by Chris Morgan
Felt is the oldest form of creating fabric out of natural animal fibers, crafted by nomadic peoples to make housing, rugs, footwear and clothing. An ancient method of making felt involved many people laying out sheep fleeces on the ground, adding water, and beating the fleeces with sticks until the fibers held together enough that they could be wrapped around a long pole, tied in place and dragged across vast fields by horse and rider. Wet felting pure angora is a little more manageable than that, but the basic principal is the same: mix fiber with water and agitate.
The wet felted mitten technique I like to use is a 3D approach, with the fiber felted on a form so there is no sewing nor seams involved. The following steps are basic wet felting steps. You can embellish the mitten with yarn or other fibers but that is a bit more involved, and that process is not included in these instructions. The mitten can be custom fit to the hand that will wear it. The results are pure luxury and warm comfort for your hands.
I use the following tools to make these mittens:
- ridged boot tray
- plastic sandwich baggie
- sport bottle filled with warm soapy water
- wooden skewer
- needle felt punch
- felting needle
- pillow foam for needle felting
- mitten form cut from pillow foam
- table at good height to protect my back from muscle strain
I start my felted mitten process by carding angora into one ounce batts. I like to have 4 ounces available but generally use 3 ounces or less for a pair of mittens. The batts are longer than needed so I gently pull about a quarter of the batt off one end and put it aside for later use, such as extra covering for thumb or finger area.
Before putting the fiber on the form, lightly needle felt the batt with a needle felt punch, excluding all four edges, then turn the piece over and lightly needle felt the other side, again, excluding all four edges. That holds the fibers together for easier handling. You will repeat this process with each batt.
The next step is covering the mitten form with the needle felted batts. I use a large section of batt to cover the palm and back area of the mitten form, then cover thumb and fingers areas with smaller sections, making sure the sections overlap so there are no bare spots. Using a single felting needle, lightly needle felt the overlaps. Leave the bottom edge of the form uncovered.
Once the form is covered in fiber, feel all around it for desired thickness and to ensure there are no thin spots. Carefully run the skewer between form and fiber to make sure the fiber is not needle felted to the form. If you want a thicker mitten (recommended) repeat this entire step.
Once the form is covered with enough fiber, fill your sport bottle or whatever other container works for you, with water heated to your comfort, then add liquid soap. The soap adds slipperiness.
Do not shake as you do not want suds, just slipperiness. I use Dawn dish soap. How much you soap you need depends on how hard your water is. Start with just a little squirt of soap. You can add more directly to the fiber if you need it.
Place your covered mitten form on the boot tray, working at your table. Take care to protect your lower back from strain. I generally sit at the table for these first few steps. If you don’t have a good boot tray, you can substitute bubble wrap, bubble side down. Lightly sprinkle one side of the form with the soapy water.
Use as little water as possible. With the sandwich bag on your hand, gently spread the water into the fibers, taking care to smooth the wet fibers free of wrinkles. As you work the water into the fiber, it will seep through to the other side of the form.
Once the first side is wet, turn the form over and gently work the water already there into the fibers. As you get the fibers wet, the mitten will grow bigger. Add more soapy water only if needed to get the fibers slippery. I generally use about half a bottle of water per mitten. When the mitten is thoroughly wet, check again for thickness and thin or bare spots. You can add more fiber as needed.
Now it’s time to agitate. I stand for this part, but pay attention to how my back is feeling. Straddle your legs so you are about waist high with the table, and try to keep your back and shoulders in good postural position, not slumped over.
At this stage, the fiber is very fragile, so work very gently and with a light touch. With the sandwich bag still on your hand as a resist, rub the fibers, a section at a time, using small circular motions.
Your goal is to shrink the fiber enough that it is a tight fit on the form (caution, pun ahead: the fibers should fit the form like a glove). This is the soft felt stage.
Fibers will hold together but are still a bit fragile and can be pulled apart or a hole poked in them.
Work the circular rubbing from the side to the center, carefully smoothing out wrinkles and checking often for thin or bare spots. As the fiber shrinks, you can rub back and forth and in any direction. Also, as it shrinks, you can rub a bit more vigorously.
How soon and how vigorously is something you figure out with experience. When the first side is smooth, turn the form over and repeat for the second side. Check under the fiber occasionally with the skewer to ensure the fiber is not felting to the form. This part of the process takes the most time, one to two hours or more once you are experienced felt makers, and longer for newbies.
Because the felting process is fairly forgiving, you can take a break to give your muscles some relax time. And eat lunch or a snack to refresh yourself. Or pick up kids at school, if that’s on your agenda. When you return to the felt, just make sure it’s wet enough to be slippery again, and continue rubbing until the mitten is at soft felt stage. You test that by lightly pinching a bit of the mitten. It should not pull up or tent.
Once the mitten fits the form tautly, use the skewer to again check that the fiber is not felting to the form. Then gently ease the mitten off the form. The form is foam, so squash it down rather than stretch the mitten. Now it’s time to rinse the mitten. Use hot water comfortable to your hand. Put the mitten in the water and let it soak for a minute or so, then gently squeeze it out, and repeat until the water runs clear of soap. As you squeeze the water out, the mitten will start to progress toward hard felt, and you can get rougher with the squeezing.
Now that the mitten is rinsed, put it back on the boot tray or bubble wrap. At this point, it will be considerably bigger than your hand. Now you will rub it vigorously to shrink it to fit. If you have a boot tray, the ridges will help speed that process. Felt will shrink in the direction it is rubbed. Work the mitten all over at first, rolling it lengthwise like a jelly roll, rubbing against the ridges of the boot tray, and using the heel of your hand for extra pressure. Initially, the mitten will shrink somewhat fast, so check often for size.
Once it has shrunk a lot, then start working it in smaller sections. Try it on to see specifically where you want it to shrink. If the finger section is too long, roll just that part from tip toward palm into jellyroll position and rub just that. If it’s too wide, roll it from side to side. If the thumb is too big, roll just that part. You get the idea. Custom fit the mitten to your hand by spot rolling and rubbing.
As it gets closer to correct size, you can put the mitten on your hand and use your other hand to rub specific parts, particularly around the thumb and wrist to ensure comfortable-to-you fit. It’s done when it fits like you want it to.
And once it’s done, celebrate with a bit of chocolate or other tasty treat, then start all over so you can have a pair of mittens.
Photos © Chris Morgan