We’re taking an in-depth look at the incredible technique of needle felting, with guidance from the stunning 'Painting with Wool' book by amazing embroiderer Dani Ives…
Why needle felting?
It’s a beautiful technique that, once mastered, is actually surprisingly simple. You’re merely poking fibres until they stick together! On closer inspection, the barbed needle you are using to poke the wool grabs the wool fibres, tangling them with the base fabric and surrounding fibres. On a microscopic level, each wool fibre is textured, so creating friction between the fibres with the barbed needle links them together.
While this is quite scientific, Dani expresses how she feels that learning how to ‘see’ your subject, your art, is a key element in transferring your medium. She says: “The learning curve for creating art isn’t always in the materials, it’s in the development of how you see your subject.”
Learning how to needle felt
There are several different steps that you can take when learning how to needle felt, that simplify processes like blending colours, adding highlights and laying down shadow for dimension and shape - it’s a truly enjoyable and fun technique! It’s also quite forgiving, as often you can lift up a fibre that isn’t placed quite how you want it to be, or perhaps isn’t quite the right colour, then make changes and rework the piece as you see fit.
What supplies do I need for needle felting?
To work on any needle felted project, there are a few basic but very necessary supplies.
- Felting needles
- A felting work surface for your table or lap
- A base fabric to work the design onto
- • … and, of course, wool!
These have one way barbs to grab the wool fibres and take them into the fabric below. Once taken into the base fabric, the fibres stay there, even when you lift the needle back out. Like other embroidery needles, these come in a variety of sizes, all of which have particular materials and methods that suit best. You can get these needles in different shapes too, such as triangle needles with three sides (therefore three barbs), a star needle with four and so on. A spiral needle has a twist to the blade, giving it added strength.
Dani recommends a size 38 star needle for most needle felting projects.
Note: If you’re a dedicated crafter, you may have a multi-needle tool in your stash. These can be extremely useful for needle felting across large areas.
“The learning curve for creating art isn’t always in the materials, it’s in the development of how you see your subject.”
Unlike many other embroidery techniques, needle felting requires a particular surface to work on. A dense foam pad (sometimes called needle felting foam) is often the best surface. This foam should be stiff but not hard and crumbly. This type of surface allows you to create many details and work a few layers of wool in one spot before it starts to degrade. These pads are reusable once they have started to soften, on projects that don’t need much detailed felting.
Dani’s go-to choice of base fabric is 1mm thick pure wool felt and linen. Other fabrics that can be highly successful when needle felting include cotton (and blends), velvet and even burlap. Dani’s advice is: “Don’t judge a fabric by its look! Experiment and see what works and what you like best.” Fabrics that are better to stay away from, however, are those with lots of elasticity, to avoid buckling and puckering. Also prepare your fabric before starting, getting any wrinkles out as best you can.
Finally, the most essential part of the process! Dani uses sheep wool in this project, but there are many different animals and indeed some plant fibres that are possible to needle felt with. For beginners, the easiest preparation of wool comes in the form of carded batts. These consist of shorter fibres that have been carded into a thick sheet called batting, allowing you to use small
chunks of wool at a time, blend colours easily and create cleaner details.
Roving can be a tricky fibre and it is generally best to avoid it, as it is made of longer fibres that are combed in one direction, making it harder to break off small pieces and resulting in a piece of felting that is unkempt and lumpy.