People have been making felt for thousands of years. In fact, it was used in ancient times by European and Asian cultures to craft things like hats, boots, tents, cloaks, and blankets.
Felt is a fabric made from natural fibres like wool. And while almost all other man-made fabrics are created by weaving fibres together, felt is made by compressing or matting them together.
Although its exact origin is unknown, the discovery of felt is claimed in the folktales of a wide range of cultures. In Christian tradition, for instance, Saint Clement is said to have discovered it when he stuffed his sandals with loose wool to prevent his feet from blistering while fleeing from the Romans. It’s said that the pressure from travelling and the sweat from his feet transformed the fibres into felt.
Traditionally, a process called wet felting was used to create felt which involves using water, soap, and pressure to interlock the fibres. However, in recent centuries, needle (or dry) felting has also become popular, not only among industrial feltmakers, but also among artists.
Needle felting is a form of dry felting that involves stabbing a needle with small notches into unspun fibres. The process causes the individual fibres to tangle. When making felt industrially, this is done with machines. But in the late 20th century, artists began doing this by hand; creating all different kinds of sculptures and shapes – such as people, animals, and objects – which make great decorations and toys.
So if you’re looking to get crafty and creative, then why not take a look at our beginner’s guide to needle felting? In this article, we’ll take you through everything you need to know, including what tools and materials you’ll need and how to learn the basics.
1. Get your basic supplies together
Unlike many creative hobbies, such as painting and photography, needle felting is incredibly accessible – not only because it’s quite simple to get to grips with the basics, but because you don’t need lots of expensive tools and materials to start creating your own felt sculptures.
However, here’s a list of the few things you will need to get started:
Your fibre is the material you’ll be working with. And the most commonly used fibre in needle felting (by far) is sheep wool. This is partly because wool fibres have microscopic scales that lock together when tangled. However, there are lots of different types of wool from different breeds of sheep, and you can buy it in various stages in its processing journey.
What wool you buy in what form will depend on personal preference, what sort of skill level you have, and what kind of effect you want to achieve.
Types of wool
As we’ve said, there are lots of different kinds of wool from different breeds of sheep – and which one you choose will give you a different texture and finish. A medium-coarse wool (like Corriedale – which comes from Corriedale sheep) is recommended for beginners, as it’s easy to needle felt, but also has a relatively smooth finish.
Try to avoid Merino wool, as although it’s popular among the needle felting community, it’s soft and beginners often find it difficult to work with.
If you want to find out more about the different types of wool, you can check out Hawthorne Handmade’s handy guide here.
Forms of wool
Now that we’ve covered the different types of wool, here are the three main forms you can buy wool in:
- Raw fleece – this is not a popular choice of wool for beginners. It’s rough and a little difficult to work with. Raw fleece is the least processed form of wool you can buy as it comes straight off the sheep’s back. You can buy it washed or unwashed.
The curled locks found in raw fleece work well in a decorative capacity – for instance, on animal sculptures as sheep’s coats (not so surprisingly), horse’s manes, and dog’s tails.
- Carded wool – this wool has been washed and then put through a process called carding, which is, essentially, the opposite of combing. It messes the fibres up so they’re all facing in different directions. Because of this, it’s very easy to needle felt and is used often as the base of many people’s sculptures and to make big body parts like torsos and heads.
Carded wool often comes in thick, springy sheets called batts, however, you can buy it in what’s called ‘slivers’, which are long, thin portions.
- Tops and roving – are often used interchangeably to describe wool that’s been washed and combed so that all the fibres go in the same direction. Although some say that roving is slightly rougher than tops.
Wool tops and roving are easy to pull apart, will interlock well, and are available in a wide range of colours. Because they’ve been combed out, they’re a bit more difficult to needle felt than carded wool. However, they’ll give your sculptures a nice clean finish and are great for creating realistic-looking fur and hair.
If you’re vegan or you have a wool allergy, then using wool might not be an option for you. If so, there are plenty of different options out there, such as plant-based fibres like cotton and bamboo, or synthetic fibres such as nylon and acrylic.
The next thing you’ll need to get your hands on if you want to get needle felting is, of course, the needles themselves.
Felting needles, as we’ve said, have a series of little notches in them and are used to tangle or matt fibres together. They’re usually triangular-shaped and have notches on three sides. But you can also get other shaped needles, such as stars (which have notches on four sides) and spirals (which have notches that wrap around the whole needle). The general rule in needle felting is the more notches, the quicker you’ll be able to felt.
Felting needles come in all different sizes – and the higher the gauge, the finer the needle will be and the smaller the notches. For instance, a 42 gauge needle will be smaller than a 38. Finer needles should be used for more delicate work and larger needles for felting together large areas of wool quickly.
Many needle felters recommend the 38 gauge needle as a good all-rounder for beginners because it can be used for bulk work as well as detail.
Needles are delicate and often break, especially in the hands of beginners, so you’ll have to pick yourself up a few of them. Getting a set of needles can be a great idea, as this will give you the chance to try out a wide range of needle sizes and always have spares.
This set of needles from Amazon is highly recommended by seasoned needle felters. It comes with two wooden needle holders, which make holding needles a little comfier, improve your accuracy, and allow you to hold multiple needles at once to speed up the process when working on larger areas. You can also get reverse needles, which unpick or untangle the felt. These are used to create ‘fluffy’ effects.
To find out more about felting needles, why not take a look at this great article from The Craft Kit Company?
Needle felting mat
When you’re needle felting, you’ll need to work on a matt. This is not only to protect the surface you’re felting on, but to protect your needles too. This is why you need a mat that’ll ‘catch’ the tip of your needle and prevent it from breaking.
You have three main options to choose from:
- High-density foam mats. These are a popular choice among needle felters because you can buy them in a range of different sizes and they’re relatively cheap. Although they aren’t a sustainable option because they’re often made of plastic and are worn down quite easily by needles – so you’ll have to keep buying a new one if you’re a regular felter.
- Brush mats. Another popular choice, brush mats will last pretty much indefinitely because your needles won’t break them up. Bear in mind, though, you’ll find that wool fibres will get caught up in the bristles, so cleaning them regularly is advised. The sizes available are also quite limited.
- Hessian/burlap rice sacks. Hessian rice sacks are a great sustainable option. While they won’t last forever, both the sack and the rice are biodegradable. You can also repurpose the rice in your next mat once you’ve poked through the Hessian sack one too many times. You can buy the sacks on Amazon here; all you have to do is fill them with rice.
While not absolutely necessary like the other three items on this list, finger protectors are highly recommended for beginners to stop you from stabbing yourself with the needles.
As you become more experienced, you’ll (hopefully) injure yourself less, until eventually, you might want to take your protectors off for better control and to feel the cotton. However, if you’re a newbie felter, it’s best to do your fingers a favour and pick up a pair!
The most popular choice of finger protectors are leather ones. They sit on the thumb and forefinger of the hand you’re using to hold the fibre. You can pick up a great pair from Amazon here.
2. Learn the basics of needle felting
The beauty of needle felting is that as soon as you get your supplies together, you can get creating. However, to get a feel for it, you might want to make some basic shapes before you go on to craft more elaborate sculptures.
To help you along, here’s some guidance on how to make a ball, an oblong, and flat shapes, as well as how to add detail to them…
How to needle felt a ball
1. Pull off a small portion of wool from your sliver, length, or batt. When pulling wool apart, go gently, and if it doesn’t come apart, try moving your hands a little further away from each other. When deciding how much wool you need, remember that less is always more. A little goes a long way, and in needle felting, you can always add more, but you can’t take it away.
2. Once you’ve got your piece of wool, try to fold and roll it into the rough shape of a ball. This is the same for most needle felting; use your hands to form the shape, and then use the needle to lock the fibres together and refine that shape. Try to roll your shapes as tightly as possible as this will save you time in the felting process.
3. When you’ve rolled your wool into a rough ball shape, it’s now time to start stabbing it with the needle. When you’re stabbing your wool, make sure to enter and exit at the same angle. Also, try not to twist your needle as this might break it. Although, it’s worth bearing in mind that when getting to grips with needle felting, a few broken needles is totally normal. Just remember to remove the broken bit from your project before continuing.
It’s also worth remembering that your needle doesn’t have to go all the way through to the other side. If you’re doing this too often, you might start to felt your project to the mat you’re working on.
4. When needle felting your ball, keep turning it, stabbing the wool evenly all over. You’ll see where it’s been felted more heavily because it’ll look tighter and feel smoother and harder, while the less felted bits will look looser and feel softer.
5. All you have to do now is keep working over your ball until you’re happy with it. Remember to be patient and if you need to make it bigger, add thin layers of wool over the top and work them in – but again, keep in mind that less is more.
Once you’ve made a ball and you’re happy with it, try to make an oblong shape. The process is more or less the same, just roll it into an oblong shape to start with and get felting.
If you’d like to see a demonstration of how to make a ball and an oblong shape, as well as some extra tips and tricks, then why not take a look at the video below from Hawthorn Handmade?
How to needle felt flat shapes
When making your needle felt sculptures, you might need to make flat shapes – for instance, when making animal ears. So you might find it helpful to get a feel for this before you get going…
1. First, remove a portion of wool from your sliver, length, or batt and lay it down flat.
2. Next, begin to stab through the wool. For this, remember to stab at an angle, trying not to go all the way through to your mat.
3. Do this for a while on one side. Once you’re satisfied with how it looks, flip it over and work on the other side.
4. If you want a desired shape, (for instance, a circle for a pig’s nose or a triangle for a fox’s ear) fold the wool as you go, securing it into place and refining the shape by stabbing with your needle. As with 3D shapes, be patient and use both your hands and the needle to define them.
If you’d like to see a demonstration of how to make flat shapes, as well as a few extra tips and tricks, then why not take a look at the video below from Hawthorn Handmade?
How to add detail to needle felt sculptures
When making needle felt sculptures, you’ll often want to add details, whether that be a face on an animal sculpture or a design on a Christmas decoration. To practise adding detail to your work, why not use the ball, oblong, and flat shapes you’ve already made?
Adding detail to your work is as simple as pulling off small bits of wool, manipulating them in the shape that you want (a line for a mouth or a ball for an eye) and attaching them to your shapes with your needle. Stephanie, in the video below, describes it as “drawing with wool”.
For a demonstration and some extra tips on adding detail, take a look at this handy video from Hawthorn Handmade.
3. Choose your project
Once you’ve got all of your supplies together and you’ve had a practise at crafting some basic shapes and adding a little detail, now it’s time to choose your first project. But because you can literally make anything by needle felting, it can be difficult to decide where to start.
To help you get going on your needle felting journey, and to give you some inspiration, we’ve pulled together five projects that are perfect for beginners!
Cookie-cutter Christmas decorations
These cookie-cutter decorations are the perfect project for any newbie felter in the run-up to Christmas and they’ll help you to really nail making flat shapes. Using cookie cutters is great for helping you to get defined shapes. But if you want to get even better, why not try a couple without?
In the video below, they use beads and thread as embellishment. Though, if you want, you could always add detail with felt as explained above.
These needle felt mushrooms only need two colours of wool and are quick and easy to make. They’re perfect for getting to grips with your detailing skills.
Needle felt bees are a perfect project for beginners. They’re quick, easy, and you can make as many of them as you like. Your bees will look lovely as decoration on things like cards.
Have you always wanted to make your own jewellery? Believe it or not, needle felting is a great way to make things like necklaces and bracelets. Simply make some small balls to serve as beads – embellishing and decorating them however you like – and add them to a piece of string or thread.
Your needle felt jewellery will make great additions to your wardrobe, as well as thoughtful presents for your friends and family. Take a look at the video below for a tutorial on how to assemble your necklace once you’ve made your needle felt balls.
If you’re felting with wool, what would be more fitting than to make a sheep? This project from Felts by Phillipa is a little more tricky than the other four suggested in this list. Not only does it use a pipe cleaner frame to create the legs (a popular practice in needle felting to add strength and stability), but it uses raw fleece locks to create the realistic-looking sheep coat.
Check out the video below to find out how to make it.
4. Remember these top needle felting tips
Now that you’ve got all of your supplies together, had a go at the basics, and chosen your project, you’re ready to begin creating your own needle felt sculptures. To help you along the way, here are a few of our top tips…
- Once you roll up your shape – a ball, for instance – you can expect it to become 30% smaller once felted sufficiently.
- When making large, bulky shapes (like the torso of an animal), some people like to use white wool for the middle and then cover the outer layer in whatever colour they want their project to be. This is because white wool is often cheaper than coloured wool. Scrap wool from other projects also works well for this.
- When making large balls, some people like to tie their wool in a knot to form the base. This will save you a little time in the felting process.
- If you’d like some more help or you’d like to see if needle felting is for you by completing a single project, then there are plenty of complete kits available. These include all the tools and materials you’ll need to complete specific projects, including wool, needles, and any decorations, as well as instructions. You can search needle felting kits on the Hobbycraft website here.
We hope that you’ve enjoyed this beginner’s guide to needle felting. It’s a great hobby to get stuck into because it’s relatively cheap, doesn’t take too long to learn, and you really can make a wide range of things from it.
To find out more about other creative hobbies, why not take a look at the learning section of our site? Here, you’ll find introductory guides on anything from calligraphy and painting, to macramé and carpentry.
Are you a needle felting enthusiast? Or have you recently got into it? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.