I'm starting a new thing called Felting Fridays. There are a few blogs about felting here and there, but no one single resource I've really found that gets into the bones of it all that much. There's tons of information out there on wet felting, or how to make specific things. I want this, my blog, my classes, my workshops - I want all of this to be your resource for all things needle felting.
On my Facebook page a few weeks ago, I did get into the history of felt, and I may do that on my blog at some point - but for now let's get down to the basics. Let's start with the needles.
The main tool for needle felting is an industrial felting needle. These are the exact same needles used in commercial machines to make all sorts of felt, including the polyester or "eco felt". One of the more "affordable" commercial felting machines available to purchase by end-consumers (by affordable I mean it's still several thousand dollars, but not tens of thousands) uses 11.5 needles per square inch and comes in 36", 48" and 60" widths. How it works is there are barbs on the working end - the first inch or so of the needle from the tip - which catch the fibers and push them into the material, causing the fibers to interlock. Because of this, needle felting allows one to use other fibers that are not easily used in wet felting applications, which depends on the microscopic scales present on animal hair/fur to lock them in place. In fact, you can dread hair (yes, I'm talking about dreads) essentially by twisting your hair and using a felting needle to lock it in place. So there you go, dreads aren't dirty, matted hair - it's needle felted hair (well, sometimes. It's a bit damaging to hair and a gentler method is using a tiny crochet hook to interlock and tighten them, so dreads are felted or crocheted hair).
Types of Needles
There are four types of needles most commonly used by needle felters, three of which are based off the shape of the cross section of the needle: triangular, star, spiral (or twisted). The spiral and triangular needles are the same when it comes to the cross section, except that the blade on the spiral needle is twisted as opposed to straight. The barbs on both the triangular and spiral needles are located on the three corners going up the shaft, versus the star which has barbs on four corners (and has the cross section of a 4-pointed star).
The reverse barb (the fourth type) is also triangular in cross section, except that the barbs go in reverse. So, instead of punching in wool, you're pulling it out. Why would anyone want to do that, you ask? Is it to undo your work? No. You can't really undo something that's been felted. What it does is when you have a different color core wool from your top, you can pull the color of the core wool out (we'll get more on the topic of what core vs top means in a separate post). The most popular application of reverse barb needles that I've seen is to give the appearance of fur on a needle felted animal. That way, you can make sure that the surface of the animal is felted tightly so it doesn't come apart, then using a reverse barb you pull the fibers out from underneath to give it some fuzz. You can get really creative with how the fur looks based on the color of the fiber you use underneath the "skin."
Which one should you get? In my opinion it's a matter of personal preference. Each needle felter will give you a different answer. I personally find that the spiral ones are the most efficient, but it could also be a figment of my imagination. That is the newest type, and for the first three years that I've been felting, my favorite was the star (more corners = more barbs), though I also enjoyed a double-pointed triangular one to quickly knock out a base shape. In fact, I used both interchangeably for a long time. It's only in the last two months or so that I've used a spiral and fell in love with it - and that's the one I'm offering in my shop.
Needle Gauges and What They Mean
You can find felting needles in the following gauges: 32, 36, 38, 40 and 42, with the needles on either end of the spectrum being the least common. As the number gets higher, the needle is thinner (contrary to what one might think). If you have piercings, you can think of it that way - the typical earring is around 20 gauge, body piercings between 14 and 16 gauge, and those big plugs some people wear go down to 0 or 00, after which they're measured in either inches or centimeters/millimeters.
Since most of us lack the tools to measure the gauge between needles, some felting supply companies provide them color coded, or you can easily do this yourself using different color nail polish as soon as you open the package before they get mixed in (don't forget to write down which color is what). I like to make handles for mine using polymer clay, then mark the gauge and type of needle in the clay before baking. I'm not good about remembering color codes and would rather be able to see it when I need it. It's not a huge deal if you don't color code them, because you can figure out which one works best for you by testing it out - however, if you have a lot of needles, or one breaks on you, it's nice to remember which one was your favorite when it comes time to order some more.
Why all the different gauges? The thicker ones work better for coarse wool, while the thinner ones work better for fine wool. Why do they work this way? I'm not 100% positive on this, but my best guess would be because coarse wool is actually microscopically thicker than fine wool, so a thicker gauge needle would allow for a deeper barb to catch the fiber. That's not to say that a thick gauge would not work on a fine wool, but because it's thick, the holes from poking it in are far more visible. A finer gauge however will not work well on a coarse wool, because the barbs aren't deep enough to really grab it. You can still get the job done, but it'll take a lot more poking to get there.
If you were to choose just one needle, which one would I recommend? The 38 gauge. It's a good in-between, not too thick for fine wool, but not too thin for coarse. Ultimately, if you have a variety of them, even if it's just two or three different ones, you'll quickly get a feel for which one is the most efficient with whichever fiber you're trying to felt.
Needle Felting Handles and Machines
If you take a look again at the picture of the needles at the top of the post, you'll see that the way they come are with a tiny bend at the end. Many needle felters are perfectly fine using the single needles as is, but when you're working on a big project over a long period of time, it can become a bit tiresome. I admit, when I first started, that's how I did it. One single needle to knock out a major project. Once I tried out using double point or even quad point (though I really don't use the quad point often at all, because it's hard to poke that many needles into a fairly tight surface), it helped to knock some time off of how long it took to felt the same thing. Think of it as getting two pokes for the price of one stab - it's much more efficient. That's not to say that I don't use a single needle anymore - on the contrary. If I have felted something down fairly tightly, it's much harder to get those two needles to poke in without using a lot of force. That's when a single needle glides in quite nicely to really finish off a project. It's also very useful for making really tiny details and for better precision (the tiniest wisp of wool, just a few strands, is quite a bit when it's balled up).
I like to make polymer handles for mine, and that is my favorite way of felting. However, quite a few felters like to use handles or holders for their needles. The benefit of those is that if a needle breaks, it can easily be replaced with another - so if you're prone to breaking needles, that's probably a better bet and cheaper to replace. Of the two that I have tried, I like using this one on occasion (affiliate link), but I find myself going back to my handmade ones most of the time. This one by TheFeltedEweOnEtsy is adorable and likely easier to hold for anyone who is slightly arthritic or for kids who are learning how to felt, and I'm definitely planning on buying one myself. I've also seen both metal and wooden options - there's plenty to choose from!
There are other tools one might use, such as the AddiQuick Pro (affiliate link). It's like the machine gun of felting. It supposedly makes quick work out of felting, but it's still a relatively new tool and, based on the reviews, I think I might wait until there is a slightly less faulty version before trying. Some felters have used it successfully and enjoy it, so I don't think it's all that bad. I'm just not one of those early-adopter consumers. Some companies rush to push out a product before making sure all the kinks are worked out and wait for the consumers to complain before making adjustments (remember the Apple iPhone antenna issue?). I don't have a ton of money to throw around, so if I'm going to spend it on something, it had better work and last quite some time. (PS. Addi, if you're reading this and would like me to review one, I'd gladly give it a test drive.) In any case, this tool would work for both 2D and 3D work.
For 2D felting, there are also a number of options - basically things that look like sewing machines but are actually felting machines. There are two popular brands, the Janome FM725 (affiliate link) and the Simplicity Deluxe (affiliate link). I'm still trying to figure out what the price difference is between the two, though there are more complaints about the needles breaking on the Simplicity, the replacement needles are hard to find and there is a question of quality or longevity. I have not used either machine, though I'd imagine it would do quick work of needle felting a decent background or layout to which you can add details. If I had the Simplicity, I would consider removing some of those needles. You don't need to use all of them (I hope), and that way there would be a few spares while looking for replacements. The quality of the needles does come into question. Felting needles are definitely a case of paying for quality, as I have used some cheaper quality needles that are far more brittle than the ones I use now. If you have an extra sewing machine collecting dust, you can also get an adapter to convert that into a sewing machine. The only issue with that is once you convert, you can't change it back into a sewing machine - so definitely don't do this on one you're using on a regular basis.
Some Commonly Asked Questions
Do felting needles need to be replaced? Do they dull? Short answer is yes, but they last quite a bit longer than sewing machine needles (which should probably be replaced between every few projects or after one major one). There is no easy way to tell, however if you find it's taking a bit longer to felt than it did when you first got it, try a brand new needle and see if it works better. If it does, it's probably time to toss the dull one (or set it aside just in case you break your last good needle and can't wait a few days to have some new ones shipped). I find that, for me, they last at least half a year if not longer.
What are felting needles made from? From what I can tell (and after a bit of searching), they are steel. And magnetic (so you could use those ornamental magnetic needle holders often used by cross stitching and embroidery enthusiasts). They are not, however, rust proof. If you enjoy needle felting "en plein air" - do not leave them out to the elements (which I have accidentally done). In fact, even if it's humid where you live, they are likely to rust sooner than they will dull. To prevent that, you could make a felting needle "pin cushion" filled with rice, or even just a nice jar or container filled with rice.
There are so many different kinds, and I'm just starting out. I really don't want to invest all this money in just felting needles. Do I really need one of each type? Yes and no. If you're just starting out and not sure if it's something you'll enjoy doing on a regular basis, my personal recommendation would be to get some 38 gauge spiral needles. That's my go to for the majority of my projects, and a great multi-purpose needle. However, if you DO enjoy needle felting (which I think you will) and want to continue improving your skills and your craft, I do recommend buying a sampler. At least get a 40 gauge if you're planning on using any fine wool like Merino, and the different types (except maybe a reverse barb unless you're planning on doing animals). I have been needle felting for 3 years going on 4, and I haven't found myself wishing I had a reverse barb needle as of yet.
I keep breaking my needles! What am I doing wrong? (And if it breaks off inside a sculpture, do I need to dig it out?) When needle felting, make sure you're poking in and out at the same angle. It takes some practice to make sure you're not bending the needle while stabbing. Another tip on technique - you do not need to stab the needle in deep. Take a look at your needle to see where the barbs are. Stabbing any deeper than that is a waste of energy. Most of the time, you don't even need to stab the needle even that far, as long as a few barbs go in you're good. As far as digging it out - if the object is going to be handled at all, absolutely dig it out. The last thing you want is anyone, especially a child, finding it and digging it out for you. However, if it broke off quite deep inside the sculpture, and that's all it is - a sculpture to be looked at and not handled - you can probably get away with not ripping it apart. In my opinion, it's better to be safe than sorry.
Are there any questions you may have that I've left unanswered? If so, please leave a comment and I'll answer it to the best of my ability!