Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Elephant No. 191: Wet Felting

I was lucky today to take a wet-felting workshop with Canadian fibre artist Maggie Glossop. Although I've done both three-dimensional and flat needle-felting before—as well as a fairly hapless attempt at nuno felting—I've never tried wet felting before.

I covered the history of felt in a previous post, so I won't repeat it here, except to say that wet felting was a revelation to me. While needle felting is fairly controlled and precise, it is also time-consuming and slightly tedious. Wet felting is far more fun, and gives you a painterly quality that needle felting doesn't quite emulate.

White Water by Maggie Glossop.
Source: http://www.maggieglossop.com/3.html

The primary difference between needle felting and wet felting, as far as I can tell, is that needle felting relies on the action of a barbed needle to snarl the fibres together and force the scales on a wool fibre to lock together. In wet felting, the water opens the scales, and the action of rubbing and scrunching the fibres locks them together. Wet felting is also a much freer artistic process, which is something I like very much.

Wet-felted fingerless mittens by Gala Filc.
Source: http://www.etsy.com/listing/81114896/felted-fingerless-gloves-mittens-dark

Wet felting is simple enough in principle that anyone can do it. Animal fibre is laid in crosswise layers as a base; a design is laid in fibre over top; the whole thing is doused with soapy water; then you rub and scrunch and essentially beat it up until it takes the size and shape that you want.

This doesn't mean that you can make, let's say, a yurt or even felt boots right out of the gate. But the people in the workshop today all made some very pretty things—often without any previous felting experience at all—including landscapes, bowls, abstracts, bags, and bangles. We also had a very good teacher, which I think had a lot to do with it.

For today's elephant, I made a little bag. This was the second thing I made today; the first was a sort of flat abstract piece. I also made a rather pretty pair of bangles.

For my bag, I started by cutting a template—which I forgot to photograph. For the template, I used a piece of thin craft foam, but you could also use cardboard. The main thing if you're doing something with an opening is that the template be easy to remove, perhaps through a smallish opening. The template should be about 1/3 bigger than you want the final piece to be, to allow for the matting of the fibres when it's felted.

Next, I laid white wool fibre over the top in about six layers. This is done with relatively thin wisps, and the layers are crosswise to one another. In other words, the first layer is vertical, the second layer is horizontal, and so forth.

This layer is now ready to be partially felted. You do this by laying the whole thing on a piece of sheer curtain fabric, lapping the fabric over the top, and pouring on soapy water. The sheer material helps to keep your fibre in place while it's still relatively fragile and inclined to move about, while also allowing water and soap to seep through.

The soap-to-water ratio should be about two-thirds water to one-third soap. You don't need to completely saturate the fibres, but it should be wet enough to make a certain amount of lather. The edges that hang off the sides of your template should be kept relatively dry at this stage, in order to keep them from felting too soon.

After the first side is done, you turn over the template, and fold over the wispy edges to the other side. You can get a better idea of what the template looked like in the photograph below. You can also see how wispy the layers are, as I'd already started to lay on the fibres for the reverse of my bag when I remembered to take this picture.

I laid on about six layers of fibre again, including an extra amount of fibre at the top for a flap, and felted this in the same way as I had the first side. The idea is to felt it enough that it's not a floppy mess, but not to make the surface so felted that it won't grab onto whatever you lay on next. The photograph below shows what it looked like when I was ready to add colour.

For the next step, I laid on wisps of colour in a sort of abstract elephant shape. I put the head, shoulders and foreleg of the elephant on the front, and wrapped the elephant's body around the side to the back. Once I was happy with the design—knowing, of course, that it was going to change somewhat—I wrapped it in the sheer material and prepared to felt it.

At this point, you want to press gently but firmly in order to help the fibres bond in layers. Once the piece feels relatively flat, you begin smoothing and rubbing it with your hands, while it's still wrapped in the sheer fabric. As the fibres begin to bond, you can become a bit more forceful.

When it feels as though you've got a fairly sturdy and thickening piece of felt, you can peel away the sheer fabric and see how it's doing. If a lot of fibres come away with the sheer fabric, it's not quite ready to be fully felted.

The two photographs below show the front and back when they were still only partially felted, and before I had removed them from the sheer fabric. You can see that there are a lot of loose, wispy ends, and that the shape of the elephant hasn't changed much yet.

Once the fibres mostly stay in place, you can start really scrunching and rolling and kneading and whatever else you want to do to it. The photograph below show just how much scrunching you can do. You can also see about how soapy things should be.

I kept this in the sheer fabric for a bit, but there comes a time when you need to take it out of the fabric and have at it with your soapy hands. Once it's ready to have the sheer fabric removed, you can also remove the template. When you've removed the template, turn the piece inside out to make sure that the inside is also felting properly.

At this point, it becomes a matter of how thick you want the material to become, how small you want the piece to be, and what shape you want it to have. As long as it's wet, it can be pulled and squished and rolled and manipulated. When you're happy with it, rinse away the soap, and you're done.

I got a bit carried away at this point, so I forgot to photograph the process, but you can see the final result.

I love my little bag. The elephant got a bit deformed as a result of my enthusiastic scrunching, but I can still play with it if I like, and reshape him. That's one of the beauties of wet felting: you can always do more to it.

The final photograph shows the bag with the flap closed. It still needs some sort of cord and maybe a loop and button, but for now I'm very happy with it just as it is.

There's obviously a lot more to this process than I've explained here. The best thing is to get some sort of wool roving and just try it for yourself. And if you get a chance to try a workshop with someone like Maggie, definitely go for it.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Earlier this year, tourists in Botswana watched in horror as a group of nearly 20 hyenas circled a baby elephant, pouncing on it as soon as it became separated from its mother.

As six of the hyenas launched themselves onto the calf's back, the baby began shrieking for its mother. This scarcely deterred the hyenas. As the mother was chasing off the original six, the rest of the pack tried to attack the calf.

Photo: ©James Weis/BPNS.co.uk
Source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2121524/Chaaaaarge-Protective-elephant-

Within ten seconds, according to the observers, the mother was back, stampeding towards the remaining hyenas with such force that she uprooted several trees. Kicking out at the hyenas with her feet and swinging her trunk angrily, she scattered the predators in relatively short order.

The calf's tail had been bitten off in the encounter—as is relatively common in the wild—but it appeared otherwise unscathed.

Photo: ©James Weis/BPNS.co.uk
Source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2121524/Chaaaaarge-Protective-elephant-

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