Tiny barbed wands are the tools of my trade. They feel magical.
They make a satisfying crunch crunch as I poke them into the wool time and again, with just a hint of resistance as I pull them out.
There is something meditative in that repetitive push and pull movement, in the muted sounds, in the soft give of the wool as my fingers try to contain and direct it’s buoyant energy.
What is needle felting?
Felt is densely matted wool or animal fibre that is often formed with water, soap and agitation. You may have made some of it yourselves when you accidentally put a wool sweater in the wash. (These can be repurposed into great purses!)
Industrial felting machines with thousands of needles were designed to felt fibres into large flat sheets without the need for water – dry felting.
Hand needle-felting uses these same three inch needles to sculpt wool and fibre. They are long and thin and very sharp. Repetitive stabbing of the wool with the notched needles hooks and entangles the fibres to mesh them together. The needles can be used as singles or nested in special handles that hold 3 or 4. I’ll sometimes use these for starting off larger pieces to economize on the wrist motion.
They come in various gauges (thicknesses) for rough or fine work. Basically, the more you needle the wool, the tighter it is pulled together. A straight up and down motion is necessary so as not to break the thin shafts. A thick sturdy foam pad protects your surfaces and your knees.
A time for everything
For hand needle-felting it is better to sit still, concentrate and heighten your awareness of all sensations. Focus on the tip of the needle so that you always know where it is going in and out; it keeps your fingers from meeting its sharp end and prevents breaks. If you pay attention, the sound and feel of the wool will tell you when you need to stop or redirect. It is not unlike your grandmother knowing exactly how much more flour to add as she kneads the dough to get the consistency just right.
It may not be an accident that I felt such a connection with the needle felting process the moment I tried it. Many years ago I was drawn to make pen and ink pointillist drawings, a technique which uses a similar up and down repetitive motion of the wrist. I recall a long stretch of evenings when I was driven to make many of these dotted drawings. I’d work from when my three young sons were in bed until 3 a.m. or so. I’d have to get up in the morning to go to work but that didn’t stop me. It lasted till the urge was spent.
Perhaps the time for that quiet, meditative concentration has returned; time to focus on the motion of the needles, to feel the wool, to connect with the simple act of making.