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Archive for February 4th, 2004

How I Felt/Full by Hand

Wednesday, February 4th, 2004

I wrote a note to the Knitlist today about knitting items and then shrinking/fulling (sometimes called felting) them, by hand rather than in a washing machine. I got some good feedback on that post, so I am going to repost it here. Apologies to those who already read it on the Knitlist.

I almost always full my knitted items by hand. My first experience with
wool (at least in the last decade or so) was felting loose wool fibers into
felt. (See my project, The Fabric of Friendship, where I felted large wall
pieces with friends as a performance art piece in summer 2001:
http://purpletree.com/friendship .)

Therefore, when I started knitting items and shrinking them (fulling is the
technical term… felting is when it’s loose fiber, but I digress), I
gravitated toward doing this by hand as well. I get more control this way,
and it satisfies my need to touch fibers whenever possible.

I really tried to let the washer shrink my items for me! But after just a
short while I couldn’t stand to not be watching the progress. I guess I am
a control freak and I want my hands on my work, I don’t want to trust a
mere machine to do it right! I guess I saved a little time by starting the
projects in the machine, but most of the work I did by hand.

How to do it? You need merely add agitation and a pH change (detergent or
soap) to shrink animal fiber. You do not need to have hot water as is
commonly believed. You can shrink wool in lukewarm water, although shocking
the wool with hot, then cold, then hot, is particularly effective toward
the end of the project. It really firms up the fibers quickly.

So make yourself some sudsy water and put the item in the water. Do all the
things they say not to do, when you try to wash a good sweater that could
shrink. You want to rub, and scrub, and wring. Make sure to do this in
different directions… turn and rub, turn another quarter turn and scrub
again. If you keep it folded a certain way during the whole process, you
will get ridges that are permanent (this can happen in a machine, as well).

Toward the end, if you have a place safe from splashes, THROW the piece or
whack it good on the side of the sink/tub. Throwing shocks the fibers into
moving and grabbing on to each other, thus really quickly shrinking the
piece. This is the most effective method I know for hurrying up the
process, but it seems to work after the piece has already started to firm
up a bit.

At first it feels like nothing is happeniing. Put on some good dance music
to keep you motivated during this process. I have a wonderful little
washboard my mother gave me, that she used in the 1950’s to wash her white
socks at college. However, you can use any ridged surface including the top
of a Tupperware container from the 80s, to rub if you have such an item.
It’s not required, you can just rub the fabric on itself if need be.

Throw and then dunk in REALLY cold water and then shock by putting in
really hot water (wear gloves so you don’t get hurt if you try this). Cold
to hot to cold to hot is a way to get a nice firm product, on top of the

While you work, check to see if you like the shape you are getting. If you
need one part to shrink more, then work that one part. If it is getting a
little lumpy, stretch and smooth as you work. I believe you get much better
results by hand-working a fulled piece, although I do have to be careful
with my wrists (wringing is particularly bad for my own wrist pain).

To stay on topic, I have pictures of a couple of hats and a pair of
slippers I fulled, on my weblog. Pictures are at:

Turquoise Hat Before (bottom of page):
Turquoise Hat After:

Purple Hat (After Only):

Fuzzy Feet Before:
Fuzzy Feet After:

Wow, thanks for this question. You can tell I’m pretty passionate about
this subject. I hope the information is helpful.