Wool, part one.

Perhaps you are wondering where I’ve been. My latest structure has been by far the most challenging, logistically and physically. I had a feeling it would be, the material and the method both being pretty far out of my comfort zone. I also had a feeling that this would be the structure I’d learn the most from– also true so far.

I’m making a structure out of wool; felting it, to be precise. Most people I’ve spoken to have seemed to think I am fairly bonkers to be felting a structure. There is, however, quite a historical precedent for such things. Namely, yurts built by nomads in Mongolia. The walls of yurts are historically felt, nowadays often covered on the inside and the outside by canvas. This protects the felt insulation and allows it to last longer, since the weather is held out by the outer canvas and smoke from indoor fires is held off the felt by the indoor canvas. You can read about the history of Mongolian felt-making here: http://www.ulaantaij.com/History_Felt.html

After doing quite a bit of research, I decided to felt this structure using a method similar to the ones used in east central asia, combined with a rolling method I found that is used to make large felt pieces such as blankets and rugs.

First I needed wool. I began by asking around among people I knew and also on Freecycle, and got several bags of wool from those sources. I also got two bags of wool from the Hampshire Farm Center. As I continued by research, I realized I was going to need a tremendous amount of wool, so I began searching farther afield. My friend Llani gave me one big bag, and through a chain of about four people I found a man in Charlemont who shears sheep and sells the unwashed fleece for $1 a pound. What a deal! On a rainy, muddy day, I ventured up into the hills. It was a beautiful drive, sudden vistas, mist hanging in the valleys. After trekking up a long, snow covered driveway, I bought about 25 pounds of wool.

Step 1: Washing the wool

The fleece was pretty dirty. I didn’t use the worst parts, the rest I washed by soaking in two buckets of water, a wash and a rinse. I didn’t use soap because I wanted to leave the lanolin, which is the waxy-feeling, water resistant stuff on the fleece. I had to be careful not to agitate the wool, which could start the felting process before I was ready. Washing was really tiring because buckets of water are heavy, and so is soggy fleece.

Step 2: Drying the wool

Drying was difficult. I spread the wet wool out on egg cartons, old newspapers, and tarps. I even hung larger chunks on the clothes line! This created some images I really love.

Step 3: Combing/stretching the wool

This was an endless task. The idea is to get the fibers fluffed and running in the same basic direction. I didn’t card the wool because they don’t do that in the rolled mongolian method. Instead, they arrange the wool by beating it with sticks. Hand stretching it was a middle ground I improvised.

I should take this moment to acknowledge that I have a fantastic roommate who does not freak out when I fill whole rooms with wool.

Step 4: laying out the wool

I made a pattern by putting a sheet over my head in the manner I planned to shape the structure. I found I would need a circle about 7.5’ across, so I laid out the wool to about 8.5’ to allow for shrinking. In traditional Mongolian felting, the wool would be laid out on an older piece of felt, called the Mother Felt. I used a combination of sheets and straw beach mats as my mother wool. The idea is to have a material that the wool can have some friction against and that isn’t water tight.
The first layer should be laid out with the fibers all running the same way, and the next layer should be laid 90 degrees across the first. We made three layers, the third layer aligned the same as the first. The idea is to lay the fibers so that they can tangle into each other as you roll the wool, so I didn’t try to flatten each layer too much.

Step 5: felting solution

The felting solution I made was hot water mixed with a bit of oil soap, sprinkled on each layer, and periodically throughout the rolling process.

Step 6: Rolling!
Once I had the three layers arranged, I flattened them together by rolling over them once with a pool noodle. Then I placed the pool noodle at the edge and rolled the whole thing up like a cinnamon roll, and tied it shut in several places. Then we rolled the roll around with hands and feet. Traditionally, this work would be done by a horse or a camel, who would drag the roll around for several hours or a day. Having not horse or camel, I had to get creative.

Step 7: and more and more and more rolling!

For the rest of the felting process, the idea is to continue agitating the roll, open it up and roll it up from a different direction, agitate it more, open it, roll it up from a third side, and so on. During this, I tried to keep pressure on the roll evenly distributed, so if I had help we would switch places and use hands and feet equally on each part. Once the felting is in full swing and the wool is beginning to cling to the mother wool, the whole thing should be flipped like a pancake and then rolled and rolled and rolled again on the new side.

At this point I had to make adjustments. The wool was simply too big for the straw mats, so I rolled it up in a large tarp instead. Then I rolled up the mats and used them as the center of the roll in place of the pool noodle. This worked much better.

Step 8: …and turning and flipping and rolling!
Fleece fibers have scales all over them, and agitation causes the scales to peel back and tangled with each other, forming a dense mat instead of a fluffy cloud. It takes a lot of agitation. After trying lots of methods, I discovered that rolling the whole roll back and forth in a sheet was the easiest way of creating consistent agitation. In these pictures, you can see how that works. Be warned, felting a giant felt is really exhausting. You have to keep doing it for hours and hours and you will be sore. I was expecting this project to be a lot of work, and I was still surprised by how much work it was.

Eventually the felt will get flatter and flatter and denser and denser. At last, I had what looked like a giant rug or blanket.

How will this become a structure? Stay tuned!

Acknowledgments: Llani, Leslie Cox, a couple ladies from Freecycle, my mother and Kevin Ford all provided me with wool. Hannah, Jedediah, Emma and Steve all helped me with wool transportation. Jedediah proved himself a willing wool laborer, assisting with many steps of the project and offering design ideas. Iline tolerated living with me while I made our house smell like a sheep and covered all available surfaces with wool. Pam, Karina, and Iris provided desperately needed human contact during the wool preparation process.


1 Comment

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One response to “Wool, part one.

  1. Karina

    AH!!! This is amazing. AMAZING.
    You are amazing. A lot.

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