Lots of people said that they would love to come to the ‘Felt an Iraqi Object’ workshops, but weren’t able to make it in person, so we thought we would share how we made our panels, so that you can make your own at home. The technique we used is called ‘wet felting’. The process is simple and requires no previous experience; it can easily be done in a morning or afternoon. You can hang the final piece on the wall or use it as a pot holder or a cushion cover or however you like!
If you do make a felted picture inspired by Iraq, please do share it with me as I’d love to see it and include it on the blog. You can email me a picture (Zena.Kamash@rhul.ac.uk) or send one to Karin and I on Twitter: @ZenaKamash and @andtheHare
How long will it take?
- 3 hours, plus drying time – 1 to 1.5 hours to make your design and 1 to 1.5 hours to felt your picture.
A larger piece will take longer.
What will I need?
You can buy specialist equipment, such as bamboo rolling mats, but most of what you need you will find at home or in a local shop. There is a list of websites that sell the specialist equipment and wool at the bottom of this blog post.
- Wool for felting – we used ‘pre-felt’, but you can use regular wool. If you do use regular wool, you will need to put aside a day. You will need c 2-3 colours: one for a base layer and then some other colours to use for your design on top.
- Rolling mat – you can buy bamboo rolling mats, but you could also use bubble wrap or a small swimming noodle – anything really with a slightly rough texture that you can roll, or just rub on the kitchen draining board.
- Piece of net curtain – this will help in the first part of the felting process; no need for anything expensive, a small piece from a charity shop will be fine. If you can’t find any, then a piece of bubble wrap will work instead.
- Soap – we used olive oil soap, but any bar or liquid soap/washing up liquid would be fine. Olive oil soap is particularly associated with Aleppo in Syria, which makes a nice additional link to the Middle East – you can read more about it here.
- A work surface and floor that can get wet – don’t do this on your favourite oak floor!
- A small towel – this will help mop up some of the water when you are doing the felting.
- Hot water
- A small sprinkler – again you can buy these, but you can just as easily poke some holes in the lid of a plastic bottle, such as a milk carton, and it will work just as well, if not better.
If you have sensitive skin, you may also want to use some washing-up gloves.
How do I do it?
These instructions assume that your base layer is pre-felt like we used. See the end of the instructions, if you’re not using pre-felt.
- First, choose a picture for inspiration. I’d recommend choosing something with quite a simple shape for your first go, but get as adventurous as you like as your confidence grows! To give you an idea of what is possible, you can see what people made at our workshops here. We used objects and architecture from all periods of Iraq’s history for inspiration; the list of websites at the bottom of this post will help you find similar pictures. The aim is not to create an accurate copy (unless you wish to do so), but to respond to the original picture in whatever way speaks to you, so be as abstract and as colourful as you like!
- Next, clear a space on a work surface. Spread out your small towel, then lay your rolling mat or bubble wrap on top and your base layer of prefelt on top of that. You can then start laying out your design on the base layer.
- If you’re using sheets of felt, cut out the shapes you need. If you’re using wool, lay out the pattern you need. You can use a mixture of the two as well and you can layer pieces of felt and/or wool on top of one another. For wool, you can pull pieces off rather than cut.
You may need to draw an outline on a piece of paper to help you get the shape right. You can then pin this to the felt to draw or cut round it.
If you are using unfelted wool to make a detailed part of your design, you may want to needle-felt some of the parts in place; see the list of websites below for where to buy a needle-felting needle.
- Once you are happy with your design, you can start the felting process. This bit is quite magic as your design will gradually sink into your base layer and become one seamless piece. If your design has lots of pieces that can move around, put your piece of net curtain over the top – this will help everything to stay in the right place. This is probably a good time to have a break and get a cuppa too!
- Get your soap and fill your sprinkler with hot water – as hot as your hands can handle, but not too hot so that you scald yourself!! Generously sprinkle water over your design – more water is better than less, but if you use a lot you may want to have a mop handy! Once your panel is wet, press down gently all over to push the water in to the wool and then very gently rub soap all over the top – again more is better than less. The soap will help the wool fibres to mesh together.
- Gently, at first, rub the soap into panel with your fingers. If pieces start moving around, gently pick up the net curtain and nudge the pieces back into place. Keep rubbing the panel with soapy water until you can no longer move pieces around easily. Every so often, gently lift and peel back the netting so it doesn’t get felted to the wool. You can turn the panel over and rub the back too. Once you are able to pinch a piece and lift the whole panel (i.e. the piece you pinched doesn’t come off in your hand), you are ready for the next step.
This stage takes c. 30 mins.
- You can now be a bit more vigorous with the felting process. If you are worried that pieces may still move, keep the net curtain over the top for the first few rolls. Roll your piece up in the rolling mat and roll the whole thing quickly backwards and forwards c. 20 times. Unroll, turn your panel 90° and repeat the rolling. Keep repeating the rolling and turning process, turning upside down too, until your panel has shrunk by about 1/3 its original size and your design has become fully incorporated into the base layer. Your piece should not stretch much at this stage. If your piece is going to be a wall-hanging, then it doesn’t need to be really well felted and can be a bit stretchy, but if you are going to use it, keep going until it is quite tough.
This stage takes c. 30 mins.
- Now for the really fun bit! Take your felted panel to a sink, soak it in cold water and then throw it as hard as you can into the sink several times. This looks drastic, but will really help your piece to be properly felted. Repeat the cold water and throwing process several times. Then, place your piece in the sink and, being careful not to scald yourself, pour boiling water over it, followed by cold water – this will shock the fibres into place. Rinse your piece thoroughly until all the soap has been washed away – a small drop of vinegar may help get rid of the last remnants of soap. You can wring the piece without damaging it.
- And finally, dry your panel, and then send me a photo of what you have made (email: Zena.Kamash@rhul.ac.uk or Twitter: @ZenaKamash)! If you want, you can add in some final details with embroidery or needle-felting.
***If you are not using pre-felt for your base layer, you can take normal wool and layer it to make your own base layer. Place the wool fibres horizontally across your work, then the next layer vertically and repeat for 3-5 layers depending how thick you want your piece to be. Make sure there are no gaps. Then follow steps 5-8, before going back to start at step 1. This will take an additional extra couple of hours.***
Websites with pictures for inspiration
Rekrei/Project Mosul – this project began by making 3D models of objects that had been in Mosul Museum; it now includes 3D models from sites in Syria as well.
Monuments of Mosul in Danger – this project is documenting monuments in Mosul; there are lots of lovely pictures, as well as excellent information, in the booklet that you can download freely from this website.
Ashmolean Museum – link to the Ancient Near East galleries
British Museum – link to the Middle East galleries
Make your own lamassu plaque – this blog shows you how to make a different kind of lamassu and includes a line drawing template that you can download; this is what we used in the workshops.
Old Iraqi pictures – this is a Twitter account that has lots of photographs of Iraq.
Kurdish Textile Museum – a museum in Erbil that celebrates the textile history of the region, including using this wet-felting technique to make rugs and other pieces.
Websites that sell felting materials and equipment
World of Wool – this is where we bought our materials for the workshops, including the olive oil soap and the bamboo rolling mats. For our base layer we used ‘21 mic merino pre-felt thick’ which is a cream colour. For our design layers, we used ‘21 mic merino pre-felt’ in a range of colours.
Other sites that are good for felting materials include:
We also have some materials left over from the workshops, which can be sent to you as a starter pack. The starter pack will contain:
- A sheet of pre-felt
- Two colours of other felt/wool
- One sheet of bubble wrap
- One piece of net curtain
If you would like a starter pack, please email me (Zena.Kamash@rhul.ac.uk) or contact me via Twitter (@ZenaKamash). If you have the means, please consider donating to either The Flying Seagull Project or Refugee Support Network in exchange for the starter pack.
With massive thanks to Karin Celestine for teaching us these techniques at the workshops and for her input in writing these instructions.