I really want to be a crafty person, but I have two major obstacles: I’m bad at following directions, and I’m a mess of nerves. I know how to knit, but I screw up patterns by losing count or losing focus. I know how to sew, but I turn into jelly at the sight of a sewing machine; I’m sure I’m going to run a line of stitches through my hand. I know how to draw, but I’m completely paralyzed by the idea of self-expression through art. (What if you express yourself and it isn’t any good?)
Which is why the last time I went to a craft party, I showed up with a block of foam, several tufts of wool, and some very sharp needles. Everyone else was doing incredibly intricate and beautiful lacework or perfect little cute amigurumi dolls -- at least that’s how I remember it, though this might be slightly informed by my craft-based insecurity complex. But when I explained that I was needle felting, and that it involved stabbing a piece of material until it looks how you want it to, the room got quiet.
Friends: So... you just stab it?
Me: Yeah, you kind of wad it up and stab it with these super-sharp barbed needles, and then eventually it takes the shape you want.
Friends: What if you stab it into the wrong shape?
Me: You just stab it some more until it looks right.
Friends: Where did you get this stuff?
Me: I got my supplies online but there’s usually at least a little bit of needle felting stuff at Michael’s.
Friends: WE. ARE. GOING. TO. MICHAEL’S.
I’m not exaggerating: Nearly everyone except me left, drove over to Michael’s, came back with needle felting gear and proceeded to stab their little hearts out. (Er, they didn’t stab their HEARTS out. You know what I mean.)
It surprised me -- I figured I’d be the odd one out, with my weird and unladylike craft. But I’d underestimated the incredible appeal of an art form that is also an act of violence.
It really is cathartic. As my husband put it, you stab and stab and stab and stab and at the end you have a cute fuzzy thing. (You can also do real art -- there’s an artist named Stephanie Metz who makes some of the most beautiful and creepy sculptures I’ve ever seen, entirely out of felted wool -- but I’ve pretty much focused on cartoony creatures.) I mean, I could go around stabbing stuff harmlessly until I turn blue, but at the end of the day I would have no more cute animals than I’d started with.
Conversely, I could theoretically make critters in any number of ways, including through animal husbandry, but that way I wouldn’t get to stab anything. Needle felting offers the best of both worlds.
Convinced yet? Here’s what you need:
- Wool roving, but not the nice soft stuff with the long fibers that you spin up into beautiful yarn. For creatures, at least at first, you want something that looks like you pulled it out of a sheep’s shower drain. (Maybe a genetically engineered sheep, since it’ll come in colors.) I got a bulk grab bag from here, but I like the look of this assortment too, and if you have a project in mind there are places that let you pick and choose your colors.
- At least one felting needle. You can also get a multi-needle tool (brilliant for making a wad of wool into a tight ball in a hurry), bigger needles for coarse work, and finer finishing needles, but at minimum you need one 38- or 36-gauge needle.
- A big block of reasonably dense foam. You can get it at a felting supplies place, or you can get it from the inside of a chair.
- A vague plan.
- Excess aggression.
- The willingness to drive a barbed needle into your fingers once or twice.
I usually start out any creature with a series of balls -- head, body, legs, ears. Or body, eyeball, and tentacles, if you’re making a brain slug.
To make a ball, start with a big chunk of roving, much bigger than you think you’ll want because it’s going to shrink down considerably. (Think raw spinach versus cooked spinach -- roughly that ratio.) Then just pretty much stab it for a while, from various angles. Turn it occasionally, and try to stick the end of the needle into the wool or the foam more than you stick it into your fingers.
You’ll notice that the fibers start to knit together and the ball starts to get tighter. Stab it until you feel better about your job. Stab it until you work through your feelings about your ex. Stab it until you are cleansed of your anger at your childhood. By then it ought to be firm enough.
How to pick out details: Stab where you want it to go in more.
How to add more if you made it too small: Slap some more roving on there and stab until it sticks.
How to add another color: Slap some roving of another color on there and stab that until it sticks.
How to join two pieces together: Put them together and stab.
How to cover up imperfect-looking joins, like between two balls for head and body: Wrap the join in some roving and stab.
You get the idea. ALL PROBLEMS IN NEEDLE FELTING ARE SOLVED WITH STABBING.
Over time, you get better at stabbing things to look the way you want them to, but basically if you can shove a sharp object up something repeatedly, you can needle felt. This makes it a perfect pastime for dentists, gladiators, recovering heroin addicts, juice box testers and catheter experts.
But it also makes it a perfect pastime for people who want their frustration to be productive. Some people turn their anxieties into house cleaning energy, or workout motivation; I'm mostly good at turning mine into stomach acid and lethargy. Needle felting lets me turn it into cute animals instead.