Reclaiming Fiber from Yarn
I need to preface this post by mentioning that I am not a vegan needle felter, and I have no intention of becoming one, so my ability to answer any questions will be limited in scope. For example: I only used the yarns that I had on hand that I knew were not animal fibers or blends, and I lost the wrappers so I couldn’t tell you which ones are which, so it will be difficult for me to tell you which specific yarns are best for needle felting. This is a guide, and the rest is up to you to figure out what works best for you and what doesn’t. There is a real noticeable difference between needle felting with wool versus man-made fibers, especially when it comes to 3D work, but it is absolutely doable.
I will be throwing some light, dappled shade in my post. It’s not meant to be taken personally, and trust me, I have spent plenty of time speaking out against PETA on Facebook, because they’re a collective piece of sh*t. If you have done the things I criticize, realize I don’t actually remember any specific names, nor am I naming names, and I’m not going back to look for names and point fingers - just be aware that some of us kinda look at these posts sideways.
Oh, and one more thing. If you appreciate the work I do here on my website and on my social media channels, there are several ways you can support my work! You can buy me a coffee, or buy something from my Etsy shop (while most of my products are not vegan, the digital downloads are!). So with all that said, read on!
The story behind this blog post is a long one, probably one of the longest ones “in the works” that I’ve had to date. In fact, the original draft that birthed this one is still in my drafts, and it’s probably going to remain a draft as I pick things out of it to build into full-length blog posts. Eventually I’ll either link these all into a single vegan-felting post, or group them under a single tag, so it will be easy for you to pick out which posts are relevant to you. I need to split them up because there are so many options out there, and I’d need to buy all the fibers to test for needle felting myself before I can write about them. If I waited until I got my hands on each one, it would be a while. So, for now, I’m going to write about the stuff I do have and then add posts in the future as I try out new things (I have collected quite a few things already, just not everything that I want to try yet).
I started out writing a blog post about vegan needle felting a few months ago. The idea was to create the one-single-ultimate-resource-for-vegan-needle-felters-ever-of-all-time that I could just link to every time the question popped up in the needle felting groups. Not because of any sort of ego thing on my part, but because of things like this:
Person comes in asking if there are any alternatives to wool for needle felting. 90% of the time, they’re vegan, the other 10 % are allergic to wool (yes, it’s a thing)
Why are you vegan?
Why aren’t you comfortable working with wool?
OMG you don’t kill sheep to get the wool, it’s just a hair cut!
Sheep NEED TO BE SHEARED (they become weighed down, get fly swipe, etc)
I’m a farmer and I love my sheep
Acrylic doesn’t decompose. We make too much trash. Microfibers are polluting the oceans.
My buyers like to buy wool stuff - don’t make things from other materials and sell it off as wool.
It’s not felting if it’s not wool.
These would all be valid arguments if the OP came in saying “I’m vegan, change my mind.” Ok, all but the second to last one (the last one is just pure nonsense) - nobody’s asking about selling anything, and if the person asking decides to open up a shop down the road, I don’t think someone who is vegan is going to pretend that their stuff is made from wool. They would sell vegan needle felted stuff. I can understand the possible underlying fear here - vegan stuff will likely technically be cheaper and undercut the prices of the wool felt stuff because good quality wool is expensive. I really don’t think that it matters any more than it matters in other cases - people still buy handmade wool sweaters and socks even though you can buy acrylic in the store. But why are even you worried about what someone else is selling in their shop? You’re not concerned about the other wool felt competition, are you? In any case, none of these responses answer the question. The person was just asking for an alternative.
There are a number of reasons why someone may choose to be vegan, and animal cruelty is only one reason. If you’ve met one vegan, you’ve met only one vegan - they don’t speak for the group. It does not matter one bit whether non-vegans agree with the reasons; their reasons are theirs, and the choice is theirs to make.
As I mentioned earlier, sometimes the reason they’re asking has nothing to do with a vegan lifestyle, but rather it’s because the person discovered that they, or someone in their family, or someone they’re making a gift for is allergic to wool. Then suddenly the tone changes and people try to be more helpful. (rolling my eyes here)
Most of all, I honestly think it’s rather hypocritical of us to act purist when it comes to needle felting, when I haven’t seen this in the crochet & knitting groups. Maybe it does happen, but people aren’t afraid to show off an acrylic-yarn afghan. I think it’s hypocritical to go on about microfibers polluting the oceans, because unless you only own natural fibers and refuse to use microfiber cleaning cloths (which, I mean, kudos, I would love to completely get away from petroleum-based-non-biodegradable fibers), you’re part of the problem, even if you do needle felt with wool. I think its hypocritical to get mad at anyone who tries to convert you, but then do the same to others who don’t agree with you (and that goes for most things, be it the craft groups, lifestyle, religion, politics, etc), especially if unsolicited. Answer questions if asked, provide evidence/state your case if there is an open debate, but let people come to their own conclusions.
Rant over, on to the (vegan) meat of the post. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.
So, what if I told you that vegan needle felting is not only accessible, it’s possibly even more accessible than needle felting with wool? Unless you’re lucky enough to live in an area which has fiber shops that carry good quality needle felting supplies and tools, chances are that your only physical access to craft materials are the big box craft supply stores (Michael’s, A.C. Moore, Hobby Lobby, Joann, occasionally Walmart/Kmart for limited things). Most of us have to buy our wool online.
The thing is, you can needle felt with yarn. If it’s not a protein fiber, you can’t wet felt it, because it won’t stick. Needle felting works differently though, by physically forcing the fibers to get tangled up with each other, and that’s what will work in your favor.
For 3D needle felting, instead of core wool, you will want to buy some poly-fil. A box like this will last you a really long time, but you can also just go buy a bag of the stuff in the craft store. For 2D fiber painting, you’ll want to pick up some felt fabric, or try other materials out like cotton or linen. Experiment and see what works for you. Pretty easy so far!
A note on needle felting with fiber fill, or poly fill, or whatever it’s called. If you are used to needle felting with wool, it is going to feel very very different, and I think it will require a different approach than needle felting with wool. First of all, it felts up very quickly, and it becomes really hard really fast. If you plan to cover it with a top color, I think you need to make sure it doesn’t end up too dense, or you’ll end up feeling like you’re trying to stab a rock. It’s also lumpier and a bit more difficult to tweak. It’s definitely feltable, and I think it will make an excellent substitute to core - just realize that new/different materials take some getting used to.
The next thing you’ll need is some spun yarn that’s made from acrylic, nylon, rayon, etc. I’m not sure how well cotton yarn would work - the only stuff I have is more thread-like and not fluffy. The novelty yarns won’t work (chenille, loopy, ladder, feather, etc). Get the stuff that looks like what your grandmother used to knit sweaters. You’ll also need a pair of pet brushes (I use dog brushes because they’re larger) and a pair of scissors. Worsted or woolen doesn’t matter, though I think the woolen is easier to work with and faster to un-spin and re-fluff. Also, whatever that yarn is that I have in the middle of the photo, you don’t want that. The color is gorgeous, but it’s really hairy, and kinda annoying to needle felt with. The point is, you definitely need to experiment with different yarns - don’t just go buy one of every color before you try them out.
UPDATE: I happened to come across this bundle of acrylic yarn little bonbons in different colors - I personally haven’t tried them for this purpose, but they look like they would work perfectly, and you would have a nice assortment of colors.
You’ll want to cut the yarn into 3-4 inch lengths. It doesn’t need to be exact, but I wouldn’t go too much shorter or longer than that. Shorter will make it harder for you to work with it, and longer would really make it harder for you to work with it.
Take a bundle of yarn in one hand, your dog brush in the other, and lay it facing up on your lap (or table or whatever). Pull the ends of the bundle of yarn over the brush. Using some form of thick material on your lap, you could also flick it open the way spinners flick open locks. Turn the bundle around, holding the fluffy stuff, and do the same, until what you’re holding no longer resembles individual yarns, but more like a bit of wool batting that you see in all the needle felting videos.
If you have some that’s still a bit twisted in the middle, you can lay the whole thing on the dog brush, grab the other brush, and card it.
Once you have this, you can do pretty much every needle felting thing out there that’s made with wool. The fibers used in yarn are very fine, and therefore not suitable for felting all the way through, but you can use them the way you would use merino.
You could probably even run it through a blending board or drum carder and make your own art batts. Note: if the reason you are reading this post is because of a wool allergy, I highly recommend using brand new carding tools. Wool alcohols (lanolin) will remain on the teeth of carders and transfer to your batt, so you could still trigger your allergies even if it looks clean and you didn’t use wool. If you are a seller of art batts and want to include vegan batts in your shop, make sure you mention in your post if it was carded on the same carders as wool - because cross contamination can definitely be a problem for allergy sufferers.
Here are the three colors I refluffed tested on the poly-fil core ball I needle felted early in the post. They all do a decent job, though you can definitely see the hairiness here that I was talking about with that aqua one.
And here is an example of 2D needle felting (fiber painting) using the three refluffed yarns tested on a piece of craft felt. This is some applique square that came in a dimensions kit, though I’m almost certain this is craft felt and not wool felt. The texture is more like craft felt. The only guaranteed craft felt that I had was this primary green color, and that wouldn’t have looked pretty, but the results should be the same. You can also try working on other materials and don’t just have to stick to felt. I found that the 2D needle felting, unlike the 3D one, was very similar to wool painting - in fact, if I didn’t know that these aren’t wool, I wouldn’t have noticed a difference. It’s easy to control and stab into the material.
If you love using wool, I think you should still give this a try anyway, just for fun. You might find that this opens some doors for you. You could even use wool yarns if you want, when you’re short on wool and want a specific color! This method works on any spun yarn. There are some really pretty yarns out there, and you might find that the color you were needing for a project isn’t available in any of the fiber shops, but happens to be in a yarn - so use the yarn! Not only that, but instead of worrying about any customers who might be offended by your use of non-wool fibers, why not offer both? Things made from wool and things made from vegan fibers, so you could include other potential customers who love your work and would love to have it made in their preferred material? Just a thought.
Anyway, I hope you liked this guide, and feel a bit more hopeful about being able to join in on the stabby fun. And if you’re vegan, or allergic, or whatever your reasons are, you’re definitely more than welcome here in my fiber space and pick out whatever is relevant to your learning needs.