You’re planning your next project. Excellent. You’ve thought about your design but now you’ve hit a sticking point - what fibre do you use?
There are so many different types out there you don’t know where to start. What is going to give you the best results? What do you need to look out for? Is it one fibre fits all or should you consider on a project by project basis? (The answer to that last question is, of course, yes!)
Never fear, help is here….
1. Micron count and coarseness: Wool fibre is measured in microns - the higher the micron number the thicker and coarser the wool fibres. Different breeds produce wool of different fibre thicknesses. This can help you when choosing your fibre. So, merino wool has a low micron count (23 or under) and is quite fine, whereas Shetland has a mid range of 20-33, whilst Jacob can be in the 28-39 range and quite coarse. Coarse wool can take longer to felt, however what you choose goes back to your design...
2. Making a picture - 2D felting: If you are wet felting a picture, you need to think about your design and your expected final result. Merino is the most popular choice for pictures as it is fine, felts quickly and comes in the largest range of pre-dyed colours. However, you don’t want to waste your beautiful dyed fibres on the base where it won’t be seen. When it comes to the base you have two options:
Use natural non-dyed merino - cheaper than dyed merino and it has the advantage of behaving the same way as your design fibres. This means it will shrink at the same rate.
Use something different, such as Shetland: the main advantage if this is cost - you aren’t going to see the base so you can reduce costs by using a cheaper wool type. However, the thing to bear in mind is that, as it is a different fibre, it will behave differently to the merino making up your design. It will felt and shrink at a different rate (but this is rarely an issue to be honest.)
If you are planning on stitching and embellishing your picture you make need to think about stabilising your felt. Merino is fine and soft so you may need to add an interface on the reverse before stitching into it, especially if you are planning on machine stitching. A backing of Shetland or similar will add some robustness to your work.
If you are planning to needle felt your picture in its entirety you are not really constrained to wool types. You can use anything for the base, from manufactured prefelt to cotton fabric.
3. Sculptural felting - animals and the like: This is where merino falls out of favour. Many needle felters find it difficult to felt solely with merino due to it’s fine fibre type. There are again options on choosing fibre for this:
Use a core wool to make your main structure. Core wool is basically a mix of different types of wool from different sheep breeds and tends to be fairly coarse and more importantly, cheap! As with the picture, there isn’t much point in using beautiful fibres in the middle of your creature where it won’t be seen. You can then add colour over the surface with merino, particularly good if you want a smooth finish
Use a thicker fibre - Shetland, Jacob, Norwegian etc. Coarse wool holds its shape better and is more robust. It also felts more quickly when using a needle. It also usually comes in a more natural colour range, perfect for little critters. It won’t give the smooth finish of merino but, if you are making a hare, you will probably want a bit of fuzz!
4. Wearables - scarves and clothing: Again, fibres of a low micron count will be the most popular choice for these - ideally a count of 20 or lower. The thing to bear in mind again is the micron count - the higher the number, the thicker the fibre and therefore more coarse. This means more itchiness! Although I love felting, I have quite sensitive skin and can find even merino irritating if it’s over 20 micron. Ideally look for superfine (18 micron or lower) or even consider using something like fine Alpaca. It takes longer to felt but removes the itch problem! The lower micron fibres are much softer so are ideal for anything that is to be worn. One thing to bear in mind is that although merino can be a good choice, it has a tendency to pill (those annoying bobbly bits that form over time.) Think about whether this will be an issue for you and if so, chose a different fibre. If you are going to be making something like a jacket that is to be worn over clothing, you can probably get away with using a thicker wool, but still aim for under 25 micron.
5. Bags and pots: robustness plays a part here. If you want to use merino, you will need to make the layers a bit thicker to make sure it can hold the shape. When I first started felting I made a pot from merino and it collapsed on itself as it was too soft. My best results have come from using wool like Shetland and Norwegian - they hold their shape brilliantly and are sturdy enough to actually use.
Obviously, as with anything, what fibres you end up using is down to your own personal preference. I know people who refuse to use merino for anything and others who pretty much exclusively work with it. Once you’ve built up some experience and experimented with different fibre types you will find the ones you are most comfortable working with. This is intended as a guideline only - you may be more than happy to use a more coarse fibre for making a scarf if you have a high tolerance to wool.
However, this will hopefully give you a good starting point and things to consider before starting your next project.
Still confused? Check out my Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Felting!