THOUGHTS ON LAMINATED FELT GARMENTS
BY PATRICIA SPARK, © 1993
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(Author's Note: This is an accounting of my first experiments with laminated felt. I have gone on to do much more with this technique, but I thought it might be interesting for people to hear about the early experiments.)
Why I began experimenting with the lamination technique to create a thin, flexible fabric for garments: I was going to be teaching at Convergence '92 and I wanted to make something special for the Instructor's Exhibit. In addition, I wanted a vest to wear when giving lectures; something that would not be bulky, but would still say "felt" to the audience. Too many felt garments make the wearer look like they should be a fullback on a football team, complete with shoulder pads! I remembered some of the felt textiles I saw at the International Feltmakers' Conference in Århus, Denmark (1990). Many of the European felters were doing very thin, flexible felts. However, some people were achieving their flexibility by making scarves and garments which used thin layers of hardly felted wool. This seemed to me like it would cause problems when the item was worn because the felts were barely holding together. Other people were felting a thin layer of wool onto a fine, gauzy fabric. The fabric gave the felt strength and the wool layer could be very thin and thoroughly felted without sacrificing flexibility. The work of Helen Wider Maeschi (Switzerland) and Kristin Jonsdottir (Iceland) was especially appealing. Both of these artists were laminating thin layers of fleece to a cloth background. Kristin drew words on the cloth and then felted the fleece onto this ground. The result was a felt wall piece that appeared like an ancient manuscript, with partially obscured words. Helen created felt coats by felting a thin layer of fine wool onto silk gauze. The fabric was very flexible and comfortable to wear, unlike the felt in most contemporary garments.
When I decided to make my vest, I thought this type of flexible textile would be perfect for my needs. I wanted to create a pattern on the felt. Instead of using actual words like Kristin Jonsdottir, I wanted to create a visual rhythm reminiscent of an earlier era, when repeating patterns were used for communication. After experimenting with various patterns, I choose lines and dots for the vest.
How my first laminated felt garment was made: The vest was made of 64's merino fleece laminated onto black nylon gauze scarves. (I could not find silk gauze, and the other silk fabrics I tried for the lamination were too dense.) The dots and lines were cut pieces of yarn which were sandwiched between the gauze and the fleece before felting. Because the scarves were small, I made several different pieces of felt laminate and then pieced them together for the vest.
To do the lamination, a very thin layer of the merino was placed onto a bamboo mat. The pattern yarns were cut into the correct lengths and dipped into a warm soap/water solution before being placed into position. The decorated fleece layer was then covered with a nylon gauze scarf. After water and soap were added, the air was pressed out and the scarf surface was rubbed for about one-half hour. (I learned to keep the scarf from moving, for if it did, it wouldn't felt to the merino in that area.) The felt was then rolled in the bamboo mat until it began to harden. Then it was turned over and rolled some more. When both sides were pretty hard, I rubbed each side on my glass washboard in order to make sure that the felt was fulled enough to withstand the wear of a garment.
During felting and fulling, the merino fiber worked its way through the open gauze scarf, capturing it into the felt. The scarf was open enough that it didn't buckle when the wool shrunk around it. It shifted slightly, creating an interesting pattern. Because this pattern was so unusual, I ended up using the scarf side of the felt as the outside of the vest. To keep the white merino from pilling onto the black shirt I plan to wear with this vest, I lined the garment with black silk. I am very pleased with the flexibility and strength of this type of felt. I think that felt laminate is a wonderful way to make cloth for garments.
Variation on the theme: During Convergence '92, I met a felter from England who was making very thin, flexible felt neck scarves using a lamination technique as well. She told me that her merino/cashmere/silk scarves had cheese cloth sandwiched between the layers. This reminded me of a technique used for strengthening large wall hangings, in which nylon window screening is sandwiched between layers of coarse wool such as Romney. The window screening helps the felt to stay flat on the wall after it has been hanging for a while.
I decided to try scaling down the materials to get a thinner fabric. I laid one thin layer of merino was on the bamboo matt and dampened it by spraying with warm, slightly soapy water. A layer of cheese cloth was laid over the merino and pressed down into the fiber. Another thin layer of merino was laid over the cheese cloth. The whole fabric was covered with a felting net, dampened some more, soaped and rubbed until the fleece began to turn into a fabric. (I made sure to keep lifting up the net so the fleece woudn't attach itself to the felting net.) The fabric was turned over and the other side was rubbed until the whole thing was firm enough to be rolled.
Because the cheese cloth could be any length needed, the fabric for the vest was made in one, long piece; with sewn seams at the shoulder, but not under the arm.
Another variation: Char Hill, a felter from Bothell, Washington, came up with another idea. Instead of using cheese cloth between the layers, she used a flexible, stretch lace fabric. She made felt ties from merino with this stretch lace sandwiched between two thin layers of fleece.
To make the tie, Char used a tie pattern and cut the lace to fit it. The lace was cut in one piece, without any seams. She then put one thin layer of merino wool down onto her work surface. The layer was slightly larger than the lace. Char centered the lace on top of the wool and carefully poured water and soap over the lace area. She pushed down on the wetted lace and fiber, keeping the outside fringe dry. She rubbed the lace/fleece area until the lace started to adhere to the fiber. Then she carefully folded the dry fringe over the lace and added more merino to fill in and cover the lace. More water and soap were added to this new fiber and it was also rubbed until it was felted. She was very careful when she turned the edge, so the tie looked quite elegant when she was finished with it. Her husband, Leroy really likes the tie and he says it is quite comfortable to wear.
Still Another variation: I wanted to make a vest which had a decoration of lace laminated into it. To make the vest quite flexible, I wanted it to be one layer of wool, laminated to a nylon scarf. The lace design was placed onto the wetted, layer of fleece. The scarf was laid over the top of the fleece, sandwiching in the lace. I choose to use the stretch lace so it would shrink along with the fleece and not buckle. The merino wool came up through the lace and attached itself to the scarf with no problem.
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