In this Felting Friday post we'll be "all about that base, 'bout that base" - as in your felting base! Which, for most of you is going to be some form of foam. To start, if you look at the shops it doesn't seem like there are too many options, but needle-felters have become quite inventive. For one, depending on how hard you are on your felting base, you might end up going through it so quickly that spending $7 and up on something that you just need to support your work can become a bit pricey. Or maybe having just something under your work is all you need, and you couldn't care less as long as your project doesn't get stuck to it. When it comes to felting bases, you can find them not only in different sizes, but also different shapes - so depending on what you need, you might keep several options at home (I have at least three of these that I use on a regular basis). A little disclaimer: these are my personal opinions on these felting bases, and does not mean that any one is any better or worse than the other - this article's purpose is to first and foremost inform felters all the various options available to them.
#1, most common: high-density charcoal foam
I have found very little consistency on what is considered charcoal foam. Different suppliers each carry their own chosen type, and even the color can differ. One of the foam blocks I have is a really dark charcoal, almost black, and feels a bit harder than another charcoal foam I have, which is also a lighter shade. If you think about it, there are a number of foam manufacturers out there, and needle felting is a new thing. Really new. There aren't any manufacturers who specifically make needle felting foam, so suppliers test out various manufacturers, find which one they like the best, and that's the one that ends up in the shop. Either way, it is more than likely a polyethylene foam, which is a petroleum based product. It's also a closed-cell foam, which is what gives foam its density. It has stood the test of time, being one of the most popular felting bases in the needle felting community and more-than-likely the only base most suppliers sell. I have seen the charcoal foam come in shapes other than your standard rectangle, including a hat form.
Pros: tried and tested, easily sourced from felting supply shops, comes in a variety of sizes
Cons: it will wear down over time or with heavy use and need to be replaced, as with any foam-type product
#2, the newcomer: soy foam
Soy based foam is a newcomer in the felting world, and a great answer to the question regarding the availability of eco-friendly foams. Unlike the polyethylene foams, soy foam is plant-based as opposed to a petroleum-based product. It is also far more affordable than the other eco-friendly natural latex foam (and likely why you won't find latex foam used as a needle felting supply item).
My opinion: This is my current favorite felting base, the reason being that my projects don't stick to it nearly as much as with the charcoal foams. Felting a flat 2D object from roving/batting is really quick work, especially using a double-pointed needle, the needles seem to bounce off rather than pierce the foam. Durability-wise, it does start to soften a little under heavy needling. I did a bit of a light pierce test - wanting to see how a brand new soy compared to a brand new charcoal. The soy presses down before the needle goes in, whereas the charcoal the needle pierced the surface with very minimal pressure. Almost as if it had a skin, though not visible (as if painted on). I think it's one step up from the "traditional" charcoal blocks.
EDIT: Not ALL soy foam is created equal. For example, soy memory foam mattresses are only about 10% plant-based matter, and the rest is petroleum in addition to other chemicals used to create the foam. The latter is something I expected, as you need binding agents in addition to other chemicals to make foam. I DID confirm with my supplier (a small company run by two people) that the foam I am using, and will have in my shop and use in my classes - that one does NOT contain any petroleum. It is not 100% soy, due to the other chemicals used, and I am expecting an email from the owner sometime next week listing what the other chemicals are in the foam. I also did confirm that it does not contain any fire retardants. Please read my note at the bottom of the post regarding fire retardants in foam.
Pros: eco-friendly, slightly more durable than charcoal, has a bit of a skin allowing the needle to bounce off when using a light hand, comes in a variety of sizes
Cons: it will wear down over time or with heavy use and need to be replaced, as with any foam-type product
#3, most affordable: household sponge
If you've destroyed your only charcoal block that you purchased with a starter kit and are desperate to get back to felting without having to wait 3+ days for your new one to be delivered, you can always use a common household sponge. I would recommend using one that is at least 1" thick if not more, just to be sure you don't destroy your needles on your work surface, or poke holes in your thighs if you enjoy felting on your lap. In fact, you could probably even use one of those giant car-washing sponges. I have never used one myself so I cannot comment on durability; however I know several needle felters who swear by them, especially when they find them at their local dollar store. I would add that I wouldn't recommend them for 2D projects, especially large ones, due to the small surface area; otherwise it's great for small projects or if you need to use it in a tight spot (remember my hello kitty TOMS tutorial?).
Pros: as easy to find as cleaning supplies, can be cheap if you shop at a dollar store, small size makes it great for a travel kit
Cons: small size can be a disadvantage, will wear down with time as with any foam base
#4, borrowed from home improvement: project board
Also known as rigid insulation, this is another solution that, although I have one about the house somewhere, I have yet to try. If I knew where it was, I'd give it a few stabs. The one we have is green, around 1" thick (possibly 1.5") and comes in a 2ft x 2ft size, though the picture I found online is pink. We actually used it as a flat surface for the kids to build with their wood blocks, since a high-pile carpet makes building structures a bit difficult. Anyhoo, that should give you an idea of the density of this material. I can tell you I imagine it gives a rather satisfying crunch while felting (though possibly a bit squeaky?) - so if the sound of needle felting is something you enjoy as much as the crafting, this might be the perfect solution for you. Maybe sneak a felting needle into your local home improvement store and give the different panels a few pokes while nobody's looking (at your own risk, I will not be held liable if you're caught - LOL). I know there are needle felters out there who use this, so if you're one of those felters and are reading this, feel free to chime in the comments about your experience with a project panel as a felting base!
Pros: crunchy, can be found in home-improvement stores, fun colors, cheap, can be cut down to size
Cons: loudly crunchy, a bit on the thin side at 1"
#5, most durable: the brush
The brush is likely one of the most durable of all felting surfaces, and here's why. The reason why foam goes soft and tears off little pieces with heavy use is because foam is essentially a material made up of millions of bubbles stuck together. In fact the difference between a closed-cell foam and open-cell is that the open-cell already has a good bit of the bubbles popped, making it soft and airy, and a closed-cell foam (what we use as a felting base) the bubbles are not popped, making the foam dense. So you can imagine that repeated needling is making your previously closed-cell foam into an open one, and along with that, you're ripping it up a bit with the needle. So pieces of the foam eventually start to come off when you pull up your project. With the brush, there are no bubbles. You're relying on stiff bristles, with the weight of the project being evenly distributed along the surface, to hold your project up off of the solid base, and your needle doesn't destroy anything in the process. It pokes into thin air. This also means no little bits of foam stuck to your project. Unfortunately, the largest brush I've found is the size of a large index card, so you are definitely limited by the size of it. I am still waiting for someone to figure it out and design a giant brush, but if that doesn't happen, I guess I'll have to do some research and learn how to make one out of wood the old-fashioned way. We don't need someone in China to make it, right? (nothing against China, but I don't consider shipping containers of giant brushes to be too environmentally friendly when we have the capability of manufacturing this here, and then there's supporting the local economy, etc. OK back to felting.) If you want to get really fancy and care about the design and look of the items in your home, including your tools, you can opt for a flat men's beard brush made from boar bristles.
Pros: extremely durable, portable
Cons: the price for the size of it - though being a durable base you get what you pay for, and especially the size
#6, actually this is the cheapest: packing material
Save your packing foam! Because yes, this polystyrene stuff will work in a pinch. And some of the foam you get with your items will actually be polyethylene - the same exact stuff as the high density charcoal mentioned in #1. That's all it is. High-density packing foam. The only problem I have with this white stuff over the charcoal stuff is it breaks down rather quickly. It's the same think you'll find in big-box-store kits and the kits ordered from Asian countries. Keep this in mind as you're doing your holiday shopping - instead of cursing the horrible waste with all the excess packing material, why not recycle it and give it a second life as the felting base for your next project? After all, I'm sure you're putting all sorts of needle felting goodies on your wish list, right?
Pros: you get it free when you buy something completely different, or if you're the dumpster-diving sort
Cons: some, like polystyrene, is the least durable for felting, so you'll go through it faster
#7, diy it (or not): rice-filled sack
If you're super handy (get it? the picture of my hand with the diy foam? I crack myself up...) you can make your own felting base! I found this burlap material (same thing Sarafina uses for her refillable ones in her shop I believe) in the discount scrap bin of the local fabric store, doubled up on it so it's two layers of burlap, and sewed it into a pillow. Before sewing it closed, I filled it with rice - which is cheap, you can get what, 5lb bags for the same or even less? Obviously don't need to use your fancy basmati here... speaking of which, back when I shopped at Sam's and BJ's, they sold basmati in burlap sacks. So you don't even need to BUY the material... and I am pretty sure one of them came in a nice small size with a zipper enclosure! I will have to double check, but if so, I'm definitely going to use that, especially since it comes with carrying handles. I find it great for working on 3D projects since it can be positioned to cradle items that are curved. Plus if you're cold AND you like felting on your lap while watching TV, you can warm it up in the microwave a bit to add a bit of warmth to your lap and hands while you work. However, in my opinion it's not great for 2D work - for that I prefer a stable, flat surface. I saw a video years ago of how to needle felt a hollow object (which are typically wet felted) by filling an old sock with rice and using that as your base for the hollow object or a small bowl. It's also far more durable than foam, unless of course you have a rodent problem in your home or one of the seams on your sack rips, which then you could just resew it.
Pros: easy to DIY, durable, can be manipulated to some extent
Cons: not great for 2D, too malleable for some individuals
WORD OF CAUTION: DO NOT use upholstery foam impregnated with fire-retardants. These chemicals have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems and lower IQ in children. As you stab the foam with your needle, you are releasing these chemicals into the air, into your lungs, onto your project, etc. If you're not sure, play it safe and pick something else.
Quick (bonus) tip!! To help prolong the life of your foam and for easier clean-up, you can cover your foam with a cheap sheet of eco-felt, stabbing it in a bit to keep it from shifting. This is great for 3D felting, however with 2D felting, make sure you lift and move your project around on the surface to keep it from felting into the eco-felt. It will not protect your foam from excessive stabbing in one spot. (Thank you, Stacy of Stacy's Woolies, for sharing that tip!)
Shameless self promotion: I will be providing the soy foam in my shop in limited quantity. If there is a high enough demand for it, I'll be sure to have more in stock. In the meantime, if you'd like to try soy foam for yourself, shoot me a message and I'll get back to you on what I have available and when I'll have more coming in.
If you believe I've left anything out, feel free to share in the comments below, and I'll edit the post to add it in!