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Sonny & Shear

As knitters we spend a lot of time creating garments and items from the sheep up, without the help of machines.  It seems contrary then, that when felting something the preferred method is to give up our items to a machine and hope for the best.  I also find it interesting that there is almost a complete lack of writing on different methods of felting.  Am I the only knitter who wants to felt but has a new fangled energy efficient front loading washer that won’t do what I want?  Or the only knitter who lives in an apartment without a machine of my own that can’t afford to use a Laundromat to felt my knitting?  How did they felt back in the day?  Felting has much longer than the advent of the top loading washer, we’ve just forgotten the old methods and moved on.  It’s time to get back to where we came from.  For those wondering if felting by hand is really worth it, I’ve created a pro/con list to better illustrate why felting by hand is so wonderful.

Hand-Felting Pros

Hand-Felting Cons

  • Uses less water than a machine
  • You do all the work of a machine
  • More control over your felting
  • Risk of underfelting
  • Great workout for your arms (who doesn’t want well toned arms?)
  • Potential drain issues (easily kept under control with a strainer)
  • Low risk of over-felting
  • No guilt over felting only one small item
  • Can be done in a limited amount of space with limited supplies

Being both an avid felter and owner of a front-loading washing machine, I have developed a method of felting by hand that I find to be very successful.  Now I am not under any delusion that I have created a new method, or that my reinvention of the wheel is an exact replica of how felting would have occurred in centuries past.  The method detailed here is a modern version of an ancient technique that doesn’t require anything but your own two hands and a few select tools; no batteries or plugs needed.

The first step is to gather your supplies.  These can all easily be found at your local hardware store, or more often than not, in the garage. 
- Bucket
- Plunger (preferably unused)
- Towel
- Strainer (I use a small circular one pilfered from my Mother’s kitchen)
- Tennis Balls (optional)
- Soap (whatever you would wash your handknits in)
Set-up is simple: fold the towel, put your bucket on top, fill with very hot water and squirt in a little soap. I do all of this in the shower as it makes clean up much easier.  The towel is a key element and shouldn’t be skipped as the bucket bottom may actually harm your shower.  If you look closely you will find that your shower or tub is not flat and the bottom of your bucket is; this can be a problem if you plan on felting in your shower.  The folded towel under the bucket fills the gap and cushions the bottom of the shower from the bucket. It also cuts down on noise.  

When filling the bucket, I use water as hot as it will come out of the tap.  I don’t use boiling water because when I felt, I splash, and at least half of those splashes end up in my face.  I also generally only fill the bucket about half full because I am a vigorous felter -- any more than half full and the water ends up on the outside of the bucket anyway.  Try different amounts of water and you’ll soon find an equilibrium that works for you. Sometimes I'll add cold water to shock the fibers -- this helps the felting process.

Now comes the fun part, the actual felting.  This is your big chance to get up and move around after sitting so long while you were knitting.  This is also a great opportunity to get out some aggression; I always feel a little like Laura Ingalls Wilder at the butter churn when she’s had a bad day and Alfonso is being a jerkface.  The main thing to remember is that the goal here is to get fibers to stick together. Gentleness is not going to get the desired result.  I’ve known knitters to gently swirl their test swatch in a pot of boiling water to no avail.  All they got was an ever so slightly smaller and fuzzier version of what they started with.  The three main elements of felting are heat, water and agitation, and you are providing the agitation in this scenario. 

I am generally a violent felter and try to impersonate a washing machine as much as possible, something like a butter churn on speed.  I get water all over, and have a good time while I’m at it. My mother, on the other hand, is a much more deliberate felter with almost no splashing.  My method is quicker, more physically tiring, and produces a lot more lint.  My mother’s method takes a lot longer, isn’t very tiring and produces almost no lint.  The thing to remember is that felting is not instantaneous, even in a washing machine.  It generally takes me about the same amount of time to felt by hand as it would in a machine, except that you have to do all the it seems longer.

I generally throw a few tennis balls in the mix to trick myself into believing things will go much faster with them in the mix.  I do this especially if I am only felting one small item.  If I have a bucket full of knitting, I don’t really feel it necessary to add the tennis balls; they actually seem to get in the way instead of helping.   

The main benefit of felting by hand is that you can keep a closer eye on your project as it felts.  You are in very little danger of overfelting and ending up with a hat that fits no human, child or adult as long as you pay attention.  You are actually in more danger of not felting quite enough, but this is easily overcome with sheer knitterly tenacity and perseverance.  Don’t panic when you’ve been churning away for a few minutes and you anxiously look at your knitting to see if there has been any change and it actually seems bigger.  This is normal. The fibers all relax in the hot water and get bigger before they get smaller.  It will seem like you churn and churn and churn until the cows have come home and left again with no change.  This is the felting equivalent of the infamous black hole in knitting; you knit for ages, miles of yarn pass through your fingers and you stop to measure to find that your knitting has somehow decreased in size.  Then you pull out your felting and all of a sudden the change is occurring, the fibers are giving up and giving in.  Once you see some felting happening, things go very quickly. Unless of course you are trying to felt cotton, in which case you might want to think about a different hobby [plant fibers won't felt].  Since you are not at the mercy of any machine, you can stop when your felted piece is exactly the way you want it. 

Occasionally you’ll want to change the water in the bucket. I generally change after the water has become tepid and full of lint.  As with a washing machine, you don’t want all that loose fiber to go down the drain, unless you enjoy showering while standing ankle deep in water.  Scoop up as much as you can with your hands and toss it in the garbage; then I put my little strainer over the drain and pour the bucket of water over that.  All that fiber is the reason most books suggest you put your knitting in a pillow case before felting.  However, if you have time and are super worried about lint, taking a slower, less violent approach to the felting process produces almost no lint to speak of. 

After you have achieved a perfectly felted object, sit back with a cup of tea and some new knitting and think about Laura Ingalls and her butter churn.


Christine Olea hails from the Greater Seattle Metropolitan Area where she does not drink coffee, know much about computers, or fly jets.  She does, however, wish she could swathe the world in orange and green stripes and make everyone love them as much as she does. 

Her favorite soda is root beer and when she is not knitting she can usually be found at the opera or over at her blog.