Thursday, May 6, 2010

Don't Fear the Felt, Part 3

When Cat talks, knitters listen.

After my last post, Cat Bordhi chimed into the comments with a suggestion to try felting in the washing machine. Apparently, my 12% / 25% shrinkage rate is less than one should expect from machine felting. Since this is my first felting project, the perspective of experienced people counts for a lot. So I took a break from slipper-making to run a few tests.

But here's the rub: I have a front-loader, which is not great for felting. Still, I wanted to see what I'd get with the tools that were readily available.

(edit) Results from my little n=3 experiment supported what I thought I'd find: front-loaders are not great tools for making felt. Ok, what now? For the time being, my knitting activities are restricted to my daughter's naptime, so that doesn't lend itself well to finding a top-loader outside the home. That's ok. I'm still curious to see where felting by hand will take me. (/edit)

I made 4 identical swatches on size 8 needles (Cascade 220), and tried different ways of felting. Just for curiosity's sake, let’s take a look at the fabrics.

View from the front:

Top row: felted in warm wash; felted by hand in hot water.
Bottom row: felted in hot wash; not felted (control subject).

Shrinkage rates were (in width/length):
Warm: 8% / 25%
Hot: 5% / 19%
Hand: 11% / 28%

Here's a closer look:


This one turned out really uneven. Admittedly, this may be because it went in with a full load of laundry.

This one turned out pretty even (this time I put it in with just a pair of jeans), but it really didn’t shrink all that much.

By Hand
Notice how, in comparison to the other 2 felted swatches, this is the only one that really looks like felt. You don’t see the stitches like you do in the others. It feels a lot stiffer, too. The edges on this one are not as even as the machine-felted pieces, but a) I quite like the irregularities, and b) I bet you could even out the edges with a little fussing (stretching, blocking, whatever).

Also, this is the only swatch that turned out completely flat. This is a big selling point with me.

View from back:

(edit) I’ve come away from this little experiment feeling a greater appreciation for hand-felting. Granted, this is within the context of not having easy access to a top-loader, but still, I feel like there’s something really satisfying about being able to experience this amazing transformation right in my hands. (/edit)

I’ll continue with iterations 3 and 4 in the next post. (Sneak peek: I’ve actually already completed 3 and am working on 4, and I suspect the next post will conclude this series.)


  1. I have an old-fashioned washboard that I use for hand-felting - it works a treat, and speeds things up wonderfully. The ridges and bumps really get the fibres moving against each other. Of course, I'm sure my great-grandmother would be aghast to hear me say "Ooo, this washboard is FUN!"

  2. So far you're sticking with one yarn and needle combination? I can see all sorts of variables if you change that. According to some sock knitters, tightly twisted wool at a fine gauge doesn't felt as much.

    Depending on final use, I'd felt them down as far as possible. Maybe keep on your machine and throw them in with every hot load.

    What about the dryer? That's hot and agitated.


  3. I do have a washboard on order. :)

  4. Yes, all of those reasons and more will effect the felting process. I too have a front load so I can't help you there, although running it through several cycles will get your swatches to felt more. (but that certainly is a waste) After all, temperature, agitation time/rate, soap, etc are all parts of how the felting is done and whether you are hand felting or machine felting, eventually, with enough manipulation of the factors, blood sweat and tears you can get a swatch to felt to the same degree regardless as to how you go about it. But seriously it can be hard work therefore not a good thing for you as a designer, you have to make it easy for the most common client.

    Gauge and the yarn itself IMO are the two biggest variables to figure out and can't be overcome with merely BS&T. I can't remember what yarn you're using (assuming 220 or WOA) but make sure you're using the THE yarn your pattern is written for. I can't tell you how many times I have been surprised by the felting variations of different wools/brands.

    It also is surprising how much a factor the gauge is. Not given enough room to bloom and move the yarn itself just might not felt very well. You can demonstrate this very easily by making two swatches one in a "normal" gauge another much looser. The quality and the degree of felting will be very different. (not to mention double stranding the yarn in the swatch which will bring a whole new twist to things) Unfortunately I haven't figured out just how to determine the "right" gauge for any given wool, at any given time, without a lot of trial and error. I suspect this is why there are so few, sized and fitted felt garments.

    Good luck on your journey, I can't wait to see what's next!

  5. Hey Jeny, I suggest you find someone with a top-loader and run it through that for a full agitation cycle of around 12-15 minutes. Many of my students tell me that 1 front-loader cycle equals about 1 minute in a top-loader. Also, as the above comment notes, gauge makes a huge difference.

  6. Front loaders are wonderful for a great many things, but not so much for the felting. One of the reasons that they are so nice to your clothes is because they have much gentler agitation. The gentleness is exactly what you don't want for felting, and that would be why it did not shrink as much. Similarly, with a top loader you want to make sure a heavy towel or jeans are in with the felting to make sure there is enough agitation.

  7. There is a portable, small washing machine that fits on your counter (called something like the 'wonder wash'). It would be perfect for small felted projects. I think it sells for $35-ish. Might be handy. :)

  8. CricketB has a good point. I've had some luck felting Cascade 220 by spritzing it and throwing it in the dryer with the other laundry. Cascade 220 definitely wants heat to felt -- throwing in a top loading washer in the cold colors cycle doesn't yield good results, even with jeans added for agitation. I have also run items multiple times to get them to felt to their limit with eventual good results.

    I am curious -- how will you handle this in your pattern? Will you ask the knitter to make and felt a gauge swatch to determine which size to cast on? Will you come up with a theoretical shrinking limit and ask the knitter to felt until that limit is achieved?

  9. Hi Jolie-

    How to handle this issue in a pattern is really the million dollar question. You are thinking along the same lines as me; sync on gauge (both pre-felt and post-felt) and cross my fingers that end users will get comparable results. I will have to give users a heads-up that results may vary.

    Breaking news: fate just handed me an unexpected opportunity to try felting with a top-loader, and guess what I found? Agitating 10 mins in hot water, and rinsing in cold, left me with approximately the same shrinkage rates that I was getting with hand-felting. I have yet to come up with a scientific explanation for why I continue to get results that differ from Cat's predictions, but if I can repeat this result a few more times with this particular yarn and this particular gauge, I will have reasonable confidence that others can reproduce the results if they sync on yarn, gauge, & method.

  10. Yikes! I'm pretty sure I wasn't fearing felting before I started reading your posts... Now I'll never get on with it. And I've already felted a purse, in my front-loader.

  11. Aw, don't worry NMjewel, I'm doing all the testing so you don't have to. :)

  12. I have only done hand felting as I have a front loader too. Used a bucket with hot water. Put in a towel and my knit. Then I used a wooden spoon to agitate it in the hot water. As the water got warmed I shocked the knit in cold water and then filled the bucket with hot water and agitated some more. Using this technique I was really able to get quite a bit of shrinkage. I imagine thought the yarn would have a great deal to do with how much it would shrink.

  13. Jeny - come over and felt all you want in my top-loader... it'd be nice to catch up :-) - Julija.

  14. OMG Julija so great to hear from you! I will totally take you up on your offer! :)

  15. I too have a front loader, and when needing to felt, just keep sending the item through the washer & dryer with the rest of the wash I'm doing anyway (hot/cold cycle). As it gets close to where I want it, I dry it between wash cycles. It usually takes around 4 W & 3 D cycles to felt to the point of not seeing the stitches.

  16. Absolutely wicked that you undertook this felting trial! xxx

  17. That was lovely of you to do this felting sample. I'm going to make felted slippers using this info - I guess I'm just too lazy or busy to do the samples myself.
    Many thanks and I'll post my results.

  18. What you are doing here is fulling, not felting. Felting is only done with fleece, fulling is with woollen yarn that has been knitted or crocheted.

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