A note about The Cuddlywumps Chronicles

This blog is written and maintained by Miss Cuddlywumps, a fluffy-tailed calico cat who is both classically educated and familiar with mysteries. Comments or complaints should be addressed to Miss C rather than to author Roby Sweet. Ms. Sweet accepts no responsibility for Miss C's opinions.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Felted Felines: Creating Cats with Needle and Wool (and Claws!)



Today I’m pleased to welcome special guest Hilary Powers of Salamander Feltworks to share her cat-related craft. Hilary is a freelance editor, a passionate craftswoman, and a devoted birder (though not with an altogether feline predatory interest) who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Besides the main Salamander Feltworks website, you can see her work on Etsy and Facebook.

Hilary Powers with a menagerie of felted friends at a show in 2013.
Miss C: Welcome, Hilary. Thank you for visiting us to share your craft. You do something called “needle felting,” but I’m not sure what that is. Can you explain it a little bit? 

Hilary: Well, “felt” is what wool wants to be: a sort of super dreadlock with no internal structure except the way the little claws along each fiber cling to one another as they tangle. Wool fibers will do this if left alone together and just moved slightly from time to time, but people have found lots of ways to encourage the process.

A lovely Siamese cat created through the process
of needle felting.
This feline, Terezz S. Cat,
underwent a “foot-ectomy” during her creation.
Find out more about that here.
Fr’instance, the Mongols—who built tents of felt—would make it by putting a shorn fleece under the saddle blanket in the morning. Ride all day (on a comfortably well-padded horse) and you have a nice big sheet of felt to dry out and put away in the evening.

What I do is called “needle felting” because it involves pushing a special needle—actually a sharp 3" spike with little flanges along the edges of a square or triangular section at the end—into unspun wool over and over and overandoverandover while the flanges on the needle catch the individual fibers and rub them past one another until their claws interlock so tightly that the mass turns into a solid lump. I also use some “wet felting”—the modern kitchen equivalent of the Mongol horse method—to take advantage of the way hot water will encourage the fibers to spread their claws wider and hang onto each other especially tight.

It’s a lovely medium: you can contour the surface by felting some areas more tightly than others, and you also add wool to raise a given area or use a scissors to cut wool away without worrying that the remainder will fray.

That’s really interesting, especially the part about the little claws, and the Mongols too. How long have you been involved in needle felting, and how did you first get started?

Thanksgiving Day 2009, my nephew’s wife roped me into helping with a project for my grandniece’s Waldorf school holiday fair. They were making little felt pouches with wool pictures needle felted onto the surface, and the medium set my mind on fire. Y’see, I’d been medium hunting for thirty years, ever since I gave my ceramic kiln away for lack of a place to run it. Ceramic sculpture had been the center of my art life since I was a kid, focusing on lifelike fantasy creatures (as one 10-year-old said when I unloaded the kiln at the camp where I was teaching, the summer I was 18, “If there was anything that really looked like that, that’s what it would look like!”), but solid clay is horribly hard to control. I had about a 40% failure rate on first firing, and you don’t put something with that kind of explosion potential into someone else’s kiln.

So I’d been looking and looking for something that would work as well for me, and not finding it. Watching the wool take shape on the felting cushion, I began to think it could be the one. It would do high relief—surely there was a way to turn it into full 3-D figures! I rode home in a whirl of plans, and by the end of the month I’d watched a couple of online videos, acquired some needles, a bag of what turned out to be truly awful wool, and a piece of sofa cushion foam, and was on my way to discovery.

Is it hard to learn needle felting?

The basics are dead simple—as I said, wool wants to be felt. It takes a while to learn how to control the firmness of the mass and make the surface smooth, but it’s mostly a matter of paying attention. I learned by doing—look around online, play with the wool and needles for a few hours to see what it would teach me, look for another video, back to the wool, find a discussion group and ask questions, back to the wool.

What I do now goes way beyond the basics. Most of my creatures have complex armatures—even a curled-up cat half the size of your person’s hand might have four or five feet of galvanized steel wire inside it—and I make eyes and other features to suit each individual. From a lifetime study of comparative anatomy, I know where the bones go and can make each creature look like it’s caught in mid-motion, here now but likely to be somewhere else in a flash.

For a peek inside, take a look at the “In the Workshop” section of my website, http://www.salamanderfeltworks.com.

Can you make any kind of animal with this technique?

This mythical tiger wyvern (She of Little Talent’s
favorite Salamander Feltworks creature) took
Hilary more than a month to make and underwent
something called “de-baboonification” along the way.
A wyvern, in case that’s not a word in your daily
vocabulary, is a mythical creature with two legs and
two wings. Stripes are optional. You can see some
of the adjustments this one needed here.
Pretty much. Short-furred animals are the easiest, because plain felt looks like short fur. Long fur has to be set, pinch by pinch, then given a haircut. Other surfaces require a certain amount of ingenuity—plus a whole lot of work, the judicious addition of other materials, or both. I use beeswax worked into the wool to make skin and claws and teeth feel as well as look real.

Then there’s balance. A four-legged creature standing on three or four feet is easy, and flopped down in a crouch or snooze is even easier, but free-standing on two feet gets tricksy. Fishing weights and lead-shot curtain cord come in really handy to move the center of gravity, and I once put a flexible tube of sliding weights down the spine of a whale so it would stand either on its tail or its chin and flippers.

Basically, if it’s not transparent or iridescent or really stretchy, there’s probably a way to capture it in felt.

But cats must be your favorite, right?

Purrrr. I love cats and have made a lot of them, but they’re hard. Cat faces are like human faces, intensely individual and with their own internal law. Make them even a little bit wrong and anyone can see there’s a problem…but what problem is tough to spot and fixing it much tougher, so I go to cats for a challenge…or a commission....  You can see the gallery of Salamander Feltworks felines here:


These days I make more rodents than anything else, partly because they’re the easiest to get to a persuasive state of liveliness, and partly because my main display is a big rat cage. The cats have to stay outside on the table (to keep from terrifying the occupants), and there’s just not that much display space for them.

A proud and poised lioness.
Learn more about her here.
Hmm…Maybe someday you could make a cat eating a rodent. That sounds like fun. Till then, what is the most unusual creature you’ve made?

CHOMP the worm takes the prize on that score. I visited a green faire in Toronto—wearing a few of my felted friends as usual—and the woman running a compost-info booth asked if I could make her a wearable worm. “Nope, sorry,” sez I. “Felt is fuzzy; worms aren’t.” It was a much longer conversation than that, of course, but that’s what it boiled down to. She kept one of my cards anyway, and she phoned me after my return to California to continue the argument. Finally I figured out how to use the trick for making mousie feet and similar non-fuzzy areas to get something properly wormlike, and we agreed on a super-sized Red Wiggler. The final product captured the mood—and persuaded me that fuzziness isn’t an absolute requirement:


If someone wanted to explore more about needle felting and maybe give it a try, where could they go to learn how?

Someone who wants more help than I had can get a kit—Etsy (http://www.etsy.com) has lots of options that will provide the basic tools, enough wool for a starter project (or several), and step-by-step instructions—and give it a try. Just search under “needle felting kit” and pick one that makes sense. I’ve heard good things about the usability of the Woolbuddy kit instructions, so their stuff would be worth a look for those who like the cartoon style.

They could also take a look at “Crafting with Cat Hair: Cute Handicrafts to Make with Your Cat” by Amy Hirschman—step by step instructions for making use some of the resident cat’s more tangible gifts, including some needle felting along the way.

Hilary, thank you for this fascinating discussion. It’s been a pleasure to meet you and learn about needle felting. I hope you get to make more cats soon!