Teaching classes in my studio allows us to work on messy projects that require more elaborate preparation and/or clean-up. I imagined this project when I first started teaching classes to younger children off-site, but the logistics made it too complicated.
My goal was to take students through the steps to make their own colored felt. Rather than purchasing industrial wool felt for our projects, I wanted to show them how we could create our own. Since young children often struggle with the finesse required to draft fine shingles of roving sliver, starting with needlepunched prefelt allowed us a shortcut while still working with wool we could wet felt.
One type of prefelt is created in an industrial process using many needles. Wool is fed between two vibrating metal plates, one of which contains hundreds of tiny barbed needles. What emerges is a loosely held together fabric which can be cut, layered and wet felted to create sturdy felt fabric. Many feltmakers use prefelt to create custom garments with lots of drape without the weight or rigidity more common with thick felt.
Starting with an 80″ x 60″ sheet of prefelt ordered from Outback Fibers, I cut it in to 12″ x 10″ pieces. The total weight was a little over 8oz, so I purchased 8 packets of Kool-Aid unsweetened powder. Each packet was mixed with approximately 6oz of water in small mason jars. Kool-Aid is an inexpensive and non-toxic way to dye a small amount of wool as it contains citric acid. In order for acid dyes to bond with wool, vinegar or citric acid must be mixed with the dye. Buying the Kool-Aid packets saved me the step of calculating and measuring the correct dye/acid proportions.
The prefelt was presoaked for 30 minutes in water with a drop or two of dishsoap added to help breakdown the surface tension. Some of the pieces were wrung out so they had very little water left in the wool, while others were sitting in standing water. Varying the amount of water in the prefelt affected the results we achieved.
Recalling my favorite sibling-annoying method of stealing sips, we used straws to pick up a small amount of dye from the jars. Stick the straw in the Kool-Aid, place your finger over the tip and lift. The vacuum created will keep the liquid in the straw. Drip on the prefelt. Leaving the prefelt slightly wet will allow for more of a watercolor effect.
It wasn’t long before the students decided it was more fun to splatter and flick than to drop a single bead of Kool-Aid on their wool.
Once the students were done with the wool, we put each piece in a separate ziploc bag. Towards the end, we used the last pieces of prefelt as sponges to sop up the remaining bits of Kool-Aid in the trays. These pieces, which were various shades of mossy earth, were put together in a single ziploc bag. The ziploc bags were loaded into the two trays of a bamboo steamer sitting over a large pot of simmering water. We steamed the sealed bags for fifteen minutes. After the bags had cooled a little, we rinsed the prefelt sheets one at a time. For the most part, they held their color very well. Some of the prefelt pieces were thoroughly felted, as they had received so much vigorous attention during the dyeing process. If you plan to dip dye the prefelt in the jars, or submerge them in trays, do it with a gentle hand, minimizing agitation as this can lead to inadvertent premature felting.