Mystery Fiber – Identify It, Felt It, Take it Further

Hello all.  My name is Arlene Toth and I am a Fiber Artist.  It sounds like I am owning up to an addiction, and I am.  I am addicted to working with wool.  If you don’t know me already, I have a blog called Adventures in Felt.  I took up needle felting in March 2019 where they were giving a demonstration at my local haberdashers.  The first thing I ever made was a bumble bee from a kit.  From then on I was hooked and it just snowballed from there.  As with any addiction, I eventually got hooked on the hard stuff, wet felting.  The first thing I ever wet felted was a very tiny vessel.  I used to paint for 10 years, but painting hasn’t had a look in for over a year.  I wonder at times how I have lived so long and didn’t know about felting until now.  I feel I have a lot of lost time to make up for.  Starting any new hobby is an adventure and I am always up for one of those.  I love this so much that I have immersed myself in it completely.  I have amassed a library of felting books, watched tons of videos (good and bad), and taken online classes.  I am so grateful to those out there that share their knowledge.  So I blog about what I learned.  As far as I’m concerned, it is all an experiment, and like painting, not everything is going to be a masterpiece.

One of the things I have learned is that making samples is important.  Most of the time I just jump right in, but there is value when making small samples especially if you are unfamiliar with the product you are using or the method you will be felting.  For instance, I bought some Botany Lap Waste from World of Wool.  I ended up with a lot of fiber that I thought was merino as it was so soft and felt like superfine merino, but turned out to be alpaca.  How do I know that?  Well, I initially felted with some of it, but it didn’t felt like the merino.  Fortunately, the item I was making was mostly merino, so this mystery fiber did ultimately felt.  I then decided to make some samples as I had a lot of mystery fiber.

Firstly, you need to identify your fiber if it isn’t labelled.  The first way to check if it is animal hair is to burn it.  Yes, burn it.  I used a fire lighter and took a piece of the fiber and it singed and smelled like burnt hair.  If it does that, it comes from an animal.  It doesn’t matter at this point which animal, but an educated guess reckoned that it was alpaca.  Alpaca is a lovely fiber, but some types will felt and some won’t. I have a lovely knitted alpaca hat I bought in Peru which is so soft and warm.  So either way I am going to be a winner here.

Now that you have determined that your fiber comes from an animal and it isn’t synthetic, you will then need to felt a sample, step two.

I had three mystery fibers in grey and the black is merino that I used for my control.  I laid them out with two layers.  I wet them out with tepid soapy water and started the felting process by sanding on boths sides, rubbing and rolling.  This is what they looked like.

B was looking as it should for merino, but neither A, C or D passed the pinch test.  I kept working at the samples and I finally got them to do a little something.

I can honestly say that if you want to become a good felter, you need tenacity as this is not a quick craft!  Not only was this fiber slippery and hairy, it was also squeaky!  You can see my lovely control Fiber B doing what merino is supposed to do.  Neither A, C or D is suitable to felt on its own.  D looked like a complete disaster!  Now, some people might think D was superwash, but superwash will not felt, at all, with anything.

So, I completely wasted my money right?  No!  You can stop right here, but if you know how to spin, you can spin with alpaca to make a lovely yarn.  I don’t know how to do that yet!  I was going to give some to a friend, but then we had lockdown, so I just labelled the bags as alpaca and put them away.  However, if you are like me, you will take it further, step 3.

How do you take it further?  You add wool to it.  Something you actually know is wool that will felt. People in the feltosphere suggested that.  So I did.  I got out the blending board and blended the alpaca with merino.  I used the black merino for the dark alpaca and natural grey merino for the other two.  Here they are all laid out as before.

I then wet everything out and felted as before.  As you can see below, adding the wool made a huge difference and made for a better felting experience.

Here we are above drying out in the sun.  They felted better than expected, especially D.  Here is the final outcome below.

Sample A) From 9 squares to 6 squares square, took the longest to felt, hairy, and has some fine holes in it.

Sample B) From 9 squares to 6 squares square, was the quickest to felt.  Sturdiest and best felted of the three.

Sample D) From 9 squares to 7 x 6.5 squares.  I couldn’t get it down any more than that, but considering it was falling apart on its own, this is a good result.  Has some holes, but more like superfine cobweb.

This is the condensed version of 3 blog posts regarding this mystery fiber.  My conclusion is that I shall only keep sample C as it felted the best with the merino.  The other two will be used for spinning, once I learn how to do it!  So, if you get given some fiber that you are unfamiliar with, make a sample and see what happens!

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7 Responses to Mystery Fiber – Identify It, Felt It, Take it Further

  1. annielynrosie says:

    Hello Arlene – we follow your interesting blog and love your makes.

    You are spot on with your sampling, it’s so important although sometimes a little time consuming. We once made a vessel with alpaca, but didn’t sample first, and the thing just collapsed!
    Alpaca is lovely but very soft and, as we found out, not suitable for sculptural use.

    • AdventuresInFelt says:

      Thanks Ladies! I love alpaca fiber because it is so very soft. I need to learn to spin! 🙂

  2. ruthlane says:

    Welcome Arlene, thanks for this informative post. I always recommend sampling first. It’s hard to do when you want to jump right in but saves time in the end. I have tried lots of animal fiber that felts but sheep wool always seems to win the felting game.

    • AdventuresInFelt says:

      Thanks Ruth. I am learning the benefit of making samples. I just need to work out what to do with all of the alpaca I have! 🙂

  3. Antje says:

    Arlene this is an informative post & a reminder to some of us to ‘always’ do a test piece first. I am guilty of sometimes skipping the sample stage.

    Alpaca is certainly soft & unique in its handling.

    • AdventuresInFelt says:

      Thank you Antje. I’m still new to this wet felting lark, so it was a real eye opener for me having all of this lovely fiber that didn’t really felt. At least I know what I can do with it now. 🙂

  4. Isn’t playing with fibres known and unknown so much fun.

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