What is Needle Felting?

Tools for sculptural needle felting - a Highland coo in progress

I was wondering what it is about needle felting that I enjoy so much, and I realized that it's a combination of the elegant simplicity of beautiful, tactile wool  fibers and using only a needle to create my visions. I also think there is something very therapeutic about stabbing and poking to create a type of living result. Then there's that element of danger... will I stab myself with a very sharp, multi-barbed steel needle today? Will I draw blood or narrowly avoid injury? 

Ok, that part isn't too fun, but it adds to my investment into the piece and focuses my concentration, which in turn expands my ability to concentrate and apply myself, and that is never a bad thing! So the entire art, or craft, or passion, of needle felting suits me, and is very satisfying. I simply love everything about it.

But, what IS needle felting, exactly?

Well... basically defined, it's the action of taking wool fibers and, using only a very sharp barbed needle, compressing and tangling the wool fibers into a felted shape. And one of the things about needle felting I find so interesting is, that it has only been around since the 1980s!

Felting wool is an ancient technique, although it was done through a wet felting process where a lot of water and rubbing/friction was used to compact the fiber into a fabric or item. Needle felting, however, was traditionally a machine process where thousands of super sharp, multi-barbed steel needles are driven into dry wool fiber until it tangled and compacted the fibers together into a flat, highly usable fabric.

In the 1980s, an enterprising woman (some sources say it was a couple ladies) in Denmark wondered if she could use just one of those machine needles and work it by hand to make three-dimensional items like beads, brooches, etc. She tried it, and as the story goes, it turned out better than she had imagined, and had seemingly endless limits!

Thank you, Birgitte! (And Kay!)

An early pioneer (and many believe the first person) in using the felting needle to make 3D dolls, Birgitte Krag Hansen, developed the core sculptural needle felting techniques as we know them today. She created art pieces, dolls, and animal sculptures, and she is still working her needle magic today, with a lovely gallery of sculptures. 

Since Birgitte's first techniques, needle felting has evolved into two basic paths: 

  1. armature-based figures, where a core of wool is wrapped around a wire structure, the the piece is finished with needle felting;
  2. sculptural needle felting that I learned from my early mentor, Kay Petal (whose mentor was Birgitte), where the entire piece is wool, begun with core shapes felted together, then details layered and felted over the core structure.

Needle felting was virtually unknown for many years, but in the past decade or so, that's changed dramatically, and it has become quite a popular hobby, craft and art for those who love the textile arts. And speaking of art, needle felting today is considered a true art form. It employs many similar perspectives, knowledge and skills as sculpting in any medium, but it only requires a felting needle, wool fiber, and time (along with imagination)... which is the greatest appeal to me personally!

Simple with Ridiculously Cool Results

One of the coolest things about needle felting is that, once you learn a couple basic things, you can make it completely your own. Many artistic felters have adapted their own styles and methods, creating their own techniques and making this art very personal and genuine.

It seems natural to start with the standard method that best suits the look you like, and then manipulate the pieces and create your own styles and techniques.That's part of the fun--and magic--of it!

I have developed many techniques and tricks now that are uniquely my own, and it continually evolves for me. It's very exciting to create whatever comes to my mind. From life-like animal figures, to cartoon and fantasy creatures, or look-alike art dolls of real people, to zany, adorable (or zombie-esque) caricatures...I just can't seem to get enough of sculptural needle felting, and I don't see that ever changing!