A Pick Up Sticks On-Line Tutorial

Welcome to the mother load of felting information! If you’ve felted before but have some questions, this will help you become even better at the craft. And if you’re new to felting, welcome! We know it can be daunting to plunge your lovingly knit creation into the Great Unknown of the Washing Machine, but that’s where we come in: we’ve done all the experimenting so you don’t have to.

We’ll show you how to avoid the mistakes (yes, it hurts to watch 20 hours of knitting shape up into a misshapen mass of wet wool), and we’ll help you discover the adrenaline rush of felting: Knitting alone can never yield sturdy bags, stiff brimmed hats, and sculptured items – not to mention super-cool embedded colorwork design.

Felting is a creative experiment, and we like to think of ourselves as felting pioneers. Since our inception in 2003, we’ve felted with just about every kind of yarn and experimented with just about every knitting technique to develop our large collection of felted knit patterns and kits. Along the way, we’ve learned the right way to felt – from selecting the correct pattern and yarn to knowing when a piece is ready to be pulled from the washer.

So make yourself at home and pick a link to begin! You can also find all this information and much, much more in Maggie’s first book, Felt It!

Meet the Instructor

My name is Maggie Pace and I am Pick Up Sticks founder and lead designer. Since the company’s inception, I’ve written more than 80 patterns for felted knits and my first book on the subject, Felt It, was released in Dec 2006.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that felting can be kinda scary for knitters. It’s been called the Russian Roulette of the needle-craft world, and I can understand why. I can’t think of any other knitting, crochet or embroidery technique that requires the courage needed to stuff hours of hard work into a washing machine, in the hopes that the project will turn out OK.

Russian Roulette – maybe – but instead, I like to think of felting as Shrinky Dinks for adults. There is nothing more satisfying than watching a knit hat that would be too big on Andre the Giant shrink into a stylish cloche perfect for a six-year old.

Felting IS for the adventurous (that’s why you’re here, right?) but armed with the knowledge in this tutorial, well-written patterns, and the correct tools, I’m confident the adventure will pay big dividends.

What is Felting?

Felting is purposefully washing a knit item to shrink it. You need three components to felt:

  1. Yarn that is exclusively animal fibers. Wool, alpaca and mohair in any combination are the usual choices. The yarn cannot be chemically altered so it is machine-washable and it cannot be bleached.
  2. Hot water: This can be from a washing machine, a sink, or a pot of steeping water on the stove.
  3. Agitation: This can be achieved using the agitator in your washing machine or a wooden spoon in your hand.

Choosing the Right Patterns

If you are just starting felting, I recommend knitting and felting several small items first, so you get the feel for the process. That way, you’ll quickly experience how satisfying felting is. If you spend hours on a felted bag for your first felting project, imagine how intimidating it would be to throw it in the wash! If you ramped up to felting by making a few small brooches first, the technique will be much more approachable. And, you’d have a bunch of super cute flowers to put on your shoes, in your hair, or wherever you want some pizazz.

Choosing the Right Yarn

While most animal fibers will felt, there are some important guidelines about the right yarn to select.

  1. Use the Recommended Yarn – First and foremost is to use the yarn listed in the pattern or something comparable. If the pattern calls for 100% worsted wool, use a 100% worsted wool. Don’t select a 50-50 wool / alpaca blend, even if the blend is worsted. In standard knitting, it’s enough to check your gauge, make the proper adjustments, and feel fairly confident that the finished item will size correctly. This is not true in felting. Felting patterns are written to accommodate how the yarn will felt, and a wool/alpaca blend will felt differently than a 100% wool.
  2. Choose an Untreated Yarn Comprised of Only Animal Fibers – Make sure the yarn you select isn’t blended with a synthetic and that it isn’t treated to be machine washable. If you were to look under a microscope at wool fiber, you’d find a scaly surface that would remind you of an insect leg. This scaly surface enables wool to felt. When the fiber is introduced to heat and moisture, the scales open up. Add agitation to the mix, and the blossomed fibers catch one another and become entangled. A chemical process occurs at this point, permanently binding the fibers together. That’s why you can slice right through felt and it will not fray. If these scales are chemically altered, say through the bleaching process, the wool’s felting properties change and it does not shrink as well.- from Felt It!
  3. Be Careful With Light or White Yarns — Bleaching inhibits the chemical process that takes place when yarn felts, so oftentimes light or white yarns felt at a slower rate than darker colors. Some won’t felt at all. Which lights/whites will felt depends upon the manufacturer. Ask your local yarn store owner who will likely steer you in the right direction. If you don’t have the benefit of a helpful local yarn store, be sure to felt a swatch before you begin.
  4. Stick with One Manufacturer Per Project – If a project requires multiple colors, select yarn from the same company. Yarn from different companies felt at different rates, so if you mix them into one project, part of the piece will felt completely while the other part will only be half-way done. An illustration: When I started research for Felt It!, I bought wool from about 15 different manufacturers and knit each one into a 4 x 4 inch square, then I felted each one for the same amount of time. Each swatch ended up sizing differently and their textures varied greatly. Some were fuzzy, some were flat, and some just sort of matted up. Some felted quickly; others required several trips through the washer.

What’s the Difference Between Alpaca and Wool?

Alpaca yarns become fuzzier than wool when felted. Some alpacas become too fuzzy and they matt. It’s important to swatch an alpaca before using it to make sure it will have a fluffy, cashmere-like feel to it. Alpaca’s are lighter weight than a wool when felted and they don’t have the stiffness of a wool. I sometimes use a wool/alpaca blend when I need the stiffness of a wool and the softness of an alpaca, as in some hats.

Determining Gauge

One thing I love about felting is that the gauge is determined in the washing machine, not on the needles. The benefit of this is that if you use the yarn recommended in the pattern or one that is comparable, you don’t have to take the time to test your gauge before you begin. Felting patterns are knit extra large so there is room to shrink to the correct proportion. If your usual gauge large, you’ll shrink the piece a little longer to get it the right size. If your usual gauge is small, most finished pieces will still be large enough to still have room to shrink down.

You should check your pre-felting gauge when it comes to hats, however. If your tension is tight, knit a hat in the larger size so you have more room to shrink the hat down to the correct size in the washing machine. If you’re making the largest size hat and you have a tight tension, you can go up a needle size to give yourself a little wiggle room. If your tension is loose, don’t make any adjustments.

To Swatch Or Not To Swatch

I recommend swatching before you begin your project when you are using a light color yarn or a white yarn and when you have selected a yarn that was not recommended by the pattern maker. When you swatch, you are simply checking to see if the yarn will felt. I’d make a 4 x 4 square and throw it in the washing machine with a couple pair of jeans. It may be helpful to put it in a mesh bag so you don’t lose it. Run the machine on its hottest, highest agitation cycle. Be sure to stop the machine before it drains the water and spins.

Check the swatch. If the stitch definition has disappeared and it has shrunk by about 1/3, the yarn will work.

Before Felting: Understand How the Fiber Felts

If you’ve never felted before, it will help you to understand a few general rules about how the fiber will react once it’s submerged in the hot, agitated water:

  • Knitted pieces always felt more in length than in width; the patterns account for this and that is why the piece you are about to throw in the washer looks so disproportionate.
  • The piece will felt more quickly if there is more agitation. If you have a piece that you want to babysit because you are afraid it will felt too fast, put it in the wash by itself. If you have a piece that is taking forever to felt (say a small flower) add a couple of pairs of jeans to the wash. Don’t add towels! They can shed and leave lint embedded in the felted fabric.
  • Once the stitches start to disappear the piece will shrink more rapidly. Continuously check it at this point so it doesn’t overshrink.
  • Some whites and light-colored wools will felt only slightly or will never felt.
  • Darker colors felt more quickly than lighter colors.
  • The piece will get bigger before it gets smaller. When knitted wool is wet, it stretches. It will stay stretchy like that for a while before it starts to compress.

Hand Felting

I’ve only hand-felted a couple of items, so I don’t feel versed enough on this subject to offer guidance. I know some people love hand-felting because they watch the fibers transform in front of their eyes and they have total control of the process.

Washing-Machine Felting: A Step-By-Step Guide

My Basic Felting Technique

  1. Prepare the item. Begin by preparing your item for felting. Make sure the ends are securely woven down. If necessary, knot the ends on the back so they don’t come undone during felting, which will cause holes. If you’re working with a seamed piece, make sure the seams are smooth and not puckered before felting.
  2. Set up the washing machine. Set your machine to “hot” on a low-water, high-agitation cycle. Let the basin fill with hot water.
  3. Agitate and check. When the agitator starts moving, add the piece. It will take a few minutes for the piece to show signs of shrinkage. Once it does, check it often, at least every 1 or 2 minutes. Don’t let the piece go through the spin cycle. If the agitation cycle is done and the piece still isn’t felted, manually reset your machine to go through the agitation cycle again without letting it go through the spin cycle.
  4. Remove when done. Pull the piece out when it reaches the desired size and texture. (link How Do I Know When to Pull the Piece Out?)
  5. Rinse and squeeze. Rinse by hand in cool water, and squeeze out excess water by rolling the piece in a terry-cloth towel.
  6. Shape. Follow the shaping directions for your pattern.

–from Felt It!

Helpful Hints to Avoid Trouble in the Washing Machine

  • Keep your washing machine lid open. Many machines automatically stop after the agitation cycle if the lid is open. This will help you to avoid sending your felting through the spin cycle, which could damage it.
  • If something is felting slowly, add jeans to the washer.
  • When felting I-cords check them often so they don’t become tangled.
  • Place brooches in a mesh bag so you don’t lose them under the agitator.
  • There’s no need to add soap or baking soda to the water.

How Do I Know When to Pull the Piece Out?

You’ll know that your piece is done felting when

  • it is the right size, and
  • its stitch definition has disappeared.

This is the general rule, but when you go to pull out your felting, I promise you will be baffled by whether the piece is done. You’ll ask yourself, have the stitches disappeared enough? Is the piece small enough? Is it too small? And so on. Your decision whether to pull the piece out will largely be determined by the type of object you are felting.

Felting Tips for Hats

Hats are the trickiest to felt because they need to fit the wearer.

  • Have the wearer there when the hat is felted. Wring the hat out and try it on as you felt. You’ll have a wet friend, but a happy one because her hat will fit perfectly.
  • If this is not possible, use a bowl that measures the right circumference, according to the sizes indicated in the pattern.
  • Don’t be surprised if the hat feels right and the stitches have disappeared but the brim is still too long. If this is the case, keep on felting.
  • Remember the fabric will shrink more in length than in width, so if it feels like the circumference is getting too tight, but the brim is too long, you will be OK. Continue felting until the brim length is correct. If the hat gets too tight around, stretch it out and dry it stretched and it will fit perfectly.

Felting Tips for Purses and Bags

The trick with purses and bags is to not get impatient and pull them out too soon.

  • Make sure the fabric thickens and the stitches completely disappear before removing the piece. A stiff bag is durable and well shaped and that’s what we’re going for.
  • Wring the fabric out before judging whether it is done. It’s very difficult to tell if a purse is done when it’s wet.
  • If your purse has i-cords, be sure to stand over the open washer and untangle them as they felt. If they get tangled in the washing process, they can shrink disproportionately and the damage is irrecoverable.

Felting Tips for Flowers

You can’t overfelt a flower. The stiffer the flowers, the better they look.

Shaping & Drying

In knitting, a piece isn’t finished until it is blocked. In felting, a piece isn’t finished until it is shaped. Wet felted knits are clay-like and extremely moldable. How the piece is molded at this stage is one of the most important components to felting. Once the piece is out of the washer and it is the correct size and the stitch definition has completely disappeared, it is now time to ensure that is has the proper shape. Stretch the piece and pull it, scrunch it and pinch it until it is in the desired shape. Next, force the wet wool to stay in the desired position until it is completely dry.

Molding – Use anything in your house to act as a mold to keep the piece on until it is dry. I use bowls for hats, and square plastic pitchers for purses and bags. Find anything around your house that has the right shape and stretch the piece over and let it dry.

Finger Pressing – For flower brooches, flowers and i-cords, it is critical to press down the wet finished piece with your fingers and let them dry in that shape.

Pinning – I pin items that need to be square, such as the sushi purse, deco clutch and pillows. Pinning them square on a mattress or ironing board and letting them dry ensures that they will stay square when dry.

Troubleshooting Chart – excerpted from Felt It!

Problem: Woven end comes undone in washing machine, creating a hole
Solution: If you catch the hole before the piece is totally felted, it’s fixable. Just sew up the hole using a yarn needle and matching yarn. Even if the repair job looks ugly, throw it back in the washer. If you’ve caught the hole soon enough, the new stitches should disappear into the fabric.
Problem: Hat is too small due to overfelting
Solution: If the hat isn’t wet, get it wet. Stretch the fabric aggressively. Find a bowl or headform that’s large enough and pull the fabric over it. Don’t worry about how far you stretch the material: Your goal is to break down the fibers enough so that you can reform the hat. Let the hat dry completely before removing
Problem: Bag is disproportionate due to overfelting
Solution: Use the same process you used for an overfelted hat. The trick here is finding the right mold for the purse. I’ve cut and taped cardboard boxes into the right shapes to make a structure over which I can stretch the piece.
Problem: I-cord handle tangled
Solution: Lay the wet I-cord on a flat surface and finger-press it flat. Try to make the entire handle the same width to get rid of the thick-and-thin look. Put it back in the washer and felt it some more, making sure it doesn’t tangle again.
Problem: Piece went through the spin cycle and has become too small and misshapen
Solution: Get it wet. Stretch and pull it until it is the shape you want. Be as aggressive in stretching as possible. Don’t worry about damaging the fabric. If it’s a hat or a purse, stretch it over a mold; if it’s a flat item, pin it on an ironing board or other flat surface so it stays in place. Let it dry completely before moving it and it should hold its shape.
Problem: Too fuzzy
Solution: Shave it or trim it with scissors
Problem: An older piece is looking shop-worn
Solution: Felted items can ball up over time, especially purses you use often. You can either trim or shave the surface or you can give it a bath. Throw it in the washer for a minute or two, and then reshape it using a mold or pinning it down. The item will look like new.

Overall, let your creativity and intuition guide you. And feel free to contact us with any questions or worries (customerservice@pickupsticksonline.com). Enjoy!

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