The lengthy process of making felted fleece rugs, cushions and other things – why does it take so long?

As it takes me a minimum of one week to make a rug or a cushion and things are busying up in the shop, I thought now would be a good time to expand a little on the topic of “how I make felted fleece items” and explain a little about my process and why the items I make can take a while to transform from raw fleece, to snuggly item for the home.

As we trundle through life, we find ourselves making tweaks and adjustments along the way so that we can bob along as contentedly as possible.  Each of us has our own, unique way of trundling, and no matter how many books there are on the subject, there is no perfect way to do this.

In a way, life is similar to gardening, there are many ways to create a garden but there is no perfect formula.  We might love our forget-me-nots and cultivate them, while our neighbour calls them weeds and pulls them out.  We might trim back our Buddleja every spring while our neighbour leaves his to sort itself out, but both will flower come summer, (well, yes, I’m aware that Buddleja is particularly obliging but hopefully you’ll see my point 😉).

We all have our own way of doing things and generally we’ll be pruning our roses in the way which suits us best and using the tools which we feel are best for the job which might not be the same as the chap next door.

Which brings me nicely to felt making.  Like gardening, there are many ways to felt a fleece, and indeed this can change as we go along, we can find better ways to do it, or we can try different ways with different fleeces.  Felt making is a bit like embarking on a new adventure, every project is unique and each fleece behaves differently to the last.  You never quite know for sure how things will turn out, you can only do your best.

Several years ago, when I first started pondering on ways to use our sheep’s fleeces (other than having them spun into yarn), I came across some interesting you-tube videos.  My favourite one features some Mongolian felt makers rolling a huge fleece, (I think there must have been more than one fleece involved, the bundle was enormous!)  To my astonishment, they attached the monster bundle to a harness, took a camel and basically went for a walk.  As the camel sauntered along the Mongolian savannah, the bundle dragged along behind it on a sort of wooden roller thing, and within a short space of time the felt was made!  They unrolled a big, felted, fluffy “wonder carpet”, it was brilliant!

I filed this snippet away in the back of my mind and continued to think up ways to use our fleeces.  I didn’t think I’d be able to do something like this, I didn’t think I’d be capable, and anyway, where would I find a camel in Scotland?

Some months later I was chatting to a friend of mine who showed me an article she’d read recently about using fleeces to make felted rugs.  My ears pricked up, I thought perhaps I’d give it a go after all.

So I did some more research on you-tube and came to the conclusion this would be a solo journey as there are hardly any “how to’s” out there.  I also found that from the little smattering of information there was, there was no “one way” to do it.  Each felt maker seemed to have their own formula.

“Hmm” I thought, “what’s a girl to do?”  So I decided to jump further into things, I grabbed the bull by the horns and contacted a lady in the US who offered an online course which seemed more user friendly than the rest, and I think actually was the only course out there at the time!

After various disasters, lots of pots of water and bars of soap later, I emerged several months later still as confused as ever!! I also had very achy arms!

Some years later, after reaching the “T junction” and deciding to take the road marked “persevere with it”, I am here, and am happy to tell you that I’ve found a way to make felted fleece rugs, cushions, and more, which I love!!  “My way” suits my, dare I admit it, slightly pernickety nature, my love of paying attention to the little details, and my love of being creative.

“My way” is also very time consuming.

On my felting journey I have discovered there are two main ways to felt a fleece; there’s the “throwing your whole fleece down method”, and there’s the “placing individual locks method”.  After trying both, I’ve settled on the latter – placing individual locks.

Raw fleece prior to me going through it

I’ve found that I really enjoy selecting locks, I go into my own world as I pick through a fleece and select the nicest locks.  One fleece alone is made up of many different lock lengths as well as locks of different textures and nuances of colour.  For example the locks along the haunches will be longer and courser than the locks along the back.  The locks in between the shoulder blades will be short and sometimes prone to breakage.  The locks on the head tend to be long and curly (depending on the breed obviously), but after working through hundreds of fleeces I have found that, like snowflakes, the locks on any one fleece can look fairly similar, but up close there are many differences.

The first thing I do when I go through a fleece is to remove all the daggy bits.  Then I’ll remove the matted bits which are generally around the edge (this is called “skirting”).  Then I’ll remove any bits which are stained with marker spray.  By now I’ll have a pretty decent looking fleece.  However, there are still three things to look out for; locks which have “second cuts”, (these are locks which have been cut twice by the shearer, so will break), locks with weak fibres at the base, (these often look fine at first glance, but if you tug the lock at either end it will break), and locks with weak fibres at the tips.

a lock with a broken tip
a lock with a second cut at the base, this lock would fall out of a rug eventually
a lock showing weak fibres near the base which will break at any time

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I go through a fleece I’ll have 4 piles; long locks, short locks, shaggy locks, and locks for the garden.

Locks for the garden
a bunch of lovely usable locks

 

more gorgeous, usable locks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The long and the short locks will make up the bulk of the rug, I’ll place them evenly throughout.  The shaggy locks are from the haunches and I’ll keep these to place back in the haunches area of the rug.  They’re what I also call “fun locks” as they seem to have lots of personality, they’re long, shaggy and larger than life.  The locks for the garden will go on our veggie patch as a mulch.  These are the locks I won’t be using, at least not to make things for the shop!

And now for the bit which makes my heart sing! The deciding on what to make with the locks!  Well, to be honest, by now I’ll probably have good idea, if the fleece is long locked, large and luxurious I’ll make a large rug.  If the fleece is smaller I might make a small rug or a cushion.  But basically, this is the most fun part for me because I can be creative.  I’ve recently veered off into unchartered territory and stopped making square or rectangular rugs as I learnt to do originally in the days of the course run by the lady in the US.  I prefer to have the freedom to make a rug of any shape I like, so I’ve devised my own method using cardboard strips and tin foil.  This allows me to build a frame of literally any shape.  Oh the joy!

So far I’ve been making, fleece-shaped rugs using my bendy cardboard method.  I do see the irony in this and have a giggle at myself for deconstructing a perfectly lovely fleece, only to make a perfectly lovely fleecey shaped rug!  But sadly, as I mentioned earlier, there is rarely such a thing as a fleece with usable locks in all the right places.

cardboard frame

Also, having the freedom to play around with shapes and sizes is what makes rug making such fun, and if there’s no element of fun involved, what is the point of doing it?

However, with every positive there is a drawback, and in this case the creativity of carefully sorting, selecting and placing individual locks into a custom-made frame, is offset by the amount of time it takes to do this.

But, on the other hand, I would rather put in the work at the beginning of a project than at the end when I’m tired and not in the mood.  I know that every hour I’ve spent sorting and selecting locks at the beginning means time saved later.  Once the rug is felted, washed and dried, I’ll know that when I go through it and do my “quality control” checks, everything is usually just as I had hoped.  And this makes me happy 😊

starting the lengthy process of laying out the locks
… still going several hours later

 

nearly there “puff pant”
all the locks are laid out, yippee!! Time for a tea!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quality control and checking the rug after its washed and dried is really important to me.  Once a rug comes out of the wash I’ll go through it and “fluff up” the locks which have gone into hiding or stuck together.  This is really satisfying to do and sometimes I click into monkey mode, I find the preening process quite relaxing, it’s probably one of the few times I relax come to think of it!

At this point I’ll also be removing any remaining grass, hay, twigs, seeds and the like.  Even after all that washing, the fleece can hold on to all manner of things which you don’t necessarily want in your rug.

quality control – “before” fluffing up process

 

quality control – “after” fluffing up

Going through and checking a large rug can take up to a day or two or more, in between all the farm jobs, but to me this is really important, my pernickety nature wouldn’t let me sell a rug that isn’t right, besides, the monkey in me wouldn’t let me miss this part out either.

So all in all, including the rolling, washing and drying which I haven’t even mentioned here, making a felted fleece item using my particular method, takes at least one week, and for larger items, two weeks or more depending on the project I’m working on.

In this fast paced world we live in sometimes I get frustrated and want to churn out rugs and cushions much faster, but then I remember that Adrian and I chose to live a slower paced life because the fast paced life was stressing us out.  And actually, it’s not such a bad thing to take time to make something and to do it slowly and deliberately.  To me, it feels more satisfying in a way because the amount of time I invest in making something means there’s more of my heart and soul in the end result, and when I make things, I like to put my all into it.