Sunday, December 28, 2008

Knittin' Crap: Can You Full It?*

I ended up making three gifts this year which required some degree of felting. For those who don't quite understand the mechanics of felting, find the favorite wool sweater of a family member, make sure it says, "Hand wash only" on the tag, and throw it in the washing machine on hot water with lots of soap and an old pair of tennis shoes.1

Felting (or, technically in this case, fulling1) occurs when the combination of heat, water, and agitation forces the scales on many animal hairs to open and interlock permanently. The resulting fabric is warmer, more water-repellent, and denser in thickness than the original, but it has also shrunk in surface area. Oops. Wool is by far the most feltable fiber, although that varies by sheep breed and the chemical treatment of the wool. Alpaca can felt pretty well, but, again, nothing holds a candle to wool.2

Top-loading washing machines are master felters, but if you need more control over the felting process or, like me, you live in a building with lame front-loading machines which you can't stop mid-cycle, you say, "Ok, I'll try hand-felting."

You'll be sorry.

I started off using the instructions in Knitted & Felted Toys: 26 Easy-to-knit Patterns for Adorable Toys, by Zoe Halstead, the source of the tiger project. She suggests having some boiling water with soap3 in it, and a bowl of ice cold water. You stir the item in the boiling water, then scrub it with your (duly insulated) hands, then plunge it into the cold water, repeating however many times it takes to get the amount of felting you want or to make your arms sore or to make you consider commandeering a friend's top-loading washing machine. Unfortunately, the tiger was for the kid of the friend with the top-loading machine, so, well, put it all down and wait for your arms to recover. Other sources don't insist on boiling water, but the extremes of temperature, the soap, and the agitation are constants.

Before tiger-prefelt r2d2-nofelt luntree-trunk-nofelt
During boilingtiger r2d2-water no picture
After tiger r2d2 luntree-trunk-felted
Yarn Frog Tree Worsted Alpaca Singles, 100% Alpaca Patons Soy Wool Solids and Soy Wool Stripes, 70% Wool, 30% Soy (rayon) Plymouth Galway Worsted, 100% Wool
Results The alpaca with the hand-method didn't felt very well, although it made the edge stitches a pain to sew up. Caden seemed more interested in the gift bag... The hat turned out way too big.4 I was making it for Steve to give to his Star Wars-lovin' brother Todd. "He has a really big head," he assured me. Yeah, but the hat should still only be big enough to cover the top part of it. I hadn't planned to felt but decided I had nothing to lose. If it failed, it wouldn't take too long to knit another.5 Hand-felting shrank it a bit, but I really liked the look. We threw it into Steve's machine for several minutes and that really let the air out of the balloon. He said it should be just right. I wasn't working off a pattern, although I wasn't thinking and hadn't intended to make that large a tree. Oh, well. I really liked how the knothole turned out.

* Because every time you post about felting, you have to use a crappy pun. Bonus points if you can name the cheesy 80s pop song reference!
1 Well, according to the Wikipedia article on felting, that's actually fulling, as it has happened after the fibers are in a fabric form rather than still in fiber form. I am not, however, changing the title of this post from "Can you felt it?"6
2 The machine-washable wools out there, often labeled "Superwash," were usually treated either in an acid bath to remove the scales that interlock in the felting process or were coated with a microscopic polymer to cover those scales.
3 Soap, not detergent. The chemical formulation of soap is more effective. I got a bar of Ivory soap and flaked some off into the pot.
4 My fault, not the pattern's. I should have started with smaller needles, but I needed double-points and didn't have a good middling size. I thought I could fake it, but I couldn't. The wool saved my ass. The pattern, by Carissa Browning, was excellent.
5 Because what's the difference 2 weeks before Xmas between partial and total sleep deprivation?
6 Ok, I am going to change the title of this post, because "Can you full it?" sounds better in a horrible punning way.

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