, and might try to use it sometime.

I liked this process well enough, but I think I prefer working on three-dimensional needle-felted objects. On the other hand, with this kind of needle-felting, I didn't stab myself even once.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Despite their size and the thickness of their skin, elephants are actually quite sensitive to needles. When giving an elephant an injection, it is usually a good idea to restrain the elephant in some way, as it will kick violently and/or run amok. If restraint is not possible, laying an elephant down on its side keeps it from reacting too quickly, as does having the elephant raise one of its legs.

Jabsticks—or pole syringes—are often used, and are highly effective, because the medication is injected quickly. Unfortunately, the volume contained in a pole syringe is usually not enough, and repeated injections become necessary. This causes more stress for both the elephant and the human administering the medication. If an elephant is particularly dangerous by nature, a dart might be used instead.

A jabstick being used on an elephant's hind leg.

Although an elephant's skin is thinnest inside its ears and around the mouth, most injections are given in the foreleg, hind leg, hip or neck. Because elephants are prone to developing abscesses, injection sites must be thoroughly cleaned ahead of time. The plunger is depressed slowly if possible, to avoid causing the elephant pain, and to keep swelling to a minimum. Most injections are intramuscular on elephants, and are given in areas of large muscle mass.

The needles are obviously long for injections given to elephants—although, surprisingly, the longest are no longer than spinal needles used on humans. Elephants are also sensitive to drugs and can have allergic reactions, just as we do.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation

No comments:

Post a Comment