As a fiber artist, going animal fiber-free is a challenge. If the fiber of your dreams used to be alpaca/silk mix and spinning merino was what you did to unwind after a really crappy day, giving up animal fibers brings not just technical, but also emotional problems. While I am convinced that the world would be better off without industrial animal husbandry, this conviction, unfortunately, doesn’t come with built-in imperviousness to fluffy Blue faced Leicester. Not eating meat doesn’t give me a moment’s pause. Not using wool and silk? Boy howdy.
Of course I’m not without wool right now. Like many fiber people, I have a stash of epic proportions and most of the yarn and fiber in my stash are animal-based. After long consideration, I decided to use my stash – basically because wasting material, animal or otherwise, doesn’t help anyone. I’m giving some of it away to friends who will use it or to charity knitters, and what I’m keeping is going to go into special projects, most of which are yet to be determined. Knowing that there will be no more wool after this makes me appreciate it more, think more about what I want to make with it. Makes me save it for projects where only wool will do.
Meanwhile, I’m looking at alternatives. Luckily, I’m already very fond of plant fibers. I love spinning cotton and often can’t feel the difference between a skein of silk and a skein of soysilk. However, not all properties of animal fibers can be found in plant fibers, which means that not all techniques work equally well with both fiber types.
Recently, I’ve become very interested in felting – and there is the first obvious difference. Plant fibers don’t full. You can scrub a knitted square of soysilk as long as you want in hot water and plenty of soap, you won’t get anything other than an slightly matted, bedraggled mess. Wool has scales that stick beautifully together when you bring them in contact with wet heat, soap and agitation. Plant fibers don’t have scales. End of story.
So that was a bitter pill.
However, there is also needlefelting (check out Kay Petal’s astounding work, if you really want to feel intimidated while needlefelting your first misshapen “ball”). Needlefelting works with special barbed needles which you punch into the fiber mass. The barbs pull up some of the fibers and tangle them with the rest. This makes the fibers stick together; the fiber mass will become smaller and harder – and you can control the shape of the felted item by adding fiber, punching deeper in some places and lots of other great tricks.
Since needlefelting doesn’t rely on fiber scales, but on a mechanical process, it works with plant and man-made fibers. Actually, you might use products made by needlefelting non-animal fibers in your home, wet wipes for instance. Still, I was skeptical whether the technique would really work with plant fibers on a non-industrial scale, so I did an experiment.
I needlefelted some Blue faced Leicester and bamboo for five minutes each. Voila, both felted nicely. The bamboo came out a little hairier and still quite loose, so I think that it takes a little longer to needlefelt plant fibers into shapes. However, bamboo might also not be the best fiber to felt, because it is very fine and has a long staple length.
The finished flower made from Blue faced Leicester was much lighter and more elastic than the bamboo flower, which became quite dense and hard. I then used what I learned from the first attempt to needlefelt a little whale.
For this sculpture, I used a core of polyester filling material, which felted beautifully, and covered it with bamboo to make the sculpture more elastic. This was a good plan – the finished whale is a lot squishier than the pure bamboo flower. You could probably use polyfill without the addition of other fibers and paint the finished projects with fabric paints like Dye-Na-Flow, which works on polyester, or even with acrylic paints or markers.
Honestly? I’m still grumbling a little about not being able to use wool in my felting projects (or at least only until the stash is gone), but perhaps this will turn out to be just a matter of learning how to deal with new materials to make them shine in my projects.