Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Circus Blanket - Finished!

Finito! It's such a great feeling to finish each blanket. The colors are just so vibrant, which is why I named it Circus - it's just fun.

If you would like to see more pictures hike on over to my etsy shop at:


There is another one almost finished so don't stay away too long.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Circus Blanket - Almost Finished...

Just a few pics of the final stages of this
blanket. As usual the squares I had to fabricate out of scraps added a lot of texture and interest. I'm in the process of sewing on the edging now and should easily finish this tomorrow.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Video Sweater Felting Tips

I am tiptoeing into video lessons and thought I would start by showing you what I'm working on right now.  These are very off-the-cuff clips of work in progress  showing the blanket I currently have on the work table after laying out the squares for the first time.    

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

What's On The Table? - Felted sweater blankets

So, I have a few things on the table right now.  This one is largely done, but needs some finishing details to make it sing.  Despite the brightness of the red/orange sections the overall affect is more muted and I feel it needs some additional detailing.  My husband suggested adding some navy accents which I will try.  It is mostly lambswool and very soft - lovely really.  What looks to be light gray ribbed square is a light taupe.  Maybe I should call this Foggy Snooze?

The other one the I'm working on is more spirited in color and titled Circus.  Normally I don't work with shetland wool - I've been called a merino snob - and rightly so because the shetland has been delightful to work with and holds it's shape well. Here's the test I made up  from two-inch squares.  It's a really useful step in that I become familiar with the way each color will behave under the presser foot.  It's also how I decide on the choice of thread color.  In this case the turquoise thread really adds alot to the design.  That's it, just a peak at what's on the table.  

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Blanket Felting Lesson #3 - Developing a Design

This is the best and the worse part of the process for me.  I can't tell you how many times I have had an idea in my head, cut up the pieces, laid them out and the result is terrible, or I don't have enough material to make the idea work.  Aagh! 

I've gotten a little better at this now and figured out ways around some problems, but designing something that really sings and holds my interest is very challenging.  Likewise I have found that I can't really do commission work.  If I try to create something for somebody and I know their tastes it's almost impossible for me.  Apparently I have to do it my way and hope they like it.

The most common pattern is the patchwork square.  It allows you the greatest flexibility. However, just because it's a basic pattern doesn't mean you just let the squares fall where they may and stitch them up.  Lay them out and then start moving them around to get a design that you love, keeping in mind that you may want to embellish it with banding or fringe or any number of decorative enhancements once the squares are stitched.  These are some of the first blankets I made based on the patchwork pattern and I still like them. 

The biggest challenge is that each sweater only yields a few squares so you have to employ 4-5 colors/sweaters.  This is where blacks and grays come in handy.  You can usually find multiple sweaters that will color match and even find the same texture.  A black or gray merino or lambswool sweater is fairly common. 

TIP: Rib knits can be a bit challenging as the ribs want to spread out under the presser foot and that can result in wavy seams.  This is where tightly felted material helps.

Also, try to keep similar thicknesses together or you'll find that they will stitch up unevenly.  

As I became a little more confident with my sewing I started having a bit more fun with the designs.  This isn't the best picture, but this little blanket always struck me as being perfect for a skier.  It was all lambswool and very soft, but had bold character.

You will notice that I often use black and white, gray and white, high contrast patterns.  This is a running theme in my aesthetic choices.  I don't know where it comes from but it is always there. You will find your own voice.

Thread color can either disappear or make a bold statement.  When I first started the stitch I used was very tight and created almost an embossed affect. It also took forever to sew, but it was lovely.

In the next lesson we'll move on to the actual sewing process and then come back to some other design techniques.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Blanket Felting Lesson #2 - Washing and Cutting the Sweaters

This is my sweater stash, or my candy store.  These are sweaters that have been washed, pressed and cut up; some of them already into squares.  The takeout containers hold scraps that I use when I'm sewing up a small test or are used to embellish a blanket.  Order can go out the window pretty quickly which makes the design process a bit overwhelming so I do try and keep a certain level or organization - I don't always succees. 

1. Sort the sweaters broadly by color keeping in mind that in the washing the sweaters release some of their fibers which will find their way to other sweaters in the load. This isn't a big problem but I have noticed that some colors aren't as clear when they come out as they were going in.  There is a tip I'll share with you later in the post.

2.Washing the sweaters is pretty straightforward.  However, if you go crazy like I did initially and buy 30 sweaters I would suggest you take them to your local laundromat, at least for the first wash.  A lot of fibers are released into the wash water and could clog up your washer if you do too many at one time.   My husband and I actually tore apart our old washer at one point because I had washed an abundance of sweaters and the poor dear choked.  Laundromats are made for heavy duty use.  When I do wash sweaters at home though, about half an hour before I throw the load in I kick up the thermostat on the water heater so it's quite hot.  If you have a washer with an agitator you're in luck as it helps the felting process.  So, you want a hot wash and a cold rinse.  You don't need a lot of water because you want the sweaters to rub against one another instead of floating around.  Likewise you need a little soap to help with the agitation and opening of the scales on the wool fibers but not so much that they slide past each other.  I'm making this sound more complicated than it is, but it helps to know what's going on.

Your goal is to make the stitches disappear.  The tighter the felt the easier it is to work with as it will hold its shape and seams better.  Having said that, I've made many a blanket where I could have felted them more and the blankets turned out fine.

As you can see from this picture the shrinkage can be quite significant!!  You may have to wash them several times to achieve this degree of shrinkage and don't make yourself crazy if they don't.  To dry them you can either hang them on the line or toss them in the drier - they dry surprisingly fast.  Just don't lay them flat on a towel - they'll take forever to dry.  Don't forget to clean the filter on your drier as a fair amount of fiber will collect in it.

TIP: If any of the sweaters have zippers or button plackets cut them off first as they distort in the washing and you may want to use them again - they make for fun pillow fasteners
3. Cut up the sweaters along their seams.  Before you actually do this though hold them up to the light and look for any holes you might not have seen before and mark them with tape so you don't forget they are there.  All you're doing now is cutting off the sleeves, collars and necklines.  You'll have to decide whether you want to use the ribbing or not.

TIP: If the sweaters show any signs of pilling or some of them have excess fibers on them use the d-fuzz-it comb I showed you in the post on tools. This is a short demo of the comb (my first try at video on the site) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1eWPGB0vz0  

4. Press the pieces. Your iron should be set to the wool and steam settings.  The pressing continues to help with the felting process and the wool seems to develop an even softer hand.  I usually cover the pieces with a linen cloth as I press so they don't develop a shine.

Some people like to reverse steps two and three and cut the sweaters first.  This does make sense to me so I'm going to try it on my next batch.

The next step is to throw the sweaters on the table to get a sense for how big the blanket might be - it will help in the design process. Just place all the pieces on the table without too much concern for the design - you're just trying to size the material. 

Lesson #3 on design to follow shortly

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Blanket Felting Lesson #1 - Choosing the Sweaters

If you haven't already read the post on Supplies and Materials I suggest you do so before you start, but otherwise let's talk about what sweaters to use and where to find them.

Start with your own closet.  We all have sweaters that don't get worn because they have little moth holes in them but we can't bring ourselves to throw out.  these are perfect as long as they are wool.  Ask family and friends to donate their castoffs.  

You might consider making what I call a heritage blanket using recognizable sweaters from family members or friends.  This blanket was made using several of my fathers sweaters which I find comforting.

Otherwise, start in the men's department of your local resale or Salvation Army store.  The sweaters are going to shrink substantially so XXLs are great! Good old crew necks, v-necks and turtlenecks will provide the most material.  If you want a blanket of some size then stay clear of sweaters with zippers and other details unless you can incorporate them in to your design. 

In Chicago sweaters run between $2.00 and $4.00 each but I usually buy them at half price unless they're huge and a killer color.  A little warning here as it is very tempting to buy lots of different colors only to find that they don't work well together; and try to collect sweaters of similar weight so the sewing is easier. I tend to buy solids but, you may prefer to work with stripes or other patterns so don't let my style influence you; I've seen gorgeous blankets made using all sorts of patterns. 

Most important of all you want 100% wool. My personal favorites are merino and lambswool as they both felt consistently and are made even softer in the felting process.  It is getting harder and harder to find pure wool though as many of the manufacturers are adding nylon and other synthetic fibers and they just don't felt properly so read tags carefully.  Having said that, SOME of the blends will prove me wrong and shrink fine, but for the first time stick with pure wool.  Check the cleaning instructions as well because some of the wools are washable now and that won't work either.  I've had some trouble with the really lightweight merino used in men's collared sweaters and am not sure why, but for the most part these are really good choices.

Try to collect about ten sweaters.  This will give you flexibility if something doesn't felt down and you'll still have enough to get started.  Lastly on color selection; neutral colors are your friends - gray, oatmeal, taupe, black.  I almost always buy them when I see them as they help fill out the design.  Remember you are limited by the color selection available.  I happen to enjoy this challenge, but I also have a large stock of sweaters.

Timing is somewhat important as many of the resale shops pull their wool sweaters May 1 and don't put them out again until October 1.  So, if this becomes a hobby for you buy your sweaters in the next six months so you have stock come next September.

The other challenge is that I always get the sweaters home and find that the burgundy cashmere would look great on my husband or the spring green lambswool cardigan is just what I was looking for - so be prepared to lose a few to your closets.  I've got to believe that most of us who do this are scavengers at heart and can't pass up a good deal.

Lesson #2 will be about washing and cutting up the sweaters.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Autumn Racer Blanket - Finished!

Here we go!  It sewed up rather quickly I'm happy to say.  Has a lively active feeling.  The wools are both ribbed and flat, merino and lambswool. The size is roughly 42 x 53 inches - just right to wrap yourself in. 

See the slide show in the sidebar or etsy.com for more pics. I already have another one on the table - more of a shawl/wrap so stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Work In Progress 2 - Autumn Blanket

What do you think?  Not sewn together yet as I need to trim some of the squares and then I'm ready to start.  Note that I added a narrow bright blue strip to both ends of the blanket.  The table is 4'x8' to give you some idea of the size.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Work In Progress - Autumn Blanket

Today is great blanket making weather as it is unusually cool and overcast. I've been working on a new one for a few days now.  The picture is a small scale test which I usually put together to see how the different wools will work together and to try out thread colors. I was going to use a 5.5" square template. However, you can't assume that what works well in the tester will scale up as nicely.  This is one of those cases. 

The colors are alive - wheat, gold, orange and red balanced by heather green and a rich navy for contrast.  My plan was to keep it simple and let the colors carry the day.  So I started laying it out - a random pattern of 5.5s  and a few large 11 inch squares interlocked with some rectangular pieces.  It didn't work, it was horrible.  No matter how I moved the squares around it didn't have the energy I was looking for - instead it just looked busy.  Such frustration. Why doesn't this work?  I love these colors!  I took several pictures, which I recommend you try doing to evaluate any visual medium as it helps frame the work allowing you to look at it more objectively.  The squares were too small and some of the lighter colors were dragging all the energy out of it.  What if I made larger squares by sewing the smaller squares of the same color together?

Would that give it some texture from the seams and the color blocking I was looking for?  I opted for the larger squares and fewer colors and began sewing.  Next problem; one of the colors  didn't have enough material to get the number of squares I needed.  Here's where the fun begins because you have to come up with ways to make it work with the materials you have.  So, I decided to create a new square, a black and white one that I would sew from other scraps and punctuate the blanket with 3 or 4 of these.  They would create some energy and fill in where I was lacking material.

This is working out pretty well but I'm not quite there yet so I'll give you a look in a day or two. 

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Sweater Felting Tools and Supplies

My plan is to do a tutorial of the process step by step over the next few months, but before we get started, here is a list of materials I regularly use.  You can do this with very little investment, but, as always, certain tools will enhance the experience.  
Sweaters - 100% wool, start with sweaters of the same weight and thickness, 5-8 sweaters with colors that will make for a beautiful design.  Neutrals can play the foil for brighter colors - gray is particularly good for this purpose and it is easier to find grays that will color match.  What about blends?  Look at the labels closely and avoid blends, they just don't shrink as well.  Start in the men's department of your local thrift shop and look for XXLs.  Merino wool shrinks down well, but don't start with the really fine merino unless you want an extremely lightweight blanket. Choose colors you love.

D-fuzz-it - very important as after washing loads of sweaters you will see that they collect fiber from each other; some sweaters will pill also.  The gadget I use is terrific.  However, I didn't know it existed initially and used scotch tape to clean up the sweaters.
Soap - a small amount for each batch you wash. You can use your laundry soap, but I've invested in Eucalan which is especially formulated for wool fibers. You can buy it online but again, first time around regular laundry detergent will work.
Iron and pressing cloth - linen works well but cotton is fine.  You will be pressing pieces frequently so you want a steam iron on the wool setting nearby.  The pressing cloth keeps the wool from getting shiny.
Scissors for cutting the sweaters up initially - good ones if you plan to take this up as a hobby.
Rotary Cutter - the larger size 60 really makes a difference when cutting through some of the thicker sweaters.  Again, you can use scissors, but the rotary cutter really speeds things along.

Straight edge and quilting templates - I rifled a large metal t-square from my husbands workshop and it really helps keep things square.  The quilting templates just make it all easier IF you like the shapes, and they are easier for easier for beginners.
Cutting surface - the self-healing mats are great but I've been working on a large luan-veneered table for 2 years.  I'm about ready to invest in a custom mat though as the veneer is finally starting to break up.
Thread - an important design element, it can really pull it all together.  Cotton works for me but I have occasionally used polyester. Buy two spools as you will go through alot of thread with the zigzag stitch.  Likewise, I usually fill two bobbins at a time so I don' have to stop too often to refill them.
Sewing Machine - you need a good zigzag so that the seams hold well. That doesn't mean an expensive machine, just a good solid zigzag. The stitch I use double dips the needle on each side which really keeps the seams tight.  My machine is an old White I found at a thrift store and runs like a dream.  Not fancy, but has a strong motor and the stitch I need.

While you gather your supplies I'll start working on our first lesson.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Love Your Thrift Shops!

Labor Day is always half price at the thrift shops so I made a point of making the rounds last Monday - and it was crazy.  Truly crazy.  Is it just Chicago or is this happening all over the country?  One store I waited in line for an hour to check out - I couldn't believe it either but people were in good spirits and well, I just did.  Mostly back to school shoppers so I was still able to buy quite a few sweaters but it's a little early for wool yet soooo....well...   One of the problems (?) with this hobby is that I really do need to frequent the thrift shops to build up stock  and most of the time I'm very focused on just sweaters.  BUT until we get some cooler weather they hold back the wool sweaters so I drift to other racks and, yes you guessed it, walk out with my share of goodies.
Pants are always a challenge for me so I wore a loose jersey dress and was able to slip pants on and off easily - 5 pairs came home with me - fall cords and wide legs as well as some silk palazzos.  Also tagging along were three short jackets to wear with my new pants - two with Hong Kong finished seams -  several colorful scarves and three pairs of shoes.  The shoes needed a little love so I polished them and slipped in shoe trees and they look a smash. Add the 13 sweaters and my total bill was $34.  Ha!

But I digress...
I'm sure I have 30 or 40 sweaters (in addition to my already prepped stock) that I've been washing, cutting and sorting in to color pools for days.  It might sound tedious but that's how I really get a sense of the textures and possible combinations.  Also I just love the feel of the sweaters after they have been felted - they are sooooo soft.  And the colors are fabulous - some gorgeous golds and rich browns, subtle taupes and oatmeal, brilliant turquoise, eggplant,  and lots of red.  This picture is all merino - a beautiful dark eggplant, ivory, brilliant red and rich black.  So tomorrow I will start laying out some ideas.  Maybe I will wear my new oxfords, just to put me in the mood for cooler weather.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Fashioning Felt at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum

The Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York just finished an exquisite exhibit "Fashioning Felt' and you can view some of the work here.  Spend a little time on the site and you will see how traditional felting has been done in the fields of Mongolia as well as the creation of a stunning Palace Yurt by Janice Arnold.  Felt has a huge range of applications, fashion, industrial, architectural it's just fantastic. I so wanted to see this exhibit but it wasn't to be. BUT, Martha Stewart did a segment on the exhibit which you can see here.  The felting process is explained as well as the production process for the Palace Yurt. Also, the exhibition catalog is available from Amazon.com and looks like it's on sale now. Enjoy! 
Central Library, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, 2007. Architect: Jo-Coenen & Co. Architecten. Felt walls designed and made by Claudy Jongstra. Wool, silk.
Photo: Peter Cuypers

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Pumpkin Racer

This blanket is currently my favorite.  I made it a year ago and have been unable to part with it.  One doesn't often find 4 sweaters the exact same color already shrunk so I bought them - I wasn't even that keen on the color. They were all merino wool which has such a beautiful hand after felting and is so soft against your skin.
 I had done something earlier in the year using red, black, grey and ivory and used a similar design for this one.  It took forever though before I could start sewing as the sweaters had shrunk to be so small that I had to really think through how to cut them and not waste anything.  What you can't see in the pictures is that the pumpkin sections aren't one big piece but three or four pieces sewn together.  However, it's very symmetrical. Sometimes I cut pieces up then resewed them together just so it would have matching seams in the pattern. Click on the picture and you'll see how many seams are really in the pumpkin section. The blue accents came from a great sweater a friend of mine gave me - loved the color but I only had one sweater and it was very tiny so it could only be used for accents.  I've saved every bit of scrap because the color is so beautiful.  That's one of the challenges - you have to work with what is available.  If you like doing jigsaw puzzles this might appeal to you also.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

September is for Sweaters

Big weekend coming up. The resale shops are finally putting our their wool sweaters. Sneaky though, buried among the cottons and acrylics. At the beginning of the season I can still be fooled by the acrylics; makes me mad, but come December I fly through racks, skimming the sleeves...Shetland, acrylic, cotton acrylic, merino!, angora, acrylic, lambswool angora/rabbit, cashmere! 

If you have ever accidentally shrunk a wool sweater then you have 'felted' it. Time to give it to your younger sister or granddaughter...OR you can 'upcycle' it into a little purse. I carried this inside a larger purse and it was always a pleasure to reach in and touch this soft little clutch - especially in colder weather.  The ribbed body is the turtleneck portion of one sweater combined with bits of two others. Simple, simple, simple.