How to Felt With a Top-Loading Machine

Stripy felted tote bag on chest of drawers and balls of wool

Ruth Jenkinson / Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

Overview
  • Skill Level: Beginner

Felting has become very popular among knitters, and it's easy to see why. There's something magical about knitting something that starts out huge and awkward and ends up being a completely different fabric after spending some time in the washing machine.

Just about any knitted object can be felted, from flat pieces like coasters and afghan squares to bags, belts, hats, home accessories, and more. But felting can be a little mysterious and intimidating to those who have never done it before. Here's a quick rundown on how to felt any knitted object using a top-loading washing machine, using some simple knitted squares so you don't have to worry that you're going to mess up something you spent a long time making.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • US 9 (5.5 mm) knitting needles
  • Old pillowcase with zip closure
  • Top-loading washer

Materials

  • 50 yard worsted weight 100% wool yarn

Instructions

  1. Choose Materials and Cast On

    When choosing yarn for a felting project, make sure the yarn is 100% wool. Washable wools such as those labeled "superwash" will not felt. Use needles that are 2 to 3 sizes larger than recommended to create the open spaces necessary for felting knit fabric.

    Cast on 25 sts. Work in either Garter (purple swatch at left) or Stockinette stitch (green swatch at right) until the swatch is square. When finished, the samples shown measured 5 inches by 5 inches.

    When you are finished knitting your swatch, make sure you weave in the ends very securely, or they could come loose in the wash, making a hole in your felted project.

    Unfelted swatches.
    Sarah E. White
  2. Prepare To Felt

    Felting is a process caused by heat and agitation. Set your washing machine on the lowest water setting, the highest temperature, and the longest agitation cycle. Turn on the machine and let it fill with water.

    Some people add laundry detergent or baking soda to the water when they felt, others do not. Besides the soapless method being a little less messy, we have not seen much of a difference between using soap and not using soap. If you want to use detergent, use about a quarter of the amount you would use to wash your clothes. You can also use a squirt of wool wash, which is what we usually do.

    Another point upon which felters differ is on whether to bag your items to be felted. Many people suggest using a zip-top pillowcase to hold items during felting. Others say it isn't necessary unless you are felting very small items that could otherwise get lost in the machine.

    We think using a pillowcase is a good idea. Any fuzz that is released while your project is felting will end up in the bag, rather than in your washing machine where it could cause expensive damage. Using a case also makes it easier to fish your pieces out of the water as you check the progress of your felting.

    When the machine is full of water and begins to agitate, drop your bundle in the machine.

    Put swatches in a pillowcase to make felting less messy.
    Sarah E. White
  3. Keep Track of Progress

    It's essential to check the progress of your felting project frequently. Set a timer for five minutes and stop the machine when the timer goes off.

    Because you put your work in a zippered pillowcase, it will be easy to find your pieces. A pair of kitchen tongs may make it easier to pull the case out of the hot water. Pull out your knitted swatch and gently wring out some of the water. Take a look at what you've got. Spread a dry towel out somewhere, lay down your swatch, and measure it (or make an estimate using what's available).

    This first time out of the washer, you might find that something strange has happened. Instead of shrinking, your fabric might instead be getting bigger. That's because wool tends to relax when it gets wet, so it may stretch a little before it starts getting smaller. Don't worry, just put it back in and start the machine again.

    Keep setting your timer and peeking in on your work every five minutes or so to see how the felting is going. You may need to run the agitation cycle several times before the piece felts satisfactorily. Every piece of knitting is different in terms of how it will felt. Different colors of the same yarn felt differently because of the way dye binds to fiber. It is a common experience that white or very light-colored yarns are more difficult to felt.

    It is important not to let your washer drain or spin during the felting process. Keep an eye and an ear on the machine and reset it when it starts to drain. Just stop the machine and turn the dial back around until it begins to agitate again.

    felting knitting progress
    Sarah E. White
  4. Let Machine Drain After Felting

    After a few of these five-minute sessions, you'll start to see that the individual stitches are disappearing, and the fabric is getting smaller. Again, yarns will felt at different rates, and some shrink more than others.

    The fabric will start feeling more firm, solid, and somewhat thicker as it gets closer to done. Once the definition of individual stitches starts disappearing, check the pieces more often, every one or two minutes, to make sure you don't take the felting process too far. 

    If you are working on a project from a pattern, felting is complete when the project measures what the instructions specify. If you're doing something like a swatch or making a project from scratch, it's a little less scientific. The felting is complete when it looks and feels done: the stitches will have lost their definition, and the fabric should be smooth, solid, and somewhat firm.

    When you decide the felting is done, let the machine drain and turn it off. Rinse your pieces with cool water and wring them out gently. Place them on a thick towel.

    finished felting project
    Sarah E. White
  5. Finishing

    Once you've felted and rinsed your piece, the final step is to block the project. The steps are basically the same as those for any other project being wet blocked.

    If you're working with flat pieces, stretch and pin them to even out the size and shape. If you're working with a finished piece like a bag, hat, or bowl, you'll need to shape it to the proper form and measurements, then leave it to dry. Anything can be used as a form for shaping felted projects. Bowls and plates are good for hats and other circular items, while boxes and books are good for square or rectangular things.

    Let the piece dry thoroughly before unpinning or removing the work from whatever you're using as a mold.

    Blocked felted pieces blocked and ready to dry
    Sarah E. White