Monday, January 6, 2020

Needle felting 101

Greetings from Amsterdam! I was hoping update this blog daily while traveling, but clearly, that was not a realistic goal. Fortunately, I have this really guest post from Tomás Varela to tide me over until I get back to Germany. Thank you, Tomás!

An Introduction to Needle Felting

by Tomás Varela

When I tell people I do needle felting, the most common response is a blank stare. When I follow it up by saying something about wool and needles, they decide it is either knitting or crochet, and it becomes next to impossible to explain that it is nothing of the sort!
A needle felted Shire by Tomás Varela
Needle felting as an art form is quite recent, which probably explains why it is not as well known as the other staples of fibre art. Even though industrial felt has been made in factories since the 1950's, its equipment was only discovered to be usable for 3D felting in the 1980's.  The spread of the internet and social media helped it further, and it gained a greater number of followers and popularity from the early 2000's. The tools used are still quite basic, the needles still having the little curved end that would slot into big industrial machines. There hasn’t been much of a need for modernization, other than a change in gauge (thickness) and shape in the needles, and some fancy multi-needle holders that can both be extremely useful and a nightmare to work with.
But how is it done? How does one go from a handful of soft, shapeless wool, into a firm sculpture? Well, long story short - you stab the heck out of it. The most commonly used type of wool is called batts - unlike the long, spun fibre normally used for knitting or crochet, batts are made out of short fibres, where the wool has only been washed and teased out, forming sheets instead of yarn. Felting needles have little notches cut into them, which catch the fibres and tangle them together as they go. This firms up the wool, and the more you lay on top, and the more you stab, the firmer it will become. Once you understand this part of the process, it is easy to start using it almost like a clay, using your needles to fuse shapes together or to create relief. Most of the sculpture is built up out of any cheap wool that will felt quickly, and the top coat (the paintwork, if you will)  and finer details are built up on top out of finer fibre, usually Merino.
I started felting in March 2019, and am entirely self taught - I decided to try it after seeing the lovely needle felted horses by Rachel Felts and Puddle Duck Fibre Art. I borrowed a kit and some wool from my mother in law, read a brief guide online to make sure I was vaguely going in the right direction, and went at it. Needless to say, my first creation was… Less than stellar. 
This only pushed me to try harder. It helps that wool is an incredibly forgiving medium, and quite cheap as well, if you know where to look. I was lucky enough to get most of my core wool for free, from a friend who keeps sheep and offered me a few fleeces after they were sheared, and when it comes to dyed or natural wool used for top coats, a little will go a long way.
Tomás favourite wool for core. This is from a Ryeland sheep
Being able to create my own model horses from scratch has been incredibly fun, and it is easy enough to learn this medium that I find myself visibly improving from model to model. 
Fleur & Mochi. Fleur was Tomás' fifth piece, Mochi was his fifteenth.
Obviously, they will never be competitive against expensive resins or even OF Breyers, but that was never my goal. 
Mochi under saddle
And my favourite part is their poseability - as I create them with a full wire armature, and wool retains some softness, my horses can be moved into just about any position, making them far more versatile - and real - than a static model.
Oliver, a portrait commission living in Scotland
This has been a very basic overview of needle felting. Tomorrow, I'll show you some of the steps of making a horse!

3 comments:

  1. I love Needle Felting! It is very easy to learn and master.

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  2. I have 1 needle felted pony in my collection. She's a portrait of a Miniature Pony mare. I was watching a live YouTube stream of her, waiting for her to foal. She went almost 2 weeks over her due date. The portrait I have of her is absolutely adorable. If anyone wants to see photos of her she's on my website in the Original Finish Other gallery.

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