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Ancillary Arts
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Demonstrations>Ancillary Arts>Making Felt for Applique

Appliqué is a great technique for embellishment. The biggest problem, however, in using fabric that ravels is that you need to turn the edges under so that, when you wash the garment, the appliqué won't unravel. This sort of curtails what you can and can't appliqué. Fulled wool felt, however, does not have this problem! It behaves just like felt but is washable and highly durable. And Bonus! It's period! Venture forth, intrepid costumer, into the happy land of Felt...

Making the felt -

If you've already read about making felt boots, most of the equipment will be familiar. The only variations are in the use of screen rather than a mat as a foundation for the bats. This also means that we will not be rolling the felt. Instead, we will be compressing it to get it to a hard felt stage. As with making felt boots, you'll need Ivory soap (or any other pure soap product), water just hot enough that it hurts your hands, several towels to spread out underneath the felt, a water 'sprinkler' of some sort (I drilled holes in the topper for a plastic Ikea glass). You'll also need screen or mesh - which can be found in any home improvement store. It can be either metal or otherwise. The metal lasts longer but is harder on the hands. Lastly, you'll need wool already carded into bats. Anywhere from two to four ounces will do initially. The great thing about making your own felt for appliqué is that you can make it 'on demand'. The other great thing about it is that you can dye it to whatever color you want.

Begin by putting a deep sauce pan full of water on the stove and getting it to just below the boiling point. The water should not be more than 114 degrees... this is extremely hot and hurts to work with! I simply use water that I can barely stand to touch. Add the soap in flakes, either by carving off directly from the bar of soap or by using actual soap flakes. Don't put too much soap in the water! Too much soap will explode the fiber and it will not felt at all. Too little is more easily corrected. When you get to the stage where you are sprinkling the soap on the wool and rubbing it, if the wool sticks to your fingers, you need a bit more soap... very scientific.

Once you've got your equipment ready and your water heating on the stove, open up the mesh/screen and start laying down your bats. Begin by pulling single bats off of the long bat. These single bats should be fairly thin but long. Place a row of these down and then start another row beneath it, slightly overlapping the bats as you go. Do as many rows as necessary to achieve the size of felt that you want. Once you are done with this initial layer of rows, begin placing a second layer on top, at an 90 degree angle to the first, overlapping these bats in the same manner as you build your rows. I suggest no less than two layers of batts for felt. Four is optimal.

A single bat, pulled from the
longbat. This aligns the fibers.

Laying out the first row of bats.
Beginning to lay out the second row
of bats on the first, at a 90 degree angle.

Once you've got all your layers down, it's time for the actual felting process to begin. Get your water sprinkler and fill it full of hot, semi-soapy water. Gently sprinkle the waster on the bats, taking care to not just pour it on but to spread it as evenly as possible over the entire fluffy pile. This helps the water get in between the fibers everywhere. At this point, you'll want to put the mesh/screen over the pile and start working the fibers into felt.

Sprinkling the water onto the pile of wool. The pile, watered down and ready to be felted.

You have a couple of options for helping along the felting and fulling process. With the wetted wool between the mesh/screen, you can get a float and start rubbing back and forth across the felt. A float makes a great deal of pressure possible but is slightly hard to use. As an option, you can get a rolling pin and simply roll back and forth across the mesh/screen. You can't put as much pressure on to the rolling pin (you'll bend the handles), but it's easier. I usually do both, starting initially with the float and following up with the rolling pin. The whole focus in using the mesh/screen and the float or roller is to make the surface of the felt as uniform as possible and to compress the felt as it is fulling so that it is dense enough to be used for appliqué.

Using a float. The mighty rolling pin

Once you do a little bit of rubbing and/or rolling across the surface, lift the mesh/screen and check the felt. It should give the appearance of being wispy and dry. At this point, it's time to add more hot, semi-soapy water and begin the rubbing and/or rolling again. Continue doing this until you start to notice that the felt is shrinking. You can also help the process along by opening up the mesh/screen and patting the surface of the felt with your hands. If you have a five year old around, you can con him into 'helping'. The patting simply compresses the felt more and it can be a welcome break from the rubbing and/or rolling.

Continue to add hot water and rub/roll/pat the felt until it has shrunk quite a bit. This is especially important if you plan to use this felt to appliqué a garment that will be subsequently washed.

Once you've gotten really sick and tired of rubbing/rolling/patting the felt or it has gotten to what is termed the hard felt stage (it should look just like the polyester felt you can purchase in fabric stores you can stop. If you are at all paranoid about the felt shrinking, here's what I do: I actually toss it in the washer and wash it on hot. The agitation and heat in the washer *will* shrink it more if it is possible to do so. This guarantees that the felt will not shrink once it's put on the garment and that is important. Putting it in the washer with the wet towels that you used to make the felt is usually what I do, thereby doing two jobs at once.

Felt before putting it into the washer. Felt after it was washed.

Once the felt goes through the washer and the spin cycle, remove it and put it on your ironing board. Don't throw it into the dryer!. It will be slightly nubbly from the washer so I like to actually iron it out while it is wet to remove the nubbliness and give it a very smooth surface. I usually iron it until it is dry. Be sure to put a cloth down on your ironing board or you could have dye bleed onto your cover. After the felt is ironed dry, it's all ready to be cut up and applied. At this point you can treat it as you would any other piece of felt.

Felt piece appliquéd onto wool using perl cotton.

There you have it. Felt for appliqué on demand. Now you will never run out of appliqué material... provided you never run out of wool. Happy Costuming!

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