Needle felting is a completely no-tech and super low cost crafting “habit.” I opted against using the word hobby to describe needle felting, because once you pick up a piece of wool and the proper needle, it is almost impossible not to get addicted.
I discovered needle felting accidentally when browsing Pinterest and ETSY for Waldorf toy ideas and inspiration. Almost immediately I fell in love with so many of the lifelike and whimsical needle felted animals – especially this set of elephants.
But, being a frugal homesteader, I was not about to spend $185 on a child’s little felted toy, or even a shelf display piece. You can make bowls, scarves, baskets, flowers, wall hangings, and bookmarks to name a few.
When my homesteading friend, Sarah Rodriguez, asked if I wanted the wool from her sheep she was about to sheer, I jumped at the generous offer. I cleaned and dried it, then naturally dyed it in excited preparation for embarking on my needle felting journey.
What Is Needle Felting?
Natural wool fiber is surrounded by overlapping little scaled edges that are flat, and point in various directions. When the wool fiber is worked with a needle or agitated during wet felting, the scales come into constant contact with each other and begin to form together tightly.
The more the wool being felted is poked or stabbed with the needle, the harder it becomes. This happens because you are not merely locking a couple of fibers together, but hundreds.
You begin any needle felting project by rolling just a small amount of wool fleece or roving into a ball type shape, and puncturing it over and over again with the needle.
To create sculptured body part or project pattern pieces, the poking of the wool in a direction to turn the basic shape into a more detailed form continues until you get the desired look and harden the felt so it locks into place.
You will likely need to add more little tufts of wool to the shape to give it both dimension and contour. Sometimes, needle felters use armature wire or the cheaper version, pipe cleaner, as a frame for a shape or to create bendable parts.
It is possible to make a rock hard object if you have enough spare time, and you hands do not start aching terribly from all the repetitive stabbing.
Felting needles are distinctly different than sewing or embroidery needles. The little barbs on the end push the wool in one direction, but do not pull the fibers back out again when they are being stabbed into the project over and over again.
No store in my area sells felting needles, so I ordered online a large set that came with a wood handle holder you could slide multiple needles into so big projects could be completed more quickly.
Wool or foam needle felting mats can also be purchased at craft stores or online, but I saw no sense in spending $10 to $20 for one – I simply use a clean dry sponge for a mat to rest my project upon and it worked just fine.
Needle Felting Tips
Start small and focus on creating a basic shape to get the hang of working with the needles. I started with a simple round ball shape to make a rock that could be used to adorn a Waldorf playscape (plat mat) I was going to wet felt – more about how to wet felt in another post.
After pricking my fingers a few times, I got the hang of using the barbed needles. Nothing like a little blood to remind you to pay attention to how you are holding a sharp object!
Needle felting the ball was not tedious at all, like I had feared it would be. I enjoyed poking that needle around so much my beloved Bobby was worried my next project was going to be a voodoo doll. Although I did end up starting a doll, it was a sweet little bendable princess doll for one of our granddaughters.
After being so proud of my perfect little ball, I decided to turn the sphere into a little teddy bear. The bear in the feature photo was my first needle felting project.
I recommend starting with a simple shape, be it a ball, star, heart, square or triangle. There is no pressure to create something ornate or lifelike when you tell yourself all you are needle felting is a practice shape. If it eventually turns into something else, that is just an added bonus.
There are a few extremely important things you must remember when needle felting:
- The needles are very sharp – no watching a movie on your phone while poking it towards your hand with nothing more than a tiny bit of fluffy fleece between it and your skin.
- Do not needle felt with wet wool. It will take a lot longer for the fibers to forge together when poked with the needle and the needle will likely rust and break from being exposed to the moisture repeatedly.
- The needles will break when poked directly into the wool object. If the broken tip does not fall out of stick out the side of the project, you will have to pull it all apart to find it or just pitch your work. Since making a little animal can take three hours of poking, you so do not want this to happen.
- The wool must be made of a natural fleece to be felted. You can scoop up some of the hair your dog is shedding and give it a whirl, but you cannot use the synthetic felt sold at the local Walmart to either needle or wet felt.
- A regular sewing needle will not work for needle felting because it is smooth from eye to tip and does not possess the barbs required to agitate the fibers in the wool. I have heard of folks using a broken hair pin to needle felt, but I cannot attest to the successful nature of this potential crafting legend method.
- Wool does not have to be carded to be needle felted.
- You can felt the base of your project with clean, undyed wool and save your colored pieces for only the outer covering. Some crafters feel carded wool is easier to work with and binds together more quickly, but I have noticed no distinct difference when working with either carded wool or raw fleece.
Needle Felting Basic Steps
Grab a bit of wool that is about one and a half times the dimensions of the object your are making, and approximately one inch thicker than you want the final project.
Place the wool on the cushy mat you chose to use – a little pillow or a sponge will work just fine. I often felt just holding the wool in my hand, or on my kitchen table. You have to remember to be more careful with the needle when not using some type of mat or risk poking yourself or marring the table.
Poke the felting needle randomly into the wool you have formed loosely into your shape. Always poke in an up and down and not a sideways motion.
To make indentations in the shape you are making to give it dimensions, compress the middle of the shape. You can then use the felting needle to flatten all or a portion of the compressed area. This is a great way to make wings on birds, or to give added texture to the interior of animal ears.
If you have excess wool, you can cut it away with scissors, or fold it onto the project and felt it down so you do not lose the added fluff and weight of the piece. You can fold the excess or add a bit more wool and then fold it onto the object to build a more rounded, cleaner, and finished edge.
Use straight pins to secure your shape down for an easier time. This will also relieve your fingers of getting stabbed.
How To Make Facial Features On Needle Felted Animals And Dolls
To make eyes on your needle felted animals and dolls, you can make an indentation where they are to be placed with the needle. Then, insert a plastic doll safety eye in the indentation. Poke around the eye socket with the needle to secure it into place. Or, you can poke in wool in the desired color to make a simple eye – and other facial features.
A third needle felted animal or doll eye option would be to hand embroider them, and/or a mout, nose, and whiskers in the desired spot.
To create flourishes on a project, such as stripes on an animal or fine details on a flower, you can either embroider them on or use the same technique noted above to needle felt on simple eyes.
If you do not keep sheep or have a sweet homesteading friend who does, both white and dyed wool roving can be purchased at most craft stores and online.
Needle felting kits are another great option for garnering both the basic supplies you need to enjoy the craft along with a detailed tutorial for making the project(s) that come in the box.
Check out my wet felting and needle felting board on Pinterest for examples of both beginner and more advanced projects to help inspire you to pick up a barbed needle and a bit of wool to make a one of a kind creation of your very own.
Update: also check out these dolls I made over the weekend:
Aren’t they adorable? Here are some close-ups of a couple of them:
updated 01/27/2020 by Tara Dodrill
Tara lives on a 56 acres farm in the Appalachian Mountains, where she faces homesteading and farming challenges every single day. her homesteading skills are unmatched, she raises chickens, goats, horses, a wide variety of vegetables, not to mention she’s an expert is all sorts of homesteading skills such as hide tanning, doll making, tree tapping and many, many more.