What is Wet Felting?
Wet felting is the process of laying out fibre in a particular way, adding soap and water, and agitating with your preferred technique in order to produce an unwoven cloth. This is the traditional way of creating felt fabrics, found in cultures from over 2,500 to 3,000 years ago, and is considered to be the oldest known textile. One of the origin stories is that people would stuff their sandals with wool to prevent blisters, and at the end of their journey, the movement and sweat had turned the wool to felt. It has many uses, from practical carpets and tents to fine accessories.
The wool is laid out in the preferred method, and then soap and water is added. Once the work is covered by a net or thin plastic to keep the fibres in place, they can then be agitated either by hand or using a wooden palm-sized tool called a palm washboard, or even an electric sander! The agitation is continued as it begins to felt together, with the net being moved occasionally to make sure it isn't being incorporated. The wool is then checked to see if it is felted enough by doing a 'pinch test': if the wool lifts as shown in the third photo, it is ready for the next stage. This amount of felting is referred to as a 'pre-felt'. Although it may seem to be finished, it will not be a strong piece of felt until it has been fulled, to firm and shrink it.
Fulling can be done in different ways, and many felters have their own preferred practices, but the most common are rolling and throwing. Depending on the wool used, the piece can shrink up to 50%! By making samples with the fibres you have chosen for your project, you can estimate the amount of shrinkage that will occur, and the size that your initial layout needs to be.
To finish the felt, the soap needs to washed out of the fibres. As much water as possible is removed, and the finished product is left to dry naturally.