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Notes for Needle Felters

To "core" or not...

This is the question of whether to use a "core" white, coarser fiber inside ...or not.

So 23 or 24 years ago when we first started offering needle felting here, the instructor from NY that taught our first classes here had participants sculpting the body parts out of a coarser and poorer quality white wool she called the "core" first. And then we covered the "core" with the color we wanted on the surface.

 

As I recall (tho' it was a long time ago so I could be wrong) her rationale for using a different "core" was that she had a coarser and cheaper fiber and figured it would save money to use that as the "filling" rather than use the dyed fibers throughout. There may also have been some consideration that as a coarser wool, the use of this "core" made for a denser/harder end product, but as I said it was over 20 years ago and techniques evolve with experience.

I stopped using a "core" wool decades ago, myself.  I realized that because I was needling small things (no life size sculptures of people here!)  the cost savings might have amounted to twenty five cents, at most, per project. And I always thought it was a pain, as well as a time drain, to have to cover the white core with the desired surface color! Especially if the surface was a dark color! 

 

So I haven't used a core for at least 15 years!  The kits I have stocked (three different brands over the years) and those that I looked at recently at a fiber show did NOT use a different "core" wool either. So I actually think that using a "core" is a pretty dated, out of use technique at this point.

 

n my experience, the hardness or softness of the finished product has more to do with how it is wrapped to begin with and whether it is fully needled, or not.

And frankly, I needle to the intended use of my piece!  So if I'm needling a mushroom that is going to sit on a shelf it doesn't have to be a hard as if I were needling a pet toy.

What about "staple length"?

As you can see from the photo here, these four wools have different lengths. "Staple" refers to the length of the fleece when it is shorn off the sheep.

Generally....shorter staples are better suited to needle felting than longer staples. But too short (as in the orange example) can be difficult to needle felt and too long (dark green example on the left) can be a challenge for needle felting, especially for detailed areas like eyes, mouth, etc.

The two most favorite fibers for needle felting are the two to the right - they are both short stapled and in "batt" form (more about that below), but not as short as the orange. Between these two fibers, I carry 86 colors to choose from. 

About half of my needle felters like needling the fiber represented by the orange bit.... but the other half of needle felters that have tried it do NOT like it. I offer 22 colors of this super short merino fiber (KAP wool)  and since it is not as universally appreciated by needle felters (I stock it for wet felters) I recommend you purchase a small bag to try out in case you are one of the half that don't like it!

When it comes to the longer stapled fibers (of which I have over 110 colors in stock-not all are online becuase its just too much!) these are not ideal for needle felting, but can be used.  If you physically break the fiber into smaller lengths by pulling on opposite ends firmly and then jumble the orientation of the fibers up so they are not parallel, it is fine for needling. And doing this is super simple (check out the section below on "blending" as I used some of the long stapled Corriedale I stock at the store for this example and it is really easy to physically break and jumble into shorter wool).

Top, roving or batt? 

Most new needle felters don't know there is a difference between these fiber preps.....many just ask for "wool for needle felting". But some ask for "roving" without knowing that "top" and "batt" even exist. And while it might not matter whether you use roving, batt or top....it could.

 So if you use a term like "roving" or "top", we are likely to ask a few follow up questions to ascertain whether you truly need one or the other or just are using the term generically.

 

So here's the difference:

Generally speaking, fleeces shorn from sheep with long wool (depends on the mill's equipment, but 3" or longer is a generality) are usually processed into a form called "top". Technically, "top" has all the fibers aligned in a parallel fashion. It looks like a "snake" (in the photo to the left, both the white and the orange are "top" and show what I mean by "snake"- its sort of a long cylindrical shape).

What is confusing to many, is that "roving" also comes in a "snake" formation and unless you look closely or know the difference you might think what is "roving" is "top" and vice versa.

 

Technically, 'roving" is usually the prep the mill makes from shorter wool fibers.  Both "top" and "roving" look like a "snake". The difference is in the alighment of the fibers - in "top" the fibers are parallel and in "roving" the fibers are all a jumble - and in the length of the wool fibers in the preparation (top has longer fibers and roving, generally, shorter).

As I mentioned in the section above, felting is easiest if the fibers are jumbled, rather than aligned. This is why wet felters layout their top at 90 degree angles or criss-crossing! 

"Batt" is another form wool comes in that is often made from fleeces with shorter wool lengths, like "roving". The "batt"  form looks like a big sheet (in the photo it is the gold piece) and can measure 4-5" deep/thick and as much as 6-10 feet long and 100" wide! That's sometimes the size we get and so then split the batts down into smaller sizes since most needle felters don't want to purchase that much of a color! The fibers in a "batt" are all a jumble, which is good.

Depending on the type of felting you are doing (needle, wet or nuno) you may want a shorter or longer fiber AND the preparation (snake vs batt) may matter.

You technically can use any of these three forms of wool for needle felting, but there are certain characteristics that make some better than others - more about that below.