Felting your knit or crochet project is a great way to create a soft, dense fabric from any animal fiber yarn. Most people prefer felting in the washing machine, but not everyone has that option. The great news is that you can felt by hand, using your sink, a bucket, a washtub, or even the bathtub. Depending on the size of the project, hand felting can be quick and easy.
Under a microscope, animal fibers look a bit like closed scales on a pinecone; the wet felting process causes those fiber scales to open up, and agitating them by hand causes them to mat and tangle together. Test felting a knitted or crocheted swatch before making the full garment is the best way to make sure the fabric will felt the way you intend. Felting shrinks the material, usually more in height than in width, so check your pattern's instructions regarding size before and after felting very carefully.
Equipment / Tools
- Hot water
- Dishwashing liquid
- Sink or bucket
- 100 percent wool swatch, knit or crocheted, approximately 4 x 5 inches
Make Your Piece
The swatch shown was knit in stockinette stitch and measures 4 inches in width and 5-1/4 inches in height before felting.
Swish and Swash
After you've made your sample swatch it's time to get the felting started! All you need is some hot water and agitation (that's you!).
For small projects like a swatch, you can hand felt in a clean sink. If you have a bigger project, you might want to use a bucket or washbasin. You can also use a bathtub, though it requires a lot of water.
- Fill your receptacle of choice with enough hot water to comfortably cover your soon-to-be-felted item as you swish it around. Don't fill it so much that you'll splash the whole room with water.
- Add a few drops of dishwashing liquid (not laundry soap) to help open up the fibers.
- Use your hands or a stick to swish the piece around in the water. When the piece has absorbed the water, begin to knead the piece like dough, rubbing it along the bottom of the sink for a little more agitation action.
Wearing rubber gloves not only protects your hands while you do this, but it can also add an extra bit of roughness. Gloves with slightly textured palms are the most helpful.
After a couple of minutes of swishing and flipping your swatch, pull it out. Gently press out some of the water. Spread it on a towel and examine your progress.
The picture below was taken after about five minutes. The swatch is already beginning to get fuzzy; it's harder to see the space between stitches. In this amount of time, the height shrank to about 4-1/2 inches, while the width stayed about the same as the original swatch.
If you're not seeing much progress, shock the fibers with a cold water rinse, then return the swatch to hot water.
Every yarn—even different colors of the same yarn—can felt differently. Have patience if your yarn isn't felting immediately.
Know When to Stop
The hardest part of felting is knowing when to quit. The answer is really a personal choice. Fabric can be felted gently so that the stitch definition has just started to go, but the piece looks solid. Or it can be felted quite harshly so that all semblance of individual stitches is wholly gone.
Naturally, it takes much longer to completely erase the individual stitches when you're felting by hand! You may not want to take the felting as far as you might if you were using a washing machine.
One great thing about felting by hand is that it is very easy to check your work. Sometimes it can feel like nothing is happening, no matter how hard you work the fabric. Then boom! The fibers felt all at once. It's much easier to see how far along the process is when done by hand. It is also a great choice when you're trying to get to a specific dimension.
The example swatch was "done" when it measured 3-3/4 inches square. Most of the stitch definition is gone, though you can still see them right on the edges. The swatch has become quite fuzzy.
With the felting is complete, there's one more step needed in order to make your felted project come out right: blocking.
Blocking sets your finished project to the shape you want; for this swatch, that's a flat square. If you were felting a bag, clogs, or another large project, you might block it by stuffing it with newspapers to shape it in three dimensions, then allow it to dry.
Blocking a swatch is much simpler. Pin down one corner, then stretch gently until the sides are square and pin down the opposite corner. Repeat with the other two corners, then pin down the sides if necessary.
Allow your swatch to dry and celebrate successfully felting without a machine!