Seven years ago, Jenne Giles was a San Francisco painter and sculptor who didn't know felting existed. Now she works almost exclusively in the medium, stretching the possibilities of felt in fashion.
There's a soft-sculpture aspect to wet felting that is attractive to Giles, who sells her ruffled scarves in museum gift shops and online at the Artful Home. It's tactile and hands-on, like working in clay, she says.
"It incorporates all the things that I love," says Giles, author of "Felt Fashion: Couture Projects from Garments to Accessories" (Quarry Books, 2010).
"It's an ancient medium," she adds. "It's right there at the dawn of mankind, after making clothing from leather and sinew."
Felting has two methods: Needle felting uses a barbed needle that pokes dry wool roving — raw fleece — into place. It's often used to make cute critters and dolls. Needle felting is not as permanent or sturdy as wet felting, which uses hot, soapy water and agitation to enmesh wool fibers so tightly that they cannot be pulled apart.
Many artists combine wool with other fibers, such as silk, in their wet-felted projects.
Yet another method that is often called felting involves agitating a knitted wool item, such as a bag or scarf, in soapy, warm water to compact its fibers, shrinking it. But in the felting community, this method is set apart as "fulling." Whereas needle and wet felting begin with wool roving, the knitting-and-fulling process uses wool yarn.
Leah Adams combines needle and wet felting in colorful geodes, and sells kits for them at her Etsy shop, kneek (short for "knitting geek"), or SpiderFelt.
Adams moved her art studio out of her Seattle home nine months ago, and just moved it again — to gain more felting space. "I have not exhausted everything I can imagine," she says.
In the five years she's been felting, Adams has made her share of scarves so she's turning to larger, more time-consuming projects like wall hangings.
She encourages non-felters to give it a try.
"The materials are cheap. It's not a huge investment in time. It's easy to try," she says.
Many felters say it's the transformative nature of wool felting that attracts them. "It's a pretty magical experience to start with a raw material and create a textile out of it," says LeBrie Rich, of Portland, Ore., who's been felting full-time for five years.
Rich makes scarves and accessories — a faux-watch cuff, for example — but confesses to a love of felted desserts; view her four-layer cake and three years of felted Thanksgiving dinners created for a Portland knitting store at her website, LeBrie.
Giles, too, sees magic in wool fibers being transformed from a loose state to a tightly entangled one. The texture changes, and colors deepen.
"There is kind of a moment in felt-making where before the wool becomes matted, it looks exactly like paint strokes," she says.
Needle-felting several colors into a ball — or into one of Adams' geodes — provides another avenue for surprise when the ball or geode is cut open. This is fun to do with children, who can start needle felting as young as 4 and 5 with adult supervision, according to Adams.
A felted scarf is another good beginner's project, says Rich. All you need to get started is wool roving, soap and hot water.
Learn how to do either felting technique by viewing tutorials online, including on YouTube. The International Feltmakers Association explains materials and techniques, while FeltUnited, a non-profit that connects felt artists worldwide, posts an eclectic online gallery of works.
Adams suggests perusing the web links at "Feltmaker's Links FAQ," provided by Feltmakers, an online discussion group. She recommends reading "Uniquely Felt" (Storey Publishing, 2007), by Christine White, to learn basic techniques.
Buy wool roving at yarn or crafts stores, or online at Etsy, New England Felting Supply (owned by White) or Outback Fibers, which also posts instructional videos.
Giles foresees continued innovations in felting."I think there are a lot of unexplored possibilities for it," she says. "We're at a real beginning stage in the Renaissance of felt-making, of what's possible."