A Labour of Love
I love making felted fleece rugs. It’s just great to know that our sheep can contribute towards their keep and that their wool can be used to make lovely things for the home. I’m a big fan of fluffy rugs and cushions, I love scatter cushions and throws, the more the merrier, so you can imagine my delight when I discovered how to use our very own sheep’s fleeces to make these sorts of things, and more!!
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 fleece shed. Then, depending on how intact the fleece is I’ll use one of two methods to turn it into a rug, if the fleece is very broken up, I’ll use “method 1”, if it’s more or less intact, then I’ll use “method 2”.
Method 1): “Working from the top”.
I lay out a sheet of bubble wrap and then my frame. The frame can be made of cardboard and foil, wood, or even foam cut to size.
On top of the bubble wrap I’ll lay out the rug’s base of carded wool “batts”. Then, on top of the batts I’ll carefully place the locks which will form the fluffy, furry top of the rug. I lay small bunches of locks at a time which I always think is rather like planting thousands of little plants, all bunched up very closely together. After several hours and cups of tea later, I’ll have a nice “carpet” of locks looking up at me.
Once the locks are laid out I’ll lay a net curtain over the top and carefully drizzle hot water and a small amount of soap over the whole rug. Once the wool is wet through (but not completely soaking), I’ll remove the net curtain and replace with a layer of bubble wrap 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, has shrunk a bit, and the locks are firmly in place, I soak it for 15 minutes in hot water (60’c) and a gentle “fibre scour” solution to release the lanolin.
I then wash the rug in warm water (30’c), using a wool-friendly detergent and finally rinse in water with a slosh of apple cider vinegar and a few drops of cedarwood or lavender essential oil to keep the moths away. Sometimes, depending on the wool, I’ll also soak the rug in hair conditioner (sls and paraben free), this helps to tame flyaways and overly fluffy wool.
Then, I lay the rug out flat to dry, if the weather’s nice, outside, otherwise (mostly!) in the kitchen.
Once the rug’s dry 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 first began making sheep-friendly rugs a few years back, I made them all “working from the top”.
You’d be correct in thinking making a rug in this way is quite painstaking. However it is also really satisfying because you can see it growing before your eyes, you can also play around with different colours and lock lengths and make pretty patterns, arranging the locks as if you were painting a picture.
Much as I love using this method, it is very 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.
As well as saving time, I’ve discovered another lovely benefit to felting a whole fleece; the rug comes out pretty much a replica of how the fleece was on the sheep with the exact same arrangement of locks and swirls of colour. Sometimes, depending on how it looks, I’ll even leave the dye marks on for a truly authentic rug. (Most sheep have spots of coloured dye on their fleeces, click here for further details).
So, how do I felt a whole fleece? Well, as with most of these kinds of things in life, it’s a little trickier than it would at first appear.
Firstly, there are lots of variables as each fleece is unique with its own way of behaving, so whenever I take a fleece off the shelf and take it to my “girl shed” (aka the polytunnel) to begin working on it, it is like embarking on a brand new adventure.
As I place the fleece on my table and start unfurling it, I wonder how it will look and how it will come together as a rug.
The unfurling has to be done carefully because most fleeces are quite fragile, rather like pastry, they can come apart at the slightest puff of wind, you can’t just fling it out like a table cloth. The fleece I’ve used here is from a Scotch Mule and comes from a friend of ours. Mule fleeces are particularly easy to felt and come out really lovely.
Once I’ve unravelled the fleece and I’m looking at it (face up), I’ll decide whether to use “method 1” or “method 2”.
If the fleece is very torn and broken up I’ll use the first method. Otherwise I’ll go for “method 2” (felting it whole).
The first thing I’ll do is, straighten it out and remove the “daggy” and matted wool from around the edges.
Then, I’ll remove any twigs, hay, straw etc.
Next, I’ll remove any heavily dyed wool, and also any wool that seems to be “homeless” – disconnected from the base. I’ll also take out any thin wool, (usually there’s a thinnish patch between the shoulder blades).
Each time I remove a chunk of wool I squidge the fleece together to hide the hole.
Once I’m satisfied I’ve removed all the bits I don’t want, I’ll carefully flip the fleece over so that I’m looking at the underside.
Now, I’ll check that the holes I created (by pulling out the bits of dyed wool etc) are closed over and neat and tidy.
Then, I’ll squidge the fleece together so that it is nicely compact and the locks are tightly packed together as they would have been on the sheep. (A fleece can “stretch” a bit when you lay it out).
Then, I’ll gently shape it so that it looks “fleece shaped” again. With all the removing of wool and squidging etc, the fleece can end up looking a bit lopsided.
Then, I’ll check for “second cuts”, (locks which have been cut twice). These come about when the shearer goes over a bit twice so you end up with little bits of wool lying on the surface of the underside. These bits of wool need to be discarded, and so do the locks they came from as they won’t felt.
Once I’m satisfied I’ve removed all the second cuts, I’ll run my hands all over the underside and check all the “lock bottoms” are facing upwards. Sometimes, with the flipping over and removal of locks, some can end up the wrong way round.
Then, I’ll place bamboo lawn edging around the fleece. This works brilliantly for keep everything in place and the edges neat while I’m laying out the carded batts. This is my homegrown method for avoiding raggedy edges.
With the edging in place, I’ll 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.
Several rolls (and cups of tea) later, scouring, washing, drying and fluffing up I’ll have a felted fleece rug, made using a fleece in its entirety😊
I love having an alternative way to make rugs but ultimately, whichever method I use is driven partly by what sort of a mood I’m in but mostly by the fleece itself. Some fleeces are very “disconnected” so I wouldn’t be able to felt them as a whole. These I’ll make into smaller items such as cushions, baby rugs or seat pads and use the “slow method”. As they say, there are many ways to crack an egg, or as I would say, there are many ways to make snuggly things out of a woolly fleece!
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.
If you want to dive deeper into the process and have a go at making your own sheep friendly sheepskin, check out my tutorial.