Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Felted-Wool Blanket Tutorial

Birdy's blanket. I am still supposed to be making a small version for Strawberry.
I have been promising this sweaters-to-blanket tutorial for a long time. (Very slight Owl Moon reference. "I had been waiting to go owling for a long time." Sigh.) But this is the perfect, cozy time of year to hole up with some wool, a glass of wine, and a nice, rewarding sewing project. Plus, if you start now, you can make one for a very special Christmas present. The kind of Christmas present where you maybe have to say, "Can you believe I made that?" and redirect the person's attention from the newly unwrapped knife sharpener back to the blanket, because maybe they don't understand quite all what was involved. Be sure to tell them.

Are you ready? It goes like this.

Ben's blanket.
1. Get the sweaters. Dig through your closets, hit up friends and relatives, and go to thrift shops and hospice shops to find 100% wool sweaters. Lambswool is my absolute favorite. Merino is excellent. Shetland is finicky but will, with persistence, felt. Cashmere is lovely when it works, but also a bit finicky. Some percentage of angora is terrific, but do not go with sweaters that are even 20% nylon because they will pill. I speak from experience, having used them and regretted it. 100% wool. The bigger the better because they will get very small. Nothing that says "washable," because then it won't shrink and felt up. Don't worry about small holes, which will disappear, or rips or stains, which can be simply cut away. Cardigans are fine. (I even sometimes use the buttons.)

My approach is always the same, which is to pick a color family and stick with it. Purples, greens, pinks, blues. But you could make a motley one if you prefer. If you are finding fantastic and inexpensive sweaters in multiple colors, you could consider making two blankets! I would budget $35 for the sweaters--and less if your thrift store has a half-off day.

Reds, pinks, oranges, with a black border. One snuggle beneath, then we gave it away to dear friends, where I can still visit with it.
A note: this part--the amassing of the sweaters--usually takes me a couple of weeks. You need 8-12 sweaters, depending on how big they are, plus 3 or so in a different color if you want to edge it.


2. Felt the sweaters. When you wash and dry it, pure wool will shrink and get nice and tight, with all the fibers matted together so that you can cut it and it won't stretch or fray. However, this won't necessarily happen the first time you wash and dry it, so be patient. Some sweaters require multiple trips through the washer and dryer. Here's how:
  • Wash them. Put the sweaters in the washing machine with a cup of dish-washing detergent. I know! But it's harsh and abrasive, and works well. I also put in a pair of jeans or two, for abrasiveness, and the Velcro paddles from this game, for added fiber-matting! I really do. Do a hot wash with a cold rinse--the temperature swing is supposed to help seize up the fibers extra much. Lots of people recommend putting them in a pillow case first, to protect your machines.
  • Dry them. Put the sweaters in the dryer and dry them on high.
  • Evaluate them. If they are still stretchy, or you can really see the knit stitches in the body of it, then they're not felted. Back into your washer. Keep at it. Some will give in eventually and others won't. I have even boiled sweaters in a big pot of water, which makes the house smell like a sheep in a thunderstorm, but I am just that devoted to my art. If you have sweaters that don't seem thick and felted do not use them. No matter how gorgeous they may be. I speak from experience here: a sweater that is fraying or stretching will have you ruing the day.
  • Worry about your machines. Which may get clogged with lint. I don't know what to tell you. I do it anyway.
 3. Make a plan. Should this have been Step 1? Probably. But this is how it is. I pretty much do all my sweaters the same way: a 7 by 10 grid of 6-inch squares. This makes a generous throw blanket. If you are making a baby blanket or a bed blanket, adjust accordingly. Knowing that I need 70 (6-inch) squares is as far as my planning goes.

I made a baby blanket with 3-inch squares, and it was very cute. You can hardly see how cute it is, what with that baby plunked right on it!
4. Cut the squares. I cannot enough recommend that you get a rotary cutter for this job--and for all your sewing, actually. This is the one I have, and I swear it has paid for itself in inexpensive sewn items that make beautiful gifts. But it also means that you'll need a large cutting mat. And, if you give a mouse a cookie, while we're at it, you should go ahead and get a transparent quilter's ruler (mine is 6- by 12-inches) which, again, will make everything so much easier. You can do this with a pair of scissors and a 6-inch cardboard square that you trace around with a disappearing pen or tailor's chalk, but it will be much more difficult and frustrating.


I cut all my sweaters the same way: I cut the arms off. Then I cut up each side of the body and across the shoulders to make 2 piece that I can lay flat on my cutting mat. I then try to get as many 6- by 12-inch pieces out of them as I can by pressing and holding the cutting mat on the sweater and cutting around it with the rotary cutter. (I cut these in half.) Eventually, I cut 6-inch squares from what's left and, finally, I cut the sleeves open and get what I can from them. I don't worry too much about seams running through my squares, as long as they're not too close to the edge, which can make sewing hard later. I also happily use ribbed parts, assuming they have felted well, which they are inclined not to do. If they aren't felted, don't use them. Pockets are fun to include.

pocket detail
Cut all the sweaters (and then some) until you have enough squares.


5. Arrange your squares. This is the fun part.
I would never! Oh, wait. I did. (This is a different blanket.)
I lay them all out on the floor, and then the kitty runs through them and I curse at him and tip the wine bottle to see if there's any fucking wine left, which there's not, while the kids make fun of me for being such a weird mix of crafty and crass.


Take your time, because this is the blanket you're going to make! I usually go for random, but kind of spaced out evenly, if that makes sense. Usually there's more of one thing than another, and it's all a bit of a challenge, getting it to look right. If there's a color or pattern you are turning out not to like, now is the time to be honest with yourself, even if it means another trip to the Salvation Army.


6. Pile your columns. This has taken me a long time to codify, but I really think this method works to keep the squares organized and in the design you arranged: Pile all the squares from one column, bottom to top, keeping them in order, and ending with the top square on top. Label it with a piece of tape that says which column number it is, starting with 1 at the far left. (As you can see, in the spread-out version above, I number my columns with tape before i even pile them.)

7. Stitch the squares together. I do this on a sewing machine, and can't quite imagine doing it by hand. What you'll want to do is set your machine to do a nice wide zigzag and then, this is kind of crazy and fun, you're simply going to hold two squares with their edges bumped up against each other, and you're going to zigzag them together, doing a little back stitch at the start and end to secure the thread. (If one piece is much thinner than another, you can overlap them the teeniest bit as you're sewing.) You won't want, or be able, to pin them--which means that you'll be able to adjust a little as you go--pulling this square a little, or pushing that one, so that they stay lined up.


Does that make sense? So, for each column, you're going to start with the top square and sew the square underneath it (in the pile) to the right edge of it (back stitch, cut the thread), then the next square underneath (in the pile) to the right edge of that second one (back stitch, cut the thread), etc. until you've got your whole column sewn together. You have to do a lot of stopping and starting, but that's okay, right? Take your time, breathe deeply, and relax.

You'll do this for each column, until you've got 7 columns of ten sewn-together squares (or whatever numbers you chose). Arrange these on the floor again, in the correct order. Knot and trim extra threads at this point so they don't get caught in your machine when you stitch the columns together.


8. Stitch the columns together. Sew top to bottom, starting by stitching column 2 to the right of column 1, then 3 to 2, etc. This is my favorite part, because you get to do nice, long swaths of stitching. Adjust as you go so that the rows end up lining up more or less. Back stitch a little at the beginnings and ends to secure the stitching.

9. Fuss with it. Lay your blanket back out and knot and /or trim all the stray threads (there will be many). Peel off the tape. Hold it up to the light to determine if there are any holes or gaps in your stitching, and sew them up on the machine. (Neatness is not my great strength.) Decide if you want to make a border for it or if you've had about all you can take at this point.


10. Make a border. You might as well. I often do this in black, since it's easy to find a lot of black sweaters, but Birdy wanted hers to match. I cut two-inch-wide strips, as long as I can, from the sweaters and sleeves and scraps, then sew these together, then cut them again to the right size for each side of the blanket. You will need to do some math, so ask a child to help you. You'll need two 42-inch lengths (7 X 6) plus 2 64-inch lengths ((10 X 6) + (2 X 2)). Which is a lot of fucking border, so maybe skip it. Sew the border on the same way you sewed the rest of it, overlapping very slightly if there are places where the edge is uneven.

11. Feel wildly satisfied. You really will, I'm not kidding. In part because you've made such a lovely spot for the cat to sleep.


Don't feel like making one? Buy one from the amazing Crispina Ffrench, whose blankets, spied in a Berkshires shop, first inspired me back in 2004. . . 
 
Did you want to use leftover scraps to make a pillow? Or have you kind of, you know, had enough?

We machine wash and dry ours, on the assumption that whatever is going to happen has happened already, but you could be more careful, if you like!

Have fun, if you make one! Or enjoy *not* making one.

xo

56 comments:

  1. These are beautiful! A question... How do you wash them after they are finished? Do you need to worry about them felting more? My only experience with felting was making wool dryer balls for gifts a few years ago. I know what you mean about the "sheep in a thunderstorm" smell!

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    1. Thanks, Kelly. I just answered your question in an edit! We machine wash and dry ours.

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  2. I love this! I actually feel like I could accomplish it! So, no backing or filling, right?

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    1. Right. It's just this! But so thick and warm, because the wool gets really dense.

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    2. I used an old wool blanket from the thrift shop as a backing. I made the top a little bigger than the blanket and folded over an inch of the felted wool to make a border.

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  3. Oh boy! This would make a great gift! But I don't think I can collect all the needed sweaters in time for this year...will start collecting for next year. Thanks for the amazing idea!!!

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  4. Okay, I love you all the more because you are my exact mix of crafty and crass. One of my kids once said that the sewing machine makes mom swear LOL I really want to do this now, though -- and I have the perfect dear one to make it for! Now to find the right color sweaters. I have a whole month, after all.

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  5. Emilyplays1:32 AM

    ooh I love a felted sweater craft! I have a burning kitty question - is that a specific type of cat? It seems large! I'll search your archives and see if you've mentioned the him in more detail.

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    1. He's a Siberian! And he is large.

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  6. I've been amassing old sweaters in a box in the basement, in anticipation of a project presenting itself to me some day--this might just be it (and not only because it will use up all those damn sweaters). But we have a front-loading washer, which I know from experience won't felt...so I guess it's a trip to the laundromat (with a nice long book and no kids...ahhh).

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    1. I have a front-loading washer too, and stuff *does* felt. . . but it might take longer! (Not to keep you from your kidless reading experience, though. Maybe you better just go to the laundromat.)

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  7. I love these blankets, and I'm so glad you finally posted a tutorial! I have just one question: if you use 100% wool, aren't they kind of scratchy? Or does the felting process magically eliminate the scratchiness?

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    1. Oddly, they are not scratchy at all. I am not sure why, but I do think magic is involved.

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  8. I will very much enjoy NOT making one, as the last time I attempted any sort of sewing project (7th grade home ec!), I managed to sew the pillow I was working on to the pants I was wearing at the time. But I love your blog so much I read the entire tutorial, as though there were a snowball's chance in hell I would be able to pull this off.

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    1. So funny because I did exactly the same. 1) I had to drop Home Ec sewing back in high school because I didn't want it to mess up my GPA 2) I don't own a sewing machine 3) I have absolutely no plan to make this, but I enjoyed reading your tutorial so much I went all the way to the end. Maybe I'll find another felted project that doesn't require any talent. I have an obsession with my local consigment store and all the great finds I get there-- only none of my boys will wear a sweater because they're "too fancy".

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  9. Anonymous3:31 PM

    Andrea, it WILL felt! I know from experience because I keep felting sweaters in our front-loader by mistake by accidentally putting them on the wrong cycle :( ...... well, now at least I have got something beautiful to do with them!
    Angela

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    1. Just logging on to say the same thing, Angela!

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  10. Laurie Williams9:50 PM

    Lucky me I have a pile of felted sweaters ready and waiting for this tutorial! I have been waiting a *long* time :) I have loved the blankets since you first posted a picture of the one you made for Ben. Thank you!!!!

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  11. There is no wool here! We barely have thin acrylic sweaters much less wool here in south Louisiana. They don't even sell wool felt at the fabric stores. I'm going to check a thrift store anyway, but I'm pretty sure the only wool sweater I've seen was my dad's Navy-issued one. Of course I read the whole tutorial anyway, and that is an AWFUL lot of border; you're right. I wonder if I could do this with t-shirts or other soft non-raveling knits?

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    1. absolutely you can use t-shirts - but they're thin and you'll want to back them with something. i know i'm not supposed to toot my own horn, but i'm going to do it anyway: http://www.magpiemusing.com/2008/11/repurposed-hats-blankets.html - it's not really a tutorial, but you can kind of see what i did.

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    2. Hey lastdogz, you can do this with sweatshirts--no felting required, and heavy enough that you don't really need a backing, at least not in southern LA.

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  12. Anonymous7:30 AM

    Love your blankets!!! They are really pretty and look very warm! You are too groovy! Love this and your instructions are amazing! Like I said before, your blog is reminiscent of my childhood in the 70's, "macrame, hanging plants and all"! I spent ten years of my childhood with turtle-motif sheets as curtains in my room. They were sewing machine sewn at the top for the window-curtain bar but somehow were simply pinned with pins at the bottom and stayed that way until they were taken down a decade later. Maybe the curtains were never finished because the sewing machine caught on fire (just kidding) as my mom (and grandmom) made all my polyester (yes!) clothes (with elastic waists as well!).

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  13. Someone gave us a Crispina Ffrench blanket when our daughter was born - I think it was, hands down, my favorite baby present. Did you know she's making coats/jackets out of old sweaters or sweatshirts? I'm kind of dying to take one of the daylong classes...wanna do it with me?

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  14. Damn. I can't sew and I can't afford to buy one so I guess I will just have to admire/envy yours!

    And apparently, I am just crass, and not crafty. My kids have learned to live with it :)

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  15. Anonymous1:23 AM

    Got started on my first one today!! Felting is going amazingly well in my front-load washer. I use the extra-hot setting (called "sanitize" cycle on my machine). Not exactly a surprise as I have felted favorite sweaters accidently in the past (the foundation material for this project). After felting all 10 sweaters, I think I will need a trip to thrift store afterall to get enough material. Some of the felted sweaters are SO small. That, and I've somehow lost 3 sweaters that I was saving in a bin or box somewhere. My cashmere is felting fairly well, but still very soft. Lambswool is my favorite as well!
    Love the tutorial Catherine!! Your work is lovely. Hope mine turns out one-tenth as nice.
    Its a gift for a dear one, so fingers crossed. Have work to do for my day-job tonight or I'd be cutting squares into the wee hours.
    Thank you for the inspiration (yet again)!

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  16. Anonymous7:38 AM

    Hello! LOVED your tutorial! Just finished the entire top piece... LOVE IT!! Wondering how you finish them (with or without the border)? For example, what kind of batting do you use, what do you use for the backing, how do you join the 3 layers? THANKS!!!

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    1. Mine are just the one layer! But I'm sure you could do it however you like. . . So glad it's working for you!

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  17. Hi, this is great, thanks for the clear instructions, I already have a pile of old cashmere sweaters as I appear to make a hole in the left elbow of every one I've ever owned (bad computer posture!). I already have 3 curious cats who will be delighted to "help" with any craft activities I embark on and I own sewing machine and have finished my endless roman blind projects last month.

    Looking forward to making use of the sweaters which I've been hoarding to do something with for several years.

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    1. here's the guys ready to help with felting! (please don't think that I don't check the machine before putting it on....this was post use obviously)

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  18. Anonymous11:38 PM

    Felting is hard work! Sweaters in pillow slips in my front-loading washer wasn't really working so I switched to the laundromat sans-slip (doubt you could wreck one of those beasts!) and also tried boiling then plunging in ice water (nearly scalding myself with hot sheep). All of the sweaters seem to require at least 3 trips through of one of the methods above! How do you know when the felting is done? The thick-to-start sweaters are pretty straightforward and wow do I love how thick they end up! Some of the thinner sweaters seem like they will never felt but other thin ones are definitely on their way but I can't tell if they are done or not (and I grow weary of hot cauldrons and nearly out of quarters). I can no longer see the knit pattern but it's still stretchy and if I hold it to the light and pull I can see light between the stitches. Wool sweaters are not easy to find here in California Goodwills (and alas, like everything else, they are not cheap!) so I want to be sure before I cut. This is my first project of this type...thanks for the inspiration in this and cooking and games and parenting and all! --Julia

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    1. Julia, I'm sorry it's been so hard! If you ever see the "sterilize" or "sanitary" setting on a washing machine, use that for sure! The water is near-boiling. . . What I recommend is making a small tester cut into one sweater and looking at the edge. If it looks like it's not going to stretch or fray, then go ahead. I bet they're felted, though. xo

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    2. Anonymous1:15 AM

      I have figured a few things out. 1. My house's water just isn't very hot; boiling is better. 2. Repeated trips through the wash (or boil) and dryer do eventually work (like, 6-8 times!)....except for the 2 sweaters I got completely fed up with, but then I realized they were poor candidates because (3.) one was "superwash wool" and the other had a hidden tag in the shoulder (where I have never ever seen a tag) indicating it was only 70% wool (both of these were kindly but I guess not-too-carefully sourced by my sister-in-law). 4. Thicker sweaters seem to felt better for me. 5. One sweater that I thought said 5% nylon in the store on closer inspection is 15% nylon but felted perfectly and I'm willfully ignoring slight pilling that I'm sure can be removed and maintained for just those few squares (heh, heh, right??).

      On my way, slowly. :) --Julia

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  19. Findigo6:35 PM

    I am so impressed. If I actually make this and it turns out anything like yours, I plan to wear it around town as a cape, hoping someone will ask if I made it. Go you.

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  20. Have everything cut and ready to go, but having a horrible time getting through the thick fabric with my sewing machine. Have heavy duty needle and thread already. Any tips?

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  21. Michelle5:21 AM

    Any thoughts on crazy quilting with felted sweaters?

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  22. Anonymous8:29 PM

    This is a great tutorial-I saw recycled sweaters made into blankets/hats/pet gear at a craft fair and have thought, there is no reason why I can't do same. So, I have some good old sweaters I've been keeping for this purpose. Heavy LLBean type sweaters 100% wool-so, you are saying, put them through the wash? I fear the worst will happen-they will become tight and unfriendly to use! Also, how 'bout mixing and matching-say bulky sweater with sweatshirt material type pattern? I do also want backing-so what's the best material for that and how about filler? Thanks for your input!

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  23. Anonymous3:00 PM

    I do alot of felting and have never had this happen.......just tried felting a 100% wool Woolrich sweater for over an hour and am getting no shrinkage. Have you ever experienced this? Any suggestions? Water was hot, sweater was not preshrunk.

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  24. I thought so! I breed Siberians and it seems like mine need these blankets =) thanks for the idea and tutorial!

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  25. I DO NOT read blogs and yours is hilarious and helpful!! Wish I'd read it prior to cutting the sweaters. The last tutorial made it sound like you wash, you dry and *poof* you have felted wool. Craptastic, more washing and convincing the neighbors I'm not breeding sheep in my condo. Can't wait to see how it turns out. Great job and thank you for an excellent explanation.

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  27. Will you please clearify in stewp (9) what you are refering to in "Peeling off the Tape" this is going to be my first sewing project. When was the tape applied?

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    1. Yes. It's the masking tape you (optionally) used to number the columns in step 6. Good luck!

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  30. I enjoyed reading this blog and all the comments. I will try making my own blanket for my mother.

    ReplyDelete
  31. Thanks for a very helpful and highly entertaining tutorial - I'm about to embark on my first felted wool project and feel a lot more confident having read this!

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  32. I'm going to bust out the old cashmere sweaters from the 90s! But one question-- what kind of thread do you use?

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    1. Erin, I use regular all-purpose thread, but more out of ignorance than out of a thoughtful process. If you have ideas about a better thread, you should follow your instincts!

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  35. I made this blanket last year for my daughter's birthday, she was thrilled. Thank you so much for posting such comprehensive instructions. I am about to start making one for my son and then one for me.

    ReplyDelete
  36. Anonymous10:15 PM

    You should get an accuquilt machine! I quikt all the time and I cut squares in seconds.... so much better than a rotary cutter. So I'm going to try a sweater quikt next because I have sweater scraps from a factory that was going to THROW THEM OUT! that's just a sin! Lol. Thanks so much for the tutorial! !

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  37. My advice after all the sewing is done is to give it s good ironing. Wool setting with lots of steam. I've made quite a few now and it makes a huge difference.

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