Beginner's Guide to 3D Needle Felting
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If you’re wondering why I held off with writing an actual guide to needle felting itself until now (nearly two and a half years since I wrote my first felting guide), it’s because there are so many of them out there, I thought it would be too repetitive and wasn’t sure if there was anything I could add or improve. At the same time, I realized that a section on felting guides isn’t really complete without a beginner’s how-to guide, and this way you don’t have to jump around looking for guides that I missed. In fact, if you think a certain needle felting guide would be helpful to you, and I don’t have it here, leave a comment below. I’ll write one.
To start, you really only need four things:
Fiber to felt, typically wool (and more specifically, a coarser wool) - you can just use core wool to start when learning, and then when you’re ready to add color, buy the colors you need.
Bamboo skewers - OK, you don’t really need it. Personally I’ve even used the end of a thin paintbrush when I was in the middle of a project and didn’t feel like running to the kitchen to find a bamboo skewer. Also, for the longest time I’d never used one. However, it will help you immensely when making tiny things, long skinny things, and definitely for cone-shaped things. You only need one, and I’ll get into how to use it later in the post, but I always end up using mine for my other non-felting-art-projects so I just pick up a pack when I’m getting low.
Other things you may want to consider picking up as well, though you don’t need them starting out.
A set of dog brushes, preferably the largest you can find when you walk in the store (you don’t need to go out of your way looking for the largest dog brushes ever, just don’t get the tiny kitty ones). These are used to blend fiber to either create shades or to better blend a transition, and later on they can be used to clean your foam by very gently scraping over the top of it with just the bottom part of the teeth (you don’t need to invest in the clover claw thing). Anything rough like a claw or brush will scrape part of the foam surface off, and you’ll end up with tiny foam bits, so just be aware of that. If done gently, it shouldn’t compromise your mat any more than felting does. Should you pursue this hobby even further, investing in hand carders, a blending board or even drum carder, they can be used to clean those too.
Lint rollers. They come in very handy with cleaning your felting mat after you either rub most of the fiber off with your hand and/or gently scrape it with the dog brush, as well as yourself because you will be a walking lint factory if that sort of thing bothers you. At this point I’m used to walking around with random fuzz hanging off of me at any given moment. If you use the dog brush to clean your mat, the lint roller will also help pick up any foam bits you weren’t able to shake off so they don’t end up in your work.
Armature. This is a matter of personal preference, and for the first several years I didn’t use armature. In fact, if you like the Wool Buddies sculptures, he doesn’t use armature at all. However, if you plan to try to follow Sara Renzulli’s animal felting guides, you will need armature because she uses them in 90% of the things she makes. You can buy them from her shop, but they’re also available on Amazon. For example, here’s 22 gauge floral stem wire that’s covered with floral tape, 22 gauge floral stem wire that’s covered in cloth (12 pack so 240 stems), 1/16th armature wire, and for large projects, 1/8th inch armature wire. I wouldn’t get anything smaller than 22 gauge because it’s way too flimsy - something I learned when picking up a spool of cloth floral wire at a craft store. When working with armature, I also like having a bottle of rubber cement on hand - why? Because I brush the rubber cement over the wire and let it dry, which makes the wire tacky to make wrapping it with wool really easy. Rubber cement is acid free and should not damage your wool, but even so, only a very small amount of wool even touches it, just enough to cover the surface of the wire.
There are of course other things you may pick up over the course of your felting, like Aleene’s tacky glue or glass eyes or polymer clay, etc. but that is entirely dependent on your projects and definitely not necessary to start. In fact, you may never need them at all.
A few Frequently-Asked-Questions before we move to the core of the post.
Can I needle felt fine fibers? Technically, yes, but it’ll take you ten times as long to do so. I once came across a needle felter who only felts with merino, but I think the reason was because she raised them. Personally, I think it’s far too expensive to use in that manner anyway, so I’ve never tried, and tend to reserve it either for the frosting on my sculpture, or for wool painting.
Do I have to use the coarsest wool out there? No, of course not. You just want to have something that’s more the consistency of fiber fill and less like silk.
I keep seeing Corriedale mentioned, is that the only wool available for needle felting? nope, though it’s definitely one of the more common ones you’ll find, usually in the multi-color packs on Ebay or Amazon. Core wool for example is often a blend of various breeds’ wool. Living Felt sells MC-1 felting batts, which are a blend of merino with other fibers that make it suitable for felting. Peace Fleece (some of which you find in my kits) is a blend of 75% unnamed wool and 25% mohair. Sarafina’s felting batts are also different blends, depending on the color, but include merino and alpaca in some of the blends. Merino and alpaca alone are not good for needle felting except for things like the top color, but when blended with medium-coarse fibers, they work incredibly well and are very pleasant to work with. For my own felting needs, I really enjoy needle felting with clun forest, which I proocess myself, because it gives a nice, smooth finish that doesn’t require shaving, but I have also dyed core wool to use as a top color!
Does it matter if it’s roving or batting? I’ve needle felted with both, and have had no issue either way, as long as the wool is a good candidate for needle felting. In fact, before I found a good source for core wool, I’d purchased a pound of romney in roving form which I used as my core. I made this 3D hand entirely out of romney roving. I think the preference tends to lean towards batting, especially since it’s easier to blend in edges rather than having hard lines. If it’s only used as core, it will be covered up anyway. I also personally love using roving for wool painting, because of the defined “lines” that almost give it the same effect as brush strokes. When creating a 3D felted piece, something that’s more like batting is often better to use if you don’t want any “lines” showing which way the wool was placed on the object before being stabbed in, though you can fluff it up between your fingers a bit first.
What is this “core” you keep mentioning? In order to avoid the “mistake” I made when I felted my first project, which honestly just ended up being more expensive and needlessly going through a lot of dyed wool, we use the cheapest fluff for a sculpture’s innards. All shops sell core wool both cheaper and in larger quantities than the dyed stuff. When working in 3D, the first part you felt, the structure of your piece, will be done using core, and then to add color, we go over the top with dyed wool. This helps you save your dyed wool for only the parts that actually need it. The only time it doesn’t make sense to do a separate core is when the part you are felting is so small, it’s not worth the extra effort of covering it, so just use the color of choice all the way through.
Does it have to be wool? If you mean can you needle felt fibers from other animals, you absolutely can. The only issue I can think of is that most other animal fibers I’ve come across tend to lean on the finer side. Camel down, yak, alpaca, mohair, angora, they’re all quite fine compared to most wool, and might be better suited as the frosting. If you mean can you needle felt fibers that don’t come from animals at all, absolutely - the problem here is that anything but your core is a bit difficult to come by. I’m in the process of working on a blog post which shows how and which non-protein fibers are best suited for this, and I’ll put a link here when it’s done.
How do I know I am using the right needle? I get into this more in my needle guide, but you will know it when you try it. The general rule is, use a 36-38 gauge for the coarsest fibers, 38 gauge for medium (best all-purpose), and 40 or even 42 gauge for fine fibers. However, you may find that you use them all to some degree throughout a project - a 38 gauge will felt faster than 40, but it leaves bigger holes. And even if your piece wasn’t finished with fine fibers, a 40 should still help you smooth things out. Don’t worry, you don’t have to go looking up micron counts and paring that up with needle sizes. For the purpose of this guide, I’ll be using a 38 gauge spiral.
Should I buy a multi-color pack of wool like the ones on Amazon? That is totally up to you. If you plan to do more wool painting than 3D work, I think they can definitely come in handy, but unless you are making something really tiny, you really don’t get much fiber in those at all. And even with wool painting, unless you block out your areas first, you’ll run out of whatever color you use for your background depending on the size of the piece. The multi-packs are generally cheap though, so if you want to try it, go for it. Another thing is, wool is not all made the same. If your first and only experience with wool was using Dimensions, you would be shocked at how dry and rough and unpleasant it is once you try handling some wool from a fiber shop dedicated to working with wool. There is no way of knowing where the wool from mass-produced packs like that comes from or how it’s processed. If you are willing to limit your color palette a bit, I wrote a blog post on basic needle felting starter kits I would personally recommend.
i’ve got everything i need - now what?
Time to get into your basic shapes! For the purpose of this guide, we’ll only be using what you might have on hand, though there are certainly tools out there (ones you can try to replicate yourself if you’re handy). At the end you’ll find the full video with all the tips, but I wanted to emphasize a few things here first.
The key to making good 3D shapes is learning how to roll your wool.
Sure, you can make anything by just grabbing a handful of fluff and stabbing at it, but it will take you ten times as long to get anywhere with that. Not to mention you’ll likely get frustrated sooner by the lumpy mess not looking the way it’s supposed to. If you need to, you can start with a smaller rolled object, stab it a bit, roll on a bit more, stab at it more, etc. Kind of like making a snowman, minus the stabbing.
Did you know you can make flat shapes on your foam with your needle? Also did you know how long it took me to figure that out? Answer: embarrassingly long… It happened while watching this video of Stephanie Metz’s amazing work. You don’t have to be like me - you have now officially been informed that you can make your own flat shapes that you need for your project, or even large flat pieces of felt!
It’s ridiculously simple too. Just take a thinnish, flat bit of wool, put it down on the foam, and stab at it. Fold over the edges to get a nice, smooth edge. The key here is that you need to peel it up from time to time so it doesn’t get stuck to the foam (yes, I’ve seen it happen). You can also make specific shapes by either using a cookie cutter or cutting your own template out of paper - I show you how to do this in the video.
tiny & pointed shapes
Here is where the bamboo skewer comes in handy. Sometimes you might find that you need to make tiny shapes, like a little ball. And sometimes you’ll find that you need to make a cone. I see bamboo skewers used all the time for making gnome heads. You don’t have to use a bamboo skewer - I’ve used any stick-shaped item to do this. Back when I ordered one of my first sets of felting needles, it came with a (clean) lollipop stick for this very purpose. If you wanted to make something extra tiny, I’m sure even a toothpick would suffice.
Play around with it a bit, and see what shapes you can make with the help of your skewer. This also goes back to the point I made about 3D shapes - the tighter/better your roll, the less stabbing you’ll have to do.
putting on the finishing touches
Adding color to your project is like putting the frosting on the cupcake, and it’s really easy to do. Once you are happy with your felted shape, lay the wool on top and stab it in. I do need to point out that when you add color, since you are still stabbing into the piece, your core will compress a bit more. If you felted your core very loosely, it will compress quite a bit. One way to make sure that your piece stays relatively squishy when adding color is to stab at an angle, about 45 degrees or less, to the core surface. This way you’re only stabbing the top layer of the piece and not all the way through. Remember to not change the angle when you’re in the middle of stabbing, because you can bend or even break your needle this way.
The other issue you may run into is if you felted your core too densely, then it will be very difficult to punch that needle in. I have done this. You can still add color, just make sure you switch to a finer needle and go slow. Most of the needles I’ve broken or bent in my felting career have been for this reason. The trick is to find that sweet spot between not too loose and not too dense for your core before you’re ready to add color.
One final note: if you are planning on adding small pieces to your object, first of all make those small pieces out of the color they need to be. No need to put yourself through all that suffering trying to add color to a teensy object. ALSO make sure you add the color to the main object before you add the tiny piece. Again, trying to felt the color around a tiny object can be a real pain. To use the cupcake analogy again, you don’t add the sprinkles and royal icing decorative bits before you put on the frosting. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule (like if you are building up a piece with smaller pieces, and those pieces are to be blended in/not noticeable as individual bits, you may want to lay the color over the whole thing).
And now for the pièce de résistance - the full beginner’s 3D needle felting video tutorial, with lots of extra tips and tricks! Hopefully I’ve answered all your questions, but if there are any that I missed, please leave a comment either below or in the video comments and I’ll be sure to answer and update this post’s FAQ!