A Labour of Love
I love making felted fleece rugs. In fact, since I’ve started making them a funny thing has happened. I used to slightly dread the onset winter – just thinking about those long dark evenings would make me shudder. But these days I don’t mind winter at all! The longer evenings mean I can legitimately spend more time indoors making rugs.
You would be correct in assuming that wet felting involves water and you might be wondering how I manage to do this indoors without splashing water everywhere. Well this is where Adrian comes in, he has set me up with heat and light in the summer house which is just a skip from the front door, perfect!
Fleeces from our own happy sheep
Making felted fleece rugs is a long process and it all starts at shearing time.
Sheep are sheared in the spring of every year, (some sheep are sheared twice a year) but ours are sheared just the once. Shearing is an exciting time as it marks the onset of summer. It also means I will have a whole new set of fleeces to make rugs from which is very exciting. The shearing gang who come to us are highly skilled, professional shearers. They spend their time going round big sheep farms shearing hundreds of sheep at a time. They are lovely people who clearly enjoy what they do and we’re lucky to have them.
Once the fleeces start coming off the sheep, I hop onto the shearing platform, get them out the way of the shearers and label them up. This is easier said than done because I’ll also be helping Adrian feed the sheep through and lead them out at the other end. Shearing time can be crazy so you have to be really organised. We make sure everything’s running like clockwork so the sheep aren’t kept waiting for too long. As shearing’s done when the weather’s warm (you can’t shear sheep in bad weather), they can get a bit hot and bothered in the holding pen so we like to keep them on the move and the atmosphere as calm as we can.
Once the flock is sheared and the gang have driven off to their next job, we check the sheep for any scratches and make sure they’re all OK. Then we lead them back to their pasture and get to work with the fleeces. We need to dry them out before bagging them up (they come off the sheep slightly ‘dewy’). To do that, we lay them out on the grass and keep fluffing them up and turning them until they’re dry and can be brought indoors. Sometimes the weather can turn so we finish off the drying indoors. Finally, we put the fleeces into individual bags, all nicely labelled and sit down for a cup of tea.
Making felted fleece rugs – the process
I take a fleece from the large pile in the spare room or fleece shed. Then, depending on how intact the fleece is I’ll use one of two methods to turn it into a rug:
Method 1): “Working from the top”.
I set up my frame to the size and shape I would like the rug to be and lay out a base of bubble wrap.
On top of the bubble wrap I lay out the rug’s base of carded wool “batts”. Then, on top of the batts I carefully place the locks which will form the fluffy, furry top of the rug.
Once the locks are laid out which can take several hours, I carefully drizzle hot water (and a tiny amount of soap) over the whole rug. Once the rug is wet but not too wet I’ll put a layer of bubble wrap over the top to make a big sandwich and roll it up.
Rolling to felt the rug
I press the wool down to make sure the water and soap is evenly distributed, then I roll the rug hundreds of times in different directions until it is felted. In between rolls I check the rug regularly and pick out any ingrowing locks. The total amount of rolls depends on the fleece and size of rug, but it’s usually at least 600 times.
Once I’m satisfied the rug has felted and the locks are firmly in place, I hose the rug down and then soak it in warm water and a gentle “fibre scour” solution to release the lanolin.
I then wash the rug using a wool-friendly detergent and rinse in water with a slosh of apple cider vinegar and a few drops of cedar wood essential oil to keep the moths away.
Then, I lay the rug out flat to dry, if the weather’s nice, outside, otherwise (mostly!) in the kitchen.
Finally I do the “fluffing up” bit which sometimes can take several hours. When the rug comes out of the wash it’s lovely and clean but it can look a bit bedraggled, even when dry. Locks can be stuck together or squashed flat and sometimes the tips of the locks can be “crispy” so will need removing. This part is really important to me to get the rug looking its best. So I’ll take the rug and go through it methodically, separating the locks and rescuing any which have gone into hiding. I’ll also remove any bits of moss or grass seeds which may still be lurking, I’m always surprised at how much vegetable matter still seems to be present in the rug even after all that washing! But after my “fluffing up” treatment, it will more or less moss/seed free, and looking its bouncy best! Ta daaa!
Method 2): “Working from the bottom”
When I began making sheep-friendly rugs a few years back, I made all of them as I’ve described above, “working from the top”. The laying out part (before the felting) is a bit like building a pizza, it’s all about layers: first you lay out the bubble wrap, then you lay out the carded wool batts and then you lay out the locks.
Making rugs like this is really satisfying because you can see it growing before your eyes, you can also play around with colours and lock lengths and make pretty patterns, arranging the locks as if you were painting a picture.
However, much as I love this method, it is really time consuming, especially if I’m making a large rug. It can take several days just to prepare the locks, going through the fleece and selecting the ones I want to use. Then laying them all out which, enjoyable as this is, takes up another big chunk of time.
Unfortunately, you can’t just fling the fleece out whole, like a table-cloth and felt away to your heart’s content. This is because most fleeces are not perfectly intact. They might come off the shearing platform in a good shape, but by the time they’ve been tidied up, rolled up, stored, then unrolled again, they’re usually a bit broken and torn. Fleeces are like pastry, you have to handle them carefully or they can come apart at the slightest puff of wind.
This said, there is actually a way to make felted fleece rugs using the fleece ‘as a whole’ (as opposed to laying out individual locks) but unfortunately there’s more to this than just flinging the fleece onto the table and felting it.
With things getting busier in the shop I’ve started making some rugs using this alternative method because it’s quicker. I call it the “upside down” method because yes, you’ve guessed it, they’re made working from the bottom!
There is a “but” though … you can only use the “upside down method” if you have a well-behaved fleece, by this I mean an intact fleece, one which isn’t in bits! And this is a rarity in my particular case!
I do admit, this year just gone, I can’t blame anyone for the state of our fleeces but my lovely self and Adrian. After shearing, we laid out the fleeces in the sun to dry. That evening it decided to rain, not just a small shower, but a full on summer thunder storm. It came on very suddenly and we had to rush out into the garden and grab all the fleeces and bundle them into the shed before they got soaked through. So many of our fleeces ended up a bit worse for wear.
Despite this, miraculously, a few fleeces survived the manhandling and remained more or less intact. This means, if I’m lucky enough to come across one, I can use the whole fleece and not individual locks, in other words, I can make a rug “the fast way”!
So how do I do this?
First of all, I do a little dance of happiness in the kitchen thinking of all the time I can save.
Next, I lay the fleece out on the floor of my shed, face up, and remove any dirty and matted wool from around the edges.
Then, I check for holes, rips and anything that I’ll need to fix.
Then, I carefully flip the fleece over so that I’m looking at the underside, grab my ball of yarn and a darning needle and sew up any rips and tears.
Then I’ll check for second cuts and remove anything which shouldn’t be there, (twigs, hay etc).
Once I’m satisfied the fleece is ready for the next stage, I’ll slide it onto a large piece of cardboard and carry it over to my felting table, slide it off the cardboard and lay it out, still face down onto a sheet of bubble wrap.
I’ll then squidge it all together so that it’s nice and compact.
Then, I’ll get my bamboo lawn edging (which I’ve recently started using for felting), it works brilliantly to keep everything in place and the edges neat while I’m laying out the carded batts. I’m proud to say, I thought this up myself in a rare moment of inspiration!
With the lawn edging in place, I’ll then add the carded batts (which will form the base of the rug). Once that’s done I can prepare for the felting part; adding the net curtain, soap, water and so on.
The great thing about making rugs in this way is that I can make them relatively quickly, in a couple of days usually. The other great thing is I can celebrate the natural layout of the locks and patterns and colours of the fleece, (particularly if I’m using a naturally coloured fleece like the one in the photos which is a Jacob fleece).
I like to let people know how I make the rugs they buy so I’ll always put a little bit in the description about the method I’ve used. I think both methods make lovely rugs 😊
Natural ethically made rugs
We love using our sheep’s wool to make felted fleece rugs. It feels good to know that we’re using the wool productively and in a way which is sustainable. The same sheep can go on producing rugs year after year. It’s even better that we don’t have to send the fleeces away anywhere to be processed as they’re so simple to make and require very little other than water and elbow grease.
It’s great to know we can produce these rugs right here on our smallholding. For more info on what goes into the rugs click here. But apart from all of this, the rugs are hugely satisfying to make, there is nothing like seeing a raw fleece transform into a big, soft, fluffy rug.