Making Felt Balls - Fibre Alchemy!
Wet felting is a little bit like magic. You take some loose fluff, rub it with some warm soapy water and almost instantly, you have a solid object! It’s a very gratifying craft which is pretty much limitless in its possibilities.
I always introduce a new craft with a story of its history. My story of the history of felt, which I will post on here in the future, tells of a shepherd who stuffed some loose wool into his shoes to prevent them from rubbing his feet during his long walks. When he took his shoes off that night, he discovered the wool had bound itself together into a piece of fabric.
I would also have given the children some lessons on the science of wool. We look at several kinds of wool and other animal fibres (including human hair) under our microscope and notice that each hair has scales on the outside. Again I will post more details of these lessons in the future.
I refer to both of these lessons when I show children how to felt for themselves and I have left the references in the lesson below, but feel free to improvise if you don’t want to wait for me to post the earlier lessons or research them yourself.
Felt Balls Lesson
Age of child: Any
Materials: Wool roving, bar of soap, grater, towel, plastic tub, hot water.
Text in italics: what I say
Standard text: what I do
Do you remember in the Story of the History of Felt we learned about how the shepherd discovered he could turn the loose strands of wool in to fabric by putting them in his shoes as he walked? And do you remember when we looked at strands of wool under the microscope, we found they had scales on them? Well we know now that the transformation the shepherd discovered comes from the scales in the wool lifting up and pressing into one another, before locking back down again.
This process is called felting.
There are three things we need to make wool felt. Warmth, water and movement. In our story of the shepherd, the warmth came from his feet, they would have grown quite hot as he walked about all day, especially if he had wool in his shoes. The water also came from his feet, when our skin grows hot, our body tried to cool it down by releasing moisture, doesn’t it? Do you know what that moisture is called? Yes, sweat.
The third thing is movement, to rub all the scales of the wool fibres and make them lift up and join together. The shepherd’s feet did this as he walked about all day on the wool.
Today we are going to use our hands to create the movement and we are going to use hot water from the tap instead of our body heat and sweat.
Assist the children to set themselves up with a tub of hot water on a towel. (the hotter the water, the easier it is to felt, but is will work with cold water also, so just make it as warm as the children are comfortable with.)
There is one more thing we are going to use which the shepherd did not. Soap helps the wool to felt together faster so we are going to add some to our water.
We can use this little grater to help break the soap down so it dissolves faster.
Assist the children to grate some soap and add it to their water. (One or two teaspoons is fine, depending on the size of container.)
We can use our hands to mix the soap into the water. It doesn’t need to be bubbly, but we do want most of the soap to dissolve.
Wait whilst the children dissolve the soap.
(You can connect this to work on mixtures and solutions.)
Now we are ready to prepare our fibres but first we have to make sure our hands are very dry.
As we know that water and soap make wool turn to felt, we understand that it’s important to keep our wool fibres dry until we are ready to felt them. We’ll take what we need and put the rest well away from our wet area.
Assist the children to select a small amount of roving and put the rest away.
Demonstrate each of the steps below to the children and encourage them to copy you.
Remember how we said the wool fibres have scales which lock together to make felt? Well they won’t be able to lock together if they are all facing the same way, will they? So we need to mix them up. We do this by pulling them apart and putting them back together in a different way lots of times.
We need to do it gently as we don’t want to damage the fibres.
Gently pull the fibres apart and put them back together in different directions many times until you have a very fluffy, mixed up pile of fibres.
We are ready to make our fibres warm and wet so we are going to very gently put them into our water. We want it to get wet all the way through, but we don’t want to squeeze the air out and we don’t want the fibres to fall apart.
Take the fibres out of the water and very lightly begin to shape them into a ball. It’s important to put as little pressure on the fibres as possible at this stage - you want to maintain the loose airiness.
Now we can start to roll our fibres into a ball, but we have to be very careful not to squash them. Imagine you are holding a very precious, fragile egg. Try to roll it between your hands without crushing it at all.
Continue to roll the fibres between your hands, until the ball develops a ‘skin’. At this point you can gradually add a little pressure as you roll. Dip the ball back into the water if it becomes dry or cold.
After about five minutes (more for some children) of rolling, the ball will become tight and firm. How firm, is a matter of preference, but children should get it to a point where it holds its shape well when squeezed between finger and thumb.
I have been rolling my ball for a while and it feels pretty round and firm, so I think it has felted enough. I don’t want it to stay all soapy, so I’m going to wash it out.
Take the ball to a sink and wash it under running water until the soap is removed.
Now my ball just needs to dry. We can leave them here on the table whilst we make some more.
Children can continue to make more felt balls or pack away.
Note: that first attempt often have lumps of cracks so it is a good idea to make a few to get the hang of it.
Older children may like to experiment with different kinds of wool as well as other fibres to see if they have different felting properties.
I don’t generally need to suggest uses for these balls to the children – they enjoy them as they are however, there are lots of fun things you can do with them.
When they are dry, it is easy to push a sewing needle through them so they can be strung as beads on necklaces or keyrings. You can also sew seed beads and sequins onto them then add a loop to make Christmas tree ornaments.
I don’t have any pictures of these to share at the moment but I’m sure my students will be keen to make some examples, which I’ll post on the Montessori Handwork Facebook page.
If you experiment with any of these ideas, please feel free to post pictures of the process and the results on my Facebook page.