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)  

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