by Jannette Stewart
Remember the time you opened your washer and found your favorite wool garment reduced to child size? Wasn’t hard to do, was it? Welcome to felting, or fulling, a process of reducing and matting wool fibers.
Finding the Goods
Some fabric stores carry felted wool on the bolt, but collecting and processing the wool can be as much as fun as sewing with it.
Used woolen items can be found for very little money at thrift stores. The best values for your time and money are 100% wool blankets and large-size skirts. Wool coats are also good as long as the fabrics are not too thick. (The small amount of usable fabric from most jackets is not worth your time, and sweater thicknesses are so varied, you may wish to avoid them.)
Choose garments that are 100% wool or blends of 80% wool and 20% nylon or polyester. Avoid worsted wools; they tend to ravel, even when felted. (You can recognize worsted wool because it feels hard and flat. It is used most often for suits.) Also stay away from loosely woven wool fabric because it may not shrink up in the washing and drying process.
Coming Apart at the Seams
Garments must be taken apart before the wool is felted. If your thrift-store finds seem dusty and dirty, this may be best done outdoors. Supplies for this process include a seam ripper, a pair of sharp scissors and two large bags–one for discards and the other for wool “yardage.”
From each skirt, remove any buttons and save them for other projects. Using an open blade on your scissors, cut the threads in the hem and in any pleated area. Cut off and throw away the waistband and any seam tape and lining. Your skirt is now in a tube shape. Use the seam ripper to open up all the seams. Zippers, also, will just rip out. At this point you will have two pieces of wool–a front and a back, or perhaps three pieces–a front and two backs. Put the wool pieces in the yardage bag and go on to the next garment.
Felting the Wool
The wool will be machine washed to felt it. First, sort out colors that you suspect will bleed (red is notorious!) and wash them separately.
You may want to wash your wool at the laundromat; otherwise, skim the loose fibers off the surface several times during each load so the drain doesn’t clog. Wash on your longest and hottest cycle with a cold rinse and mild detergent.
Drying the wool in your home dryer is fine if you clean the filter several times during the cycle. Dry on your longest and hottest drying cycle. Take the wool pieces out as soon as they are dry and fold immediately to avoid wrinkles.
Making a Quilt
Since thrift pieces of wool are not large, plan for projects that use medium and small pieces.
Keep in mind that wool stretches. Use a walking foot while machine piecing to minimize this tendency. Stretching has its advantages, however, for easing in pieces that are a little too big or too small.
Use 1/4″ seams and press seam allowances open with heavy steam. The wool gets compressed and sometimes changes color, but fluff returns and so does original color. Be sure to press (up and down motion), not iron (back and forth motion) to avoid more stretching.
Felted wool patches for applique do not need a turn-under allowance. They are sewn down with a blanket stitch along the raw edges, and since felted wool does not ravel, there’s no need to worry.
A thin, light-weight batt gives a wool quilt or wallhanging some substance without adding too much weight, and a flannel backing feels so nice once you are snuggled up in the quilt.
Rather than traditional hand quilting, you may decide to tie wool quilts as follows. Using #5-weight pearl cotton thread and a size 24 chenille needle, tie square knots approximately 4″ apart, but that can vary depending upon the quilt’s design. One drop of Fray-Check on each knot will help keep it securely tied.
Don’t wash these wool quilts when they get dirty, even though all the wool in them has previously been washed and dried. They will never look the same! Dry clean them if they really need freshening up.
One of the best things about working with felted wool is the feel of the fabric. It’s calming and peaceful as you sew, both by hand and machine.
Are you ready for a new quilting adventure? Visit thrift stores and garage sales, collect a variety of wools, and enjoy felted-wool quilting.