Needle felting. Credit: Courtesy Caryn Burwood

Looking for a new craft for the new year? Felting is a great pastime to flex your creative muscles, relax and create cute little bits and bobs along the way.

Basically, felting is the process of matting, pressing and connecting loose individual locks of wool in order to make a sculpture or shape.

There are two primary types of felting: needle felting, which uses a special barbed needle in order to unite dry fibers, and wet felting, which agitates the layers of fiber with hot, soapy water in order to bring them together.

Needle felting is generally easier for crafters looking to get started.

“Needle felting is really accessible in terms of cost and skill level,” Casey Ryder, owner of PortFiber in Portland. “There’s also something really cathartic about stabbing a thing repeatedly and ending up with a cute creature or sweet wall hanging.”

Caryn Burwood, owner of Purple Moose Felting in Augusta, said that it is also inexpensive to get started — though she warned that you, like many of her new customers this year, might find it addictive once you do.

“Just this year our sales have doubled,” Burwood said. “I think people are looking for a way to escape. That repetitive process is just something that people sort of crave.”

Plus, Ryder said that crafters will “get fairly immediate results,” as a small, ornament sized sculpture only takes a few hours to complete.

Needle felting. Credit: Courtesy Caryn Burwood

Gather the tools

Needle felting requires a few specialized tools to get started. First, you will need a felting needle, which comes in a variety of gauges. Ryder said that the higher the gauge number, the finer the needle.

“I like to describe felting needles like paint brushes,” Ryder said. “The coarse ones [like] 36 gauge are like a big paint brush and are great for the initial shaping. The finer needles [like] 40 gauge [or] 42 gauge are for finishing, smoothing out your work, or sculpting more detailed features like faces. If someone were to just get one needle, I’d recommend the medium, 38 gauge needle. It’s kind of the all-purpose size.”

You will also need a padded work surface to prevent you from breaking the delicate needle when you poke through, like a high density foam block, a wool block or a burlap sack filled with grain.

“I don’t recommend holding the object you’re felting in mid-air,” Ryder said. “You are very likely to poke yourself.”

You may also want leather guards for your fingers, but if you find them cumbersome, Burwood said you can take a DIY approach to protecting your tender finger flesh by wrapping them with tape.

Select the wool

Though you will be able to felt with most wool, certain varieties are better than others because of the structure of the fiber.

“Medium to fine [sheep] wools work best for needle felting because they have more scales on each fiber, which means more opportunities to felt,” Ryder said. “Fine to medium breeds in Maine include merino, Corriedale, Finn, Romney and Shetland. Alpaca and angora [rabbit fiber] will felt, too, but they require a bit more poking.”

Ryder also said to look out for carded wool as opposed to combed wool.

“Carded fibers are a little more jumbled than combed fibers, which lie more parallel to each other,” Ryder said. “The jumbly-ness and crisscross of fibers helps the felting process along faster.”

Ryder recommended starting with “roving wool,” which has been carded and usually ranges between $2 and $5 an ounce (2 ounces should be plenty for a “fairly dense, baseball-sized”).

Burwood also recommended shopping from a place that “understands needle felting.”

“Once you find someone, it helps to stick with that person,” Burwood said. “If you buy Corriedale wool from five different people, you could get five different products coming back at you.”

Burwood said that you can buy wool from local farmers, but the material may not be consistent (“but sometimes they’re even more beautiful,” she added). Commercial wool will be more homogenous.

Clockwise from left: Felted cactus by Casey Ryder; Felted gnome in the making by Mia Waisman during a class at PortFiber; Felted deer and fox by Cindy Skidgel. Credit: Courtesy of Casey Ryder.

Pick a project

Picking the right first felting project helps you to master the basics before you move on to more complicated tasks. Burwood suggested that your first project be about the size of the palm of your hand.

“[For] something really big, it can be hard to get all that fiber under control with poking if you don’t really understand it,” Burwood said. “[If you start with] something really little, fingers get in the way when you’re poking, and getting small details is tricky.”

Burwood also recommended picking something that “doesn’t have to be perfect.”

“Don’t try to recreate a beloved pet or a person,” she said. “I recommend something like a pumpkin. They’re supposed to be lumpy and bumpy. Anything that allows for a little artistic license is great for starting out.”

You can also try flat felting projects.

Flat felted scene by Mia Waisman. Credit: Courtesy Casey Ryder

“You can use cookie cutters to start with,” Ryder said. “Stuff the inside of the cookie cutter with wool and poke away.”

Consider a kit

A beginner felting kit will gather the tools, select the right wool and pick a fun project for you. Felting kits usually cost between $10 and $30, depending on where you buy them and what is included.

“We have a couple of starter kits that come with a small pad, a couple of needles and a small sampling of wool,” Burwood said. “It will typically walk you through the whole process step by step. It’s just nice to have a kit with photos that kind of gives you an idea of what it’s supposed to look like at the various stages of the process.”

Ryder said that kits are especially good for beginners who don’t know where to begin when it comes to designing a felting project.

“Coming up with your own idea and picking out the wool and tools can be overwhelming as a beginner,” Ryder said. “A kit can be a great way to get started.”

Wool Pets felting kits, available at PortFiber. Credit: Courtesy Casey Ryder

Watch your fingers

Felting needles are sharper than your average needle. You have to pay attention to where you are poking in order to avoid getting stuck as much as possible. Always keep your work on your mat, and try to make sure your fingers aren’t in the needle’s path when it is poking through.

Ryder said that, especially for your first project, you will want to have your full attention on felting.

“Don’t try to watch an engaging show while needle felting,” Ryder said. “It’s more an audiobook [or] listening to music sort of craft. “

No matter your efforts, though, be prepared to get poked at least once.

“Almost everyone will draw blood at some point within the first two days of felting,” Burwood said. “It’s almost inevitable.”

Burwood had some more technical tips for beginners.

“The direction that you poke in is the direction that the fiber is going to move,” Burwood said. “The more you poke, the smaller everything is going to get. If you poked something and you don’t like the way it looks, get a pair of tweezers or your fingers but don’t pry them out with your felting needle, or it will snap.”

Ultimately, though, the most important thing is to have fun.

“Be forgiving of yourself,” Ryder said. “Sometimes as a beginner, you’ll start out trying to make one thing and it’ll morph into something else. Once you get the basics down, you’re really only limited by your imagination.”