March is UpCraft! month! UpCraft is our version of upcycling, or, making something new out of something old. One of my favorite materials to craft with: wool sweaters. It’s very rewarding to create something new and wonderful out of an old sweater, and one of the best way to do this is to turn the sweater into felt. It’s easy to relate to the felt making process because most of us witnessed the sadness of a shrunken wool sweater that accidentally found its way into the wash. Essentially, this project is controlled sweater shrinking.
Felt is technically a non-woven fiber that will not unravel when cut. Because yarn is spun, and then the sweater is knitted, this is not traditional feltmaking. Instead the process of transforming something knit into felt is called fulling. It’s a very popular method, and many people will knit projects and then full them. But, if you are like me, and way too lazy, or busy, to knit something, it’s simple and fun to create useful, warm, cozy felt by upcycling an easily available object that has long since lost its usefulness.
Liquid dish soap
Washboard, or bubble wrap
Stopwatch or timer
Notebook and pen
*Notes on why this works: Wool is a natural fiber with some amazing properties. It turns into matted felt not only because it is curly and kinky and you are tangling it up. The fiber itself is coated with the keratin protein, which forms a scaly surface. These scales are in a way, “opened up” by the hot water. The soap acts as a surficant, helping the fibers and their scales to more easily rub together. Then their scales grab onto each other during the agitation process and lock into felt.
Step 1: I went to the thrift store and searched for wool. 100% wool is the best choice, but there are other considerations when shopping for sweaters to felt. Each type of yarn, wool, and knit pattern will respond to the felting process differently. For the thickest felt, look for loosely spun yarn that has been loosely knit. For thin felt, select yarns that are tightly spun and tightly knit. Record each sweater’s texture and fiber content in your notebook for the future.
Step 2: The conventional wisdom states that top loading washers are the best choice. I don’t have a front loader, so I can’t tell you personally, but from what I gather, front loading washers just don’t agitate the clothes with the same amount of force as the old school top loaders. And agitation is a crucial part of what makes the wool fibers bond together.
Set the machine to Large Load, HOT, and High Agitation. Add 2 tablespoons of liquid dish soap to the water, and then throw in the sweaters.
Step 3: Turn the machine on and let it fill with water. As soon as the machine is full and the machine begins churning, start your stopwatch.
Step 4: After 2 minutes, check the progress. Each sweater will turn to felt at a different pace, so use your notebook to record the progress. Generally 2 minutes is not enough time, but it’s always best to check your work early and often. Based on how felted your sweaters are, re-set your stopwatch. I set mine for another 2 minute interval.
Step 5: After a total of 7 minutes, I pulled my sweaters from the machine and wrung the water out. Each one was different from the next, but I want to see the different textures that each sweater developed after the same amount of time in the wash. Add your observations and the final time to your notebook. These notes will prove invaluable when you are felting again.
Step 6: How do you know if they are done? The most important aspect is wether or not they will unravel if you cut them. I like the movement and softness of hardly felted sweaters for many of my projects. But because true felt is defined as non-woven fabric, it can be considered felt when all of the knit stitches have completely vanished. But, it’s all a matter of taste and preference. It’s done when you say it’s done! If you are happy with the felt, lay the sweaters to dry. If you want them even more felted, try throwing them in the dryer on high, but check them every minute.
Step 7: Hand felting sweaters allows you much greater control over the final product. Instead of constantly checking the machine, you can just stop the felting process when you have achieved your desired texture. Start with a clean tub and very very hot water.
Step 8: Get the wool thoroughly wet with the hot water. Add a DAB of soap to the sweater. Always start with a bit less soap than you think you need. Too much soap, and the wool will become too slippery for the fibers to bond.
Step 9: If you have a washboard, use it, but if not, bubble wrap is the perfect substitute. Start the stopwatch and rub the sweater on the washboard constantly for 60 seconds. Be aware of the direction that you rub the sweater on the washboard. The material will shrink in the direction that you agitate it, meaning, if you want something to get more narrow, rub it left to right. If you want it to get shorter, rub it top to bottom.
Step 10: Rinse it with hot water to remove all the soap, and then rinse the sweater with cold water. Quickly cooling off the fibers with cold water helps them “harden up” or become more firmly bonded. Record the results in your notebook, for later reference. If you are pleased with the result, let the sweater dry, but you can also give it another round of hot water and washboarding.
Here are my before and after results from the machine washing session. Remember, each of these sweaters were in the washer for the exact same amount of time. The only difference is in the original yarn texture and knit texture.
The green and orange sweater really lost a ton of its crazy details. But I like the results a lot. In the washer, it left a huge mess of linty hairs. Gross. In the photo of the two sleeves, you can see the difference between the hand fulled piece on the left, and the machine fulled piece on the right.
The tan cable knit piece looks completely different, because the wool was loose and soft. The knit allows space for the surfaces of each fiber to rub together more effectively.
The grey sweater, on the other hand, is hardly changed. That is because the tightly spun yarn and the tiny stitches kept the fibers in place better.
The black and white sweater bonded so well that the yarns created a grey blend in some places. This sweater also turned out very stiff and solid, and was almost 3/4 inches thick.
For more ideas on what to do with your felt, check out the following great projects. Oh, and I wrote a book about all types of feltmaking, called Feltique.
How-To: Recycled Sweater Pendant
Newsboy Cap and Mittens Set
How-To: Fast Felted Scarflette
Felted Sweater Strip Scarf