Being the sort of person who delights in etymology, I found it kind of charming the other day to be told that the word ‘card’, as in to card wool, comes from the Latin carduus – thistle. I can’t really imagine using thistles as carding combs very efficiently. It seems like a good way to put spikes into your wool rather than take them out. I suppose it is really just because both thistles and carding combs are spiky, and stick in raw wool.
Whatever the connection, it is not your average conversation topic. The reason we were discussing this was because I was at a felting workshop for a local homeschooling group.
It was quite a neat setup. They had a little drum carder there for the kids to experiment with. There was also a microscope there to get a closer look at wool fibres. Mostly, though, there were bags of different wool and tables for rolling felt on.
Making the pictures was quite a process. They started off by teasing all the wool out into a rectangle with all the fibres running one way. A second layer was added with the fibres running at right angles to give a kind of warp and weft. Finally a third layer was added to give the whole thing a bit more strength. This woolen rectangle was then wrapped around a sponge cylinder, wet with soapy water, wrapped in a towel, and then rolled for a time. The wool shrinks and distorts as it felts down, so every now and then, they would take it off, turn it ninety degrees, and go again.
The story went that in traditional Mongolia, where felt was a much appreciated substance, rugs and yurt walls were made using this same basic process, but on a much bigger scale. Apparently, they would make a very large, room sized piece, wrap it around a log, bind it together with smaller sticks, and then get the horse to drag the whole whole thing around the field. This odd little story really struck a picture in my imagination.
Once the kids had made the background, they would then make a picture on top with different coloured wool, and repeat the process, until the entire piece was felted. Something that was about an A4 size took about an hour to make from start to finish. There was a table full of previously made ones for inspiration. They looked great, but they also looked like the kind of thing I would end up doing mostly by myself while the boys ran off and played. We stuck to making balls instead.
I forgot to ask what the soap was for. I would guess that because wool is naturally oily, the soap helps get the water all the way through the mass of wool. I just made that theory up, though. It might be completely wrong.
Once you have your ball of soggy wool, you walk around for about half an hour or so rolling it between your hands and tossing it from one hand to another. It slowly shrinks down into something reasonably solid. As it shrinks, you can be a bit firmer with it, squeezing the water through and out of it, as well as rubbing any stray ends down.
When you think you have done all you reasonably can, you wash the whole thing under the tap to get the soap out. Give it a bit more of a squeeze to get the excess water out, and then leave it somewhere to dry.
We decided they looked a bit like models of planets. It was a fun morning. I like these reasonably structured group activities. There is a focus and an objective, but it not so structured that you are just there for the activity and then you leave. There is a communal sort of feel to them, which I enjoy.
As simple as it was, it was all a bit much for my youngest boy, who never really got into it. I still ended up doing pretty much the whole thing for him anyway. I was a little disappointed by that, but on the upside, my hands smelled like lanolin for the rest of the afternoon.