A Guide to Blending Boards - Felting Fridays
Have you ever tried or own/owned a blending board?
It's my favorite new tool, and I really don't know how I managed the past almost-four years of my needle felting history without one. When I look back, I realize how little I knew about really exploring all the possibilities, especially with color. If I couldn't get the color I needed, I made do with whatever I could find. You know, some colors you can get only in corriedale, some in merino, some in these mixed batts. The more I made, the more I wanted to use batts or roving that wasn't uniform in color. I love the colorful specks in some of Peace Fleece's wools. The heathered look of Living Felt's merino cross felting batts, or even better, their incredible lustrous merino silk blends (which I used almost entirely for the background of my snow owl wool painting).
The problem though is that even with all these available options, 1. they're expensive, and 2. they're still limited by what the seller creates. Yes, you could spend all day on Etsy and the fiber destash boards on Facebook looking at the things other people made and are selling, but sometimes you really just have to make your own colors for your own purposes.
For me, first came dyeing wool. I LOVE dyeing wool, and when I do it, it's an all-day event. I love it even more when, despite my best efforts to achieve a uniform color, I still get variations throughout the wool. These "mistakes" are some of my favorite colors! But what I was really missing was the ability to blend various fibers together to create those amazing blends.
Of course, for the longest time I used a pair of dog brushes to hand blend small amounts of wool at a time. This is really great for trying to get a smoother blend of colors, especially if you're trying to get some shading done. So, in that sense, my wool brushes aren't going away any time soon. This is more for when you want to get that art batt or landscape batt look.
So let's talk about the blending board itself.
This is the Howard Brush blending board kit (mine is the standard option). You do not receive the board with it; however at $75 apiece, this is a much cheaper option than buying one with the board for $150-200. I've read several accounts where some found an old wood cutting board at a thrift store and stapled the cloth down to that. However, I had my husband make this one for me in a style similar to one I liked on Etsy. The stand on the back is adustable in five different positions along the length of the board, and currently I have it set sideways. Instead of stapling the cloth down, I used industrial-strength velcro over the entire back of the cloth. The benefit is that I can also orient the cloth in the direction I want it to go. The kit comes with two dowels, a flicker brush (the dark teal one, for opening up the ends of the wool, useful if you're using locks) and a blending brush (the red one) and a chip brush for what I assume is to clean the board (not pictured). If there is any small debris on the wool, it will sometimes fall down onto the cloth and get left behind. What I found is using an air can for cleaning your keyboard - the one with the straw - can be just as effective if not more. As you can see, the flicker has angled "teeth", and a lower TPI or "teeth per inch," while the blending brush has straight teeth and a lot of them.
When using the flicker, which is usually done while holding the wool against your thigh and essentially flicking at it with the brush, make sure you're wearing some old pair of thick jeans you don't care about. It is SHARP. Not sharp as in needle point, but it'll definitely scratch up your skin and do an excellent job at making your jeans look like those ripped ones that never seem to go out of style. Seriously, why pay hundreds for name brand ripped up jeans when you can achieve the same effect at home on a cheaper pair?
The teeth on the carding cloth are also angled. This is what I mean by being able to pull this up and reorient it in the direction I want it to go. Whichever way you want your board, you'll want the teeth angled away from you.
When laying down your wool, you'll want to start at the top. Hold the one end of the wool with one hand, and gently pull the fiber down to cover the board. Normally you start from one end and move to the other, I just did that in the middle for a better picture.
In between each layer, you'll want to go over it with the blending brush. That will also help with smoothing out the mess a bit, but it's not like a carder.
Don't mind my messy work, I was using something more like a batt and it doesn't go down smoothly. As a felter I'm not worried about it being perfectly straight for the purpose of spinning.
A word of caution here: as you're laying down your wool, don't be tempted to glide you hand along the blending board, because it will slice up your fingers. It's not painful. I didn't even notice that happened until the fiber started snagging on my finger tips (which is kindof a weird feeling).
Here's where the blending board is really useful for felting and not like a drum carder or hand carder or anything like that. If you've ever wet felted, you know how you have to lay one layer down one way, then the next criss cross, and so-on? Well, you can do the same thing on a blending board! Also, you're not limited to the size. If you're doing a large (or long) piece, you can make these tiles, open up the edges and overlap them as you lay them down for wet felting. This will allow you to achieve a really thin felt! Same as above, between each layer you'll want to go over it with the blending brush. The only thing is that you don't follow the grain of the fiber, you follow the teeth of the blending cloth. Move the brush from top to bottom regardless of the direction your fiber's going.
When it comes to removing it from the board, there are several options. If you're creating criss-crossed layers for felt, just peel up the sheet. Or, if you want, you can roll it off using the dowels into what is called a rolag. Most people do rolags using both dowels, one to wrap the first bit of wool around and then using the second to hold the wool in place (pinched in between), rolling them going from bottom to the top - in the direction of the teeth. I do it a bit differently because I don't want a tight rolag for felting. I want to be able to pull off sections of wool as needed. So I just wrap it around one dowel, get it going then push it up to the top, stopping every now and then to grab any left over pieces. One video I watched on drum carders suggested using a porcupine quill to help pick it off the carding cloth because they are long yet flexible (so of course I ordered some). However, until I receive my quills, I'm using these needle-nose tweezers to gently pick the fiber up. Whatever you use, you want to make sure that you're careful and don't scratch up or otherwise damage your blending cloth. They're expensive to replace.
Another great feature is a way to use up those leftovers of wool from your projects. Collect them in a basket or a jar, and once you have enough, pick a few coordinating and/or contrasting colors and blend them all together into a fun art batt. As much as I was enjoying the making of my "blob" - basically this ball of multicolored wool from tiny bits of leftovers which I use to hold some of my needles - this is a much better option because you get to give that wool a second life. Since I don't roll my rolags tight enough to stay in tube form, I just loosely knot them into a wool pretzel. To be perfectly honest, this one looks similar to my Nepalese yak wool sweater I wear around the house.
You can also turn that blend into roving. In fact, it's primarily used by spinners who are creating beautiful art yarns. For this, you need something called a diz. Here's an excellent video (courtesy of Blue Mountain Handcrafts) on how to both use and then diz off the batt into roving. The seller who made this diz is TheClaySheep on Etsy.
Hope you enjoyed my little guide to blending boards! If you love what I wrote, please pin or share this with others, and don't forget to come back next week for a tutorial on how to make needle felted winter trees.