Felting may be the oldest method of creating fabric. The basic process uses animal hair, such as sheep’s wool, combined with heat, moisture, and friction to become a solid piece of felt. One legend involves St. Christopher stuffing his sandals with wool to protect his feet as he walked. At the end of his travels, the walking action had created felted socks!
Wonderful ancient felting examples are housed at the National Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark. Hats and capes made from felt were warm and rain resistant. Because they were also thick, they protected the wearer from injury during battle. In Mongolia, tents, called yurts, were covered in thick felt often made of yak’s wool. This tradition continues today among nomadic peoples. Felt making activities have also been uncovered in the excavations of Pompeii.
Today crafters and needle artists have several types of felt to choose from:
- Craft felt is made entirely of synthetic materials. It is usually precut in 9″ x 12″ sheets. This is a wonderful felt for children’s activities. Another type of craft felt is eco-friendly, made from recycled materials. It is a little stiffer and also sold in sheets.
- Blended Wool Felt is composed of 20% or 35% wool combined with rayon. This felt is a little softer and has a different texture and look because of the two fibers.
- 100% Wool Felt is made with a wet felting process using animal wool or fur. This felt is much softer and is sold off the bolt. It is a desirable material for textiles, home décor, and fashion accessories.
- Needle Felting is a do-it-yourself felt made with roving and needles. Other fibers can be added to create different textures and looks. Needle felting is done on a large-scale manufacturing process as well. It is the unique individual needle felt that most of us recognize. To learn more about needle felting, check out these articles:
Other resources available from Nordic Needle:
Applique is perhaps as old as felt. The original purpose of applique may be as simple as to patch worn items. It is much faster and easier to cover up a hole rather than to re-weave or felt a new piece. A clue may also be from the word origin itself. The French word appliquer and the Latin word applicare both mean to “apply”. Ancient examples indicate applique was also used for decoration. There is a funeral canopy in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo made of gazelle skin decorated with pastel applique. Khayamiya is a decorative applique that tentmakers still use in Cairo.
While the original use of applique may be a mystery, it appears the precursor to modern applique was wool crewel embroidery. Beautiful crewelwork takes a lot of time and supplies, things not available to the average stitcher of the time. So, in the 15th century, wool applique began appearing on household items in place of the crewelwork. Applique has evolved into several specific styles of quilts.
Broderie perse quilts became popular in the 1700’s in America. Chintz was an expensive, hand-dyed fabric making it impractical for an entire quilt. Creative stitchers cut the fabric into shapes and applied them to a cheaper fabric such as muslin. This technique allows intricate designs with curves as seen with this mid-1800 Broderie Perse Bedcover from the Quilt Museum in the British Isle.
Newer examples include Sunbonnet Sue and Dresden Plate.
Autograph quilts are made to celebrate an event such as a wedding, a pastor leaving, or a special friendship. The quilt blocks are made and signed by individual stitchers. A famous American style is the Baltimore Album Quilt. Originating in Baltimore, Maryland, in the 1840’s they were made of brand new fabrics instead of scraps. The Maryland Historical Society has an extensive collection with over 10,000 textiles including the largest collection of Baltimore Album quilts.
This autograph block is part of the Benjamin Bigg family quilt featuring family signatures. What a treasure!
Cultural quilts are tied to a specific region or heritage. The Hawaiian applique style evolved because of missionaries who were trying to teach Natives to quilt. The beginners did not appreciate the tedious piece work techniques. They became masters at creating the largest applique pieces possible.
Benin quilters in West Africa use their quilts like hieroglyphics representing a name or an event. The Historical Museum of Abomey has a wonderful article on this unique applique. Here is a Benin example from the early 1900’s that depicts three centuries of rulers. Banners and flags often serve a similar purpose.
Reverse applique quilts use layers of fabric where sections are then cut away. Two famous styles are the Mola designs from Panama and Pa ndau also known as flower cloth applique. This style is done by the Hmong natives of Vietnam and Thailand. Since this is stitching young girls do for their hope chests, items may be linens, hats, and clothing.
Wearable applique is also a popular way to use felt and applique. Celtic knot designs are easily identifiable but not easily created. Up until the 1950’s the Irish dance dress was pretty plain. Then someone added a simple applique inspired by those Celtic designs. Today those costumes have become quite elaborate.
About this same time, the American Poodle skirt became popular.
Then the Sixties brought a generation who expressed themselves with embroidery and applique on their clothing. Still today fashion designers use applique to create one-of-a-kind garments. Koos van den Akker designed the sweaters Bill Cosby wore on The Cosby Show. The Museum of Arts and Design in New York hailed van den Akker as “the master of couture collage.”
Combining Felt and Appliqué
What makes felt and applique a perfect combination? In traditional fabric applique, all those pieces need their edges turned under and sewn down. With felt, there is no need to fold under that edge, saving time in piecing. Today’s applique can be as simple or as complex as the stitcher desires. You can also use layers of felt, various threads and fibers, and your imagination to create your own one-of-a-kind gift or accessory.
Another wonderful aspect to felt applique is it doesn’t take a lot of supplies. A sharp pair of scissors is a must to cut clean edges. Cotton floss is a common thread but don’t be afraid to experiment. Add some sparkle with Kreinik braid or texture with Rainbow Gallery’s Wisper or Arctic Rays. Stitching can be done in hand, so there is no need for a frame or hoop. The stitches are often larger and their placement does not have to be perfect. This makes it great for those who have a hard time stitching on small count fabrics. A project bag keeps all the little pieces in one place, ready to grab and go, so you can sit and stitch.
Most techniques require learning numerous stitches, but not applique! All you need to know is the blanket stitch. The blanket stitch is done along the edge of the applique piece. Other stitches can be used for embellishment like the lazy daisy and straight stitch.
That’s all you need to know to get started on your own felt applique creations. Working on little pieces can be habit forming and a great way to experiment with stitches. We would love to see what you do with felt applique!
We hope this guide makes your stitching easier and more enjoyable!
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