Wool Painting Guide - Felting Fridays

I was going to put another tutorial up today, however due to the holiday craze, putting one together wasn't going to happen. Then I realized I haven't made a guide to wool painting, also known as 2D needle felting. I get asked all sorts of questions about it all the time, so I thought I'd do a little FAQ here that you can refer to when you need it rather than going back and searching through old Facebook posts. 

What is wool painting?

It is exactly what it sounds like: painting with wool. The difference of course is that you're using a barbed needle instead of a paint brush, and colorful tufts of wool instead of paint. Although at first you may feel like you're limited to the colors that are available for purchase, you can actually blend wool with a set of hand carders or even pet brushes. You can also achieve really awesome textural effects with the use of a blending board (if you don't know what that is, check out my guide to blending boards). You won't exactly get purple when you blend red and blue, though from a distance you may get a similar effect to that of pointillism or when artists use other colors to build up a painting that aren't normally seen in life. Blending will also help you add shading and soften the gradient, much like an ombre effect, between two separate colors. And, who knows, maybe one day you'll want to dip your toes into dyeing your own wool, at which point your color options are endless.

What material do you use?

Personally, I like to use wool felt, or wool blend felt. I also like using prefelt for a thicker wool painting (especially if I am not going to frame it). The Snowy Owl and the Ewe and Lamb pieces were both done on prefelt. It's easy to make your own if you have the wool to do it, you just don't go all the way through the whole fulling/shrinking process. It's just felted enough that it doesn't fall apart. If you're not comfortable with wet felting or just not feeling up to it, I've also purchased prefelt from Living Felt. You can purchase it there by the quarter, the half and a full yard. I bought a yard once and that was enough for both the two wool paintings I mentioned above and a set of coasters, and I still have a good chunk of it left over for at least one or two decent-sized felts.

Felting on prefelt

For felt itself, I go to Joann's Fabrics. I'm sure other fabric stores carry it, or you can purchase it online. There's a Joann's about 5 minutes from my house, and I can always find a good coupon (50% off usually) when I need to restock. The 100% wool felt will cost you $20/yard without a coupon, and that only comes in off-white, or the natural creamy wool color. The wool blends, some of which are 25%, others 35% wool, those cost $13/yard retail and come in a variety of colors. The 100% wool felt is a bit thicker than the blends, though not as thick as prefelt. I'll also add that the width is shorter than a standard bolt and comes in a yard wide. 

However, you are not limited by those choices! And, it doesn't even have to be wool. Other materials I've used include a linen table runner, the stiff eco felt to make needle felted cards, on sweaters, on chambray shoes, even on my canvas backpack that I carry around with me (it's a work in progress). I will point out one thing though... when you're needle felting onto prefelt and even onto the 100% felt, your picture is going to felt into the material to a degree. When you're felting on any other material, or even on thin wool, you're essentially poking the wool through to the other side. Only the surface is getting felted, but it's not permanently attached. This is great for having the ability to pull the wool out if you make a mistake; however, it doesn't make it something that would handle a lot of wear or care. I have come up with a way to make it stay put if it's something that would be handled a lot or washed, which I'll get to in a minute. The only materials I would tend to avoid are any "fuzzy" ones, such as fleece, minky, even velvet or velour (flannel is okay). The wool is not likely to stick to that very well.

Felting on a linen table runner (and some of my blended wool)

A few things to consider: if you are attempting to felt onto a stretchy material, I recommend stretching the material on an embroidery hoop or frame first. I know of one artist who will baste prefelt behind the material so the wool has something to catch onto, but it also allows her to use a cotton material for the background material for her wool paintings. If you're going to have part of the background visible, it's good to have options as far as colors and texture go. 

Also, if you're going to felt onto a thick material, such as denim or canvas or chambray, you will want to use a single needle and go slow! Especially if you're using cheaper needles. Cheaper needles are brittle and will break with the slightest bit of stress; however, even higher quality needles can bend and then break on thick material if you're not careful. Make sure you pay close attention to the angle you stab your needle into the material so you're always stabbing perpendicular to the fabric.

Felting on chambray Toms

To frame or not to frame

I think this depends on how you choose to use your finished piece, and the material you choose for your canvas. Prefelt, especially the one Living Felt offers, has a nice thickness to it that remains fairly thick and sturdy after the piece is complete. This is great if you want to go all the way to the edge, and when I work with this material I will actually wrap the top wool over the edges and felt it into the sides and back so that there is no visible prefelt edge. If you're using any other material especially if it's thin, you will want to either stretch it onto a hoop (if you had to stretch it prior to felting, just leave it in place and trim), or you can take a picture frame and staple it to the back. If stapling, I would recommend removing the glass from the front. You always have the option of taking it to a professional who can discuss how to mount it, if you want to use a mat, if you want to have it in a shadowbox, etc.

I hung this one on a branch I found in my yard that I sanded down, much like a woven tapestry.

Don't limit yourself to just thinking of wall art when making wool paintings! This is where needle felting can really blur the lines between art and craft. Anything that is a fabric material can be embellished. Just think, pea coats adorned with gorgeous, detailed art. Plain old scarves upcycled with flowers or geometric patterns or whatever makes it personal to you. Blankets with a beautiful motif in the center, or throw pillows covered in landscapes. And if you're a parent or a grandparent, you can use needle felting to decorate your children's clothes and backpacks and even their shoes with their favorite characters and interests. Even drapes and upholstery wouldn't necessarily be out of the question. Explore all of the various fabric things you have in your home and think about how you could spruce it up.

make it permanent

As I previously mentioned, unless you're needle felting onto prefelt, your art can be pulled out of the material. While I doubt you'll have someone sitting there picking at your throw pillows, any amount of friction, or even throwing it in the wash, over time your art will come undone unless you take the extra step to make sure it stays put. This is not necessary for wall art since it's not going to be handled on a regular basis.

First of all, you will want to make sure that it is really felted down and quite a bit of wool has been poked through to the other side. It should look quite fuzzy. Don't go too light on the wool on the surface, but also don't go too thick and loose. Those soft, wispy wool paintings, while beautiful, are not going to be able to take a beating. Also, if you don't have enough wool poking through, you won't have enough on the other side to lock it down.

My beloved octopus sweater. It's been washed a few times at this point.

For this step you'll want to get some water, as hot as you can stand it, and soap. Lots of people use dishwashing soap. Personally I like olive oil soap. Typically something with a neutral pH is recommended, however you can always rinse it out with vinegar when you're done if you find that the soap you're using has a high pH. If you're doing this on a sweater, use plastic sheeting or even a soft foam sheet (often used as a resist for wet felting) on the inside after turning your material inside out to make sure that the front of your art - if there are any loose fibers left - doesn't felt to the other side. You'll want to wet the entire back of your art, apply soap liberally and rub rub rub rub rub. If you're feeling too much friction, add more soap. You're essentially wet felting the other side of your art which will then sandwich the material in between, locking it in place. I did this on my octopus sweater, which has now seen the inside of the washing machine a few times and has remained intact. Rinse it out and allow it to air dry.

One word of caution: certain wool dyes may run. This is especially important to note if you're using a light color background, it's absolutely possible to stain the background during this process. The only way to know if this is of concern is if you test and wet felt the wool colors you're planning on using in your functional art. Of course, if you're felting it onto something dark, like a dark colored sweater, the dye running shouldn't be an issue.

Either way, you should also remember to never ever ever wash your felt in hot water after this wet felting process. Dye does not bond as strongly to wool as it does to other fibers, so even if the colors did not run during the wet felting process, your art could still fade with time if you wash it in hot water. Not to mention, hot water will cause the wool to felt more, and the last thing you want to do after needle felting onto a beautiful sweater is to accidentally shrink it and make it unwearable. I recommend using the delicates cycle on your washing machine, and always use a mesh bag to protect it from damage.

And that's pretty much it. There's really nothing to it, and some might even find wool painting easier than sculptural felting. It's my favorite way to introduce newcomers to the art of needle felting, especially young children who are a bit more accident prone and more likely to poke themselves if they have to hold an object with their hands as opposed to just putting the wool down, moving their hand out of the way and felting it down. Happy Felting!