How Needle Felting Began - Felting Fridays

Before we start delving into tutorials, I wanted to get into the history of needle felting. I did a series of posts on this topic on my Facebook page a while back, but I didn't think the Felting Fridays series would be complete without it. Did you know we've reached the 16th anniversary of needle felting as a craft industry? 

Now, before we get into needle felting, let's discuss felting a bit. When people hear "felting" they typically think of wet felting, either through the usual bubble-wrap-rolling idea or knitting something out of wool and throwing it in a washing machine with hot water. Felt itself is an ancient textile, showing up around 5000-4000 BC, about one to two thousand years after the domestication of wooly sheep (other sheep were domesticated prior to that, however they were primarily used for meat, leather, and milk). In fact, sheep were among the first animals to be domesticated, and the sheep we know of today depend on humans for survival. In comparison, weaving is quite a bit older, from the paleolithic era (27,000 years ago), as people learned to weave grasses and other similar materials, but the first woven wool materials came after felting. Knitting, on the other hand, is believed to be only around 4 centuries old. Felt was used - and is still used by Mesopotamian tribes mostly unaffected by modern civilization - to make just about everything, from the material covering yurts, rugs (with tribes each having their own designs), clothing, shoes, sacks/bags, etc. Interestingly enough, however, this was something that was brought over by the European settlers, as the domestication of sheep was something that started in Mesopotamia and spread outward. There were no domesticated North American sheep. If you would like to find out more about the history of feltmaking in North America, I highly recommend reading this short overview written by Patricia Spark. Moving forward a few centuries to the industrial revolution, the first felting machine was invented by J.R. Williams in 1825, which involved pressing a huge pile of batting between two rollers. The first needle punching machine was developed in the 1860's by Bi-Water Company of Leeds, but didn't become popular until the 1950's when companies were starting to recycle fiber waste.

Needle felting as an art/craft form was largely pioneered by wife and husband team Elanor and David Stanwood when they started processing wool from small sheep farms. In fact, the use of wool was slowly starting to fade into history with the growth of the cotton and synthetic fiber industries, and these farmers had no idea what to do with their wool. They first started out processing the wool into batts used for quilts and comforters, but they also experimented with the tools on the side. Elanor used the needle punching machine to create needle felted scarves, while David explored using the individual needles that the machines use to create "geodes" - three dimensional multicolored felt balls which he cut open and turned into jewelry - among other sculptural items. He taught several friends this new technique, including a fiber artist named Ayala Talpai who then went on to write the book The Felting Needle - From Factory to Fantasy, published November of 2000. 

As the world slowly started learning about this new technique, there were a few fiber artists who pioneered this new movement, incorporating it into their art and passing along their knowledge to other would-be artists and artisans. Many of these artists had prior experience working with wet felting, and needle felting opened up a whole new world of possibilities with their art. I'll list a few of these here in case you're interested in learning more about them.

A Few Pioneers of Needle Felting:

  • Elanor and David Stanwood - the first of the first!
  • Ayala Talpai - taught by David Stanwood, went on to write the first book on needle felting
  • Birgitte Krag Hansen - one of the first artists to incorporate needle felting no long after the book came out, works out of Denmark but travels the world teaching needle felting to others
  • Kay Petal - known for her needle felted dolls of famous people, taught by Birgitte Krag Hansen at a workshop in 2007. Has since made art dolls commissioned by celebrities and also teaches workshops
  • Marie Spaulding - owner of LivingFelt, also teaches workshops and has tutorials on youtube for both wet and needle felting
  • Sara Renzulli - owner of SarafinaFiberArt, known for needle felted posable animal sculptures, huge resource of free tutorials on youtube as well as workshops

I know there are many more artists out there who include feltmaking in their art, but I wanted to share the ones who are also sharing the love of needle felting with the world (and have resources online available for you). If you're looking for resources on wet felting, there are quite a few more out there (though I highly recommend checking out LivingFelt's youtube channel). If there are any that I missed, let me know and I'll add them to the list.