January 22, 2015
One of our expressed goals here at Windward is to be able to find sustainable ways to house and clothe a village of 20 people off of 100 acres of marginal land. To accomplish this, we need to be able to construct large pieces of cloth. One way to do this is through processing wool.
Wool has many benefits. While it is thick and warm, it is also relatively cheap and easy to produce on marginal land. Sheep are great foragers and can feed themselves off of the land for most of the year. Wool is also water-proof. Sheep's wool has an oil called lanolin coating it which helps sheep to stay dry and thus us to stay dry while wearing wool.
Me using a drop spindle to spin yarn
There are two main methods used to craft large scale wool cloth. The first is to spin the wool into yarn, weave it, and, depending on the thickness you desire, felt the woven cloth, essentially creating full cloth. The second method skips the spinning and weaving to proceed immediately to felting. While the fullcloth method creates a more flexible final product, simply felting is, in my opinion, at least 10x faster.
Wool is made up of little scaled fibers. The process of felting opens up these scales, allowing them to hook to each other. When agitation is applied, the fibers entangle to make felt.
For the past few weeks I have been experimenting with large-scale felting projects. I plan to use these first felts for winterizing our living spaces. I started with small tests and proceeded to larger and more complex projects. Here I will lay out the entire process I have been using - from washing the wool to a completed felt cloth.
Washing and Drying Raw Wool
A note on when washing is necessary:
Felting is an ancient art. Traditional felting is still practiced in Mongolia. There they use their felt for clothing and covering their yurts. Depending on the usage, the Mongolians may or may not wash the wool first. Since wool comes off of a sheep often clumped together with vegetable matter and feces entangled, it is best to wash it before using it for clothing, bedding, or anywhere else where bugs may be a problem. However, if you choose to use your felted cloth for shelter there is little need for it to be washed.
BUT if you wash your wool too thoroughly the lanolin will be withdrawn and you will have a more difficult time felting as well as a less water-proof product.
At Windward we begin with raw wool (wool untouched since it was sheered from the sheep). The method I have used is outlined thoroughly in Opalyn's article. Andrew has also experimented with less energy intensive methods less energy intensive methods. Make sure not to felt the wool in the process of washing. Since felting requires agitation as well as hot soapy water, if you don't handle the wool much you should be fine.
Left: raw wool Right: cleaned wool using Opalyn's method
Felting and Carding
Once I have my clean dry wool it is time to pick and card in order to get more vegetable matter out of the wool and untangle it so that all of the fibers are going the same direction. Picking is not necessary but does make the carding process easier.
In order to card wool, the fibers need to not be clumped together. A picker is a device that quickly separates the locks and fluffs up the wool while allowing large vegetable matter to drop away. If you choose to not use a picker, you can do this with your hands.
Picker (left) and hand drum carder (right)
Next up is the carding, a process that combs the fibers into separate strands going the same direction. There are two different tools used for carding:
1. Hand carders card wool in small batches. They are portable, cheap(ish), and great for making rollags for spinning.
2. Drum carders are used to make "bats" of wool. They come in many different sizes as well as electric and nonelectric. Drum carders are expensive but much less labor intensive. After attempting to hand card enough wool for a 2'x1' piece of felt I decided it was necessary to use the drum carder. Ours is hand cranked and not in tip-top shape but it definitely does the job.
Windward is currently working on a drum carder powered by a stationary bicycle.
Me on the cyclo-carder
Picked wool (left) and a blended drum carded wool bat (right)
After the wool is carded it is time to gather materials...
- cotton sheet
- hot water
- dish soap
- 1"-3" diameter smooth cylindrical object, at least 4" longer than the width of your pattern, the heavier the better (ie. pvc pipe, metal pipe)
- twine, thick string, or rubber bands (no yarn though - that'll just felt!)
- white vinegar
- *something textured and rollable (ie. unframed window screen, tulle, bubble wrap, bamboo curtain)
- *stiff textured material (ie. window screen, rubber door mat, boot tray, washboard)
* while these materials are not necessary they do make the felting process go faster
Next is creating the pattern by deciding how big I want my final sheet of felt to be and how thick. Since felting condenses the fibers the final product will be about 1/3 smaller than what is laid out.
I then cut the cotton sheet so that if I center the pattern on it there is at least 5" of sheet surrounding the perimeter of the pattern. I cut another piece of sheet the same size. If you have a flexible textured material on hand, cut it to the same size.
Carded wool laid out on a sheet and ready to be felted
A note on thickness: the thickness of the final product will depend on how many layers of wool are put down and the thickness of the bats. I found it best to first experiment on a small scale. I recommend having at least three layers of bats.
Wool sprinkled with water
I layout the first layer of my pattern centered on the sheet so that all of the fibers are going the same direction. I take care to make sure there are no spaces between the bats.
Then I layout the second layer of wool so that the fibers are going perpendicular to the first layer (rotated 90 degrees)
The third layer should be laid out so that the fibers are going the same way as the first and so on.
I make sure that the layers are even and there are no obvious holes.
Then I sprinkle the top with hot water to weigh down the floofiness of the wool a bit.
After that I place the other cut sheet centered on top of the pattern and sprinkle a little more water on it.
Instead of cutting the sheet twice, I cut it once so that I could fold it over the wool
I place the pipe at one end of the sheet/wool sandwich and roll the sandwich around the pipe as uniformly and tightly as possible. (If you have a textured, rollable material place it on the top sheet and roll it up with the rest of the bundle)
Rolling the wool and sheet sandwich around a heavy metal rod
Next I secure the now sausage like object in the center and on either side with the twine/rubber bands/string.
The felt roll/sausage
For this process I like to have a pot of water constantly heating on the stove and a squeezable container of dish soap on hand.
Since the felting process uses a lot of water, I want to select an area to felt that can get wet. Use a waterproof surface that is at least waist height and, if you have it, place the stiff textured material on top. I used our industrial grade sink for this part.
I place the felt roll on the surface and pour hot water over it. Then I squeeze a line of dish soap in front of the felt roll and begin to roll vigorously back and forth.
Pouring hot water and soap on the felt roll before beginning to felt it
I make sure to place pressure evenly across the felt roll - I move my hands back and forth and side to side to accomplish this. It is important to roll both back and forth or the felt will turn out lopsided. When the felt roll no longer feels warm I add more hot water. If soap suds are not thoroughly covering the roll I add more soap. I typically re-apply soap and hot water every five minutes.
Rolling the felt
Felt roll after a rolling session
I continue this process for twenty minutes.
The felt after two 20 minute rolling sessions
Now I unroll the felt roll and have a look. It should be considerably thicker and unable to be separated into the original layers of bats. If the felt is significantly lopsided I adjust its position on the sheet or alter my rolling technique during the next session. I then roll the felt up around the pipe again, this time with the side that was furthest away from the pipe now closest.
I then apply hot water and soap and repeat the rolling process. I continue checking and rotating the felt every twenty minutes until I have the desired thickness. I find that this takes at least three twenty minute sessions without a resistant surface. If you can press your finger against the back of the felt and not see your finger through the front or have the fibers budge you're done!
Rinse and Dry
I unroll the felt and separate it from the rest of the roll.
Separating the finished felt from the sheets
Then I fill up a tub with cold water and white vinegar (ratio of 1 gallon water to 1 tbsp vinegar) and rinse the felt in it. This neutralizes the soap in the felt so that it does not eat away at the fiber over time.
Felt in a water and vinegar bath
Finally, I hang it out to dry! Outside if it's warm and inside over the fire if it's cold.
The finished felt piece compared to the original sheet
I have been experimenting with adding designs to my felted projects. I started with stripes and have progressed to a line drawing of a goat. To see more visit my article on Felted Projects.
Large piece of striped felt
And of course, thank you to the animals that made this project possible!
Our lovely sheep, Luna