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FeltingToesOut of ChaosSweater curse?Fiber festivalsStart early

By Kathy Wortel

Felted wool brings back bad memories for me. I remember a gorgeous wool and angora sweater that I had purchased as a teenager with my hard-earned babysitting dollars. Somehow my sweater got mixed in with the family wash and you can guess the rest.

But the properties of wool that make it felt so easily, can also be used to our advantage. The reason woolen items felt, with water and agitation, is that the scales on the wool swell, rub against each other and bind together, creating a denser, shrunken fabric. Items must be knit somewhat loosely on larger needles to enable the fiber to felt properly. Calculating the amount of shrinkage ahead of time will enable you to create a felted purse, vest, cell-phone cover, or whatever tickles your fancy.

Untreated wool usually felts beautifully, but steer clear of anything labeled "superwash" as the coating that enables it to be machine-washed will also prevent felting. Mohair also felts wonderfully, but not all yarns will felt at the same rate or density - another reason why swatching is essential.

A swatch will tell you all you need to know to make a simple knitted item. Comparing the before and after-felting measurements of the swatch, you can quickly figure how large to knit an item in order to end up with it felted to your desired size. Items with more shaping are more complicated, and require either more experimenting or going the easier route and purchasing a pattern by a company like FiberTrends, who’ve already done the math to come up with more complex patterns for mitts, clogs, and other items.

For my first foray into felting [see result above], I decided to use up some oddballs left over from previous projects. I had several colours of Brown Sheep Naturespun and Brown Sheep Lamb’s Pride which I thought I could turn into a multicolour felted bag. However, I did not have a pattern and didn’t know how Naturespun and Lamb’s Pride would felt. So I made a swatch. I worked out a striping sequence and knit up a large swatch, carefully measuring its dimensions before felting. I also did not weave in my ends as I changed colours, instead just tied each new colour to the old with a square knot and trimmed the ends, as I wanted to see how this would last through the felting process.

Most people felt using hot water, but I’ve seen items quickly hand-felted with lukewarm water. I went the easy route: hot water and a washing machine. I put my swatch in a zippered pillow protector and threw it in my washer with a pair of old jeans for increased agitation. After 15 minutes my swatch [at left] had felted quite nicely. I let it dry flat for a day and then measured the shrunken dimensions. The felting had shrunk the swatch more lengthwise than in width. Using the before and after measurements I was able to determine roughly how large to knit a bag, in the round, that after felting would be the perfect size to carry my knitting. (see photo — "Felted Bag") The square knots where I had changed colours did not come undone in the felting process and I simply snipped off the fuzzy ends after the swatch, and bag, were felted.

For my current Knitty felted tote bag, Suki, I started once again with swatches. This time I doubled the yarn and used even larger needles, speeding up the knitting process. The first swatch [at right] was made with pink and coral Naturespun, gold Lamb’s Pride, and some gold Fizz. After felting I noticed that the Lamb’s Pride still had some stitch definition and did not felt as quickly and uniformly as the Naturespun. In my previous bag this didn’t matter much, as the Lamb’s Pride was only used in thin black bands, but I wanted this new bag to felt as uniformly as possible. So I did another swatch using only Naturespun (see photo below). This swatch felted very evenly and I used its dimensions to determine how big to make my Knitty bag.

The second and third swatches had a band at the top where I used one strand of Naturespun combined with a strand of eyelash yarn. The doubled Naturespun felts a little more tightly than the Naturespun/eyelash combination, so I knew I had to work in some increases after the band to produce an even felted fabric.

Felted swatches can also be put to use when you no longer need them to calculate shrinkage. I used the second and third swatches to make a cell-phone cover and an eyeglass case. A square felted swatch makes a great mug coaster or pot-holder. A swatch is your starting point — and there’s really no limit to what you can do with this amazing fabric.


Kathy Wortel is a Toronto knitter.

She and her husband and daughter are owned by their Yorkshire Terrier, Suki.

© 2002 Kathy Wortel. Contact Kathy.