Last week I took a trip south of Ottawa to visit Ann and see her future studio space. There are two more rooms connected to this one through the back door, that in total seem close to the size of this one if combined. I am sure Ann will show you more as her great studio migration continues.
1 Part of Ann’s New Studio Space
She had a present for me, a piece of black foam used for packing boxes with air purifiers. Looks like a potential felting surface to me! Yes, I stab. I like to stab. I am very stab-ie, ok, there are rumours I am dangerous to be around (possibly just when I am felting but maybe not. It could just be the long fingernails, I am enjoying this part of my retirement.) You have seen many of the things I have stabbed, but what have I been stabbing on? Let’s investigate!
My first dry felting experience was using a sponge, a cellulose sponge and a cheaper car washing synthetic sponge. (NOTE* do not leave needles in a cellulose sponge they will rust if you forget them there.) Neither lasted well but I was also rather enthusiastic in my early stabbing as I began my felting creations. The sponges limited the area I could work on at one time but they were cheap! I can’t find the originals, but they’re the type you find at hardware or the kitchen section of other stores. They were ok for small figures, a mouse or a bird, but require more shifting of your figure if you tried something larger. I think you too would likely upgrade to other types of foam from these, especially if you wanted to work on pictures.
2 Cellulose sponge
3 Rainbow Dollorama sponge (Foam)
4 Car wash bone sponge
My next felting surface was a piece of upholstery foam (not the type with a fire retardant). It worked well but eventually created a sunken area where I had been working. Occasionally little bits of the foam would get embedded in the piece I was working on and I would have to remove Foam bits. It did last longer than the sponge and was a bit bigger. If you are also an overly enthusiastic stabber the depth of 3 or 4-inch upholstery foam may be a good way to keep from stabbing through to the table (or your lap!) As you likely have noticed a bit of fibre is sticking to the foam, using one side of the foam for darker fibres and the other for lighter fibres helps reduce picking up unexpected colours. This is not a problem if you are working on a picture rather than a 3-D figure. Remember to lift your work frequently, leaving the plastic covering on the foam, if it came with one, will also reduce fiber pick up.
5 Upholstery Foam Note clinging fibers
6 Close up of deterioration of upholstery foam
Next, I upgraded to new foam seat cushions from Walmart (found in the craft or sewing section). These were good for larger pieces and painting with wool I started with a 12×12 inch piece and added a couple of larger sizes. I found that the wool tended to sick to the foam but didn’t if you left the plastic on. The plastic covering for the foam would, with enough poking in the same spot, eventually break apart and first the plastic and later the foam would stick to the work. About this time Memory foam was becoming popular and available. I looked at it but it looked like the needle’s barbs would tare into the softer foam quickly so have avoided it. If I find a free piece I will give it a test run, or I guess that would be a test poke.
7 Seat Cushion foam 18×18 by 3 inches deep
I used the seat cushion foam for a number of years finding the 2 inch thick pieces were good at keeping the needles from going through and they did last a reasonable length before expiring and needing retirement. (yes, I have worked with the foam on my lap so I know the needles did not penetrate at that depth. Or, I could have just have been less violent by then. I guess if you really were overly violent in your stabbing you could go through the foam but it seems a bit excessive and you probably should not be felting if you’re that angry! Unless the other options to needle felting foam would bleed if you stabbed it, In that case, vent your wrath on the foam!)
My next introduction to a felting surface was a foam kneeling pad from Dollerama at a portrait felting workshop. (It was a great workshop!) The pool noodle-like foam lasts longer than the chair seat foam and has not yet broken down in the same way that the upholstery types of foam crumbled as well as pitted in. As an area is overworked it collapses and turns from pool-noodle-firm to squishy, thinner on one side and indented. You can get a bit of fibre build-up which happens on the cushion foam without the plastic cover but not to the same extent. The second side of the pad is still usable but I have found it wears out quicker on the second side. The type I am using has a hollow center to each channel of the extruded foam that has been stuck together. The channel may be separating one side from the other as I use/stab it.
8 a reasonably well used kneeling pad foam, note that the plastic has started to tear away from a lot of felting.
9 some indentation and collapsing of the foam from lots of use
10 very well-worn foam like a pool noodle, note some fibre sticking to the foam.
While thinking of pool noodle types of foam, don’t forget to consider pool noodles. They are not good as a flat surface but work very well for a support under a limb when working on a sculpture. I have also used pieces of pool noodle to hold needles if I don’t have them stuck in my work surface. Pool noodles come in various sizes from the tiny one Mr. Mer used to demonstrate a passive anterior shoulder stretch(about the size of a large primary grade pencil) to the extra-large adult-sized ones, with many other sizes and now shapes in between.
11 pieces of pool noodle used to hold needles
12 working with a kneeling foam and a picture
13 showing the hollow centers of the pool noodle like foam kneeling pad
I have tried the Closes Cell foam ½ inch thin kneeling pads, which are Much firmer than the 1-inch thick pool noodle kneeling pads. It has much more resistance to the needle penetration, which can be a good thing, as I will discuss shortly. The pieces I have found are small and work best for smaller sculptures or little pictures. It is similar to an interlocking child’s play floor. If you find the floor mats feel too thin, you can add a second or third layer to feel safer. This would allow much larger pictures worked on all at once. Remember that with this type of foam there is more resistance. Thus breaking the rule of “the needle travels the same direction in as it does out” will more easily wind up with broken needles. The resistance of this firm foam in conjunction with over-enthusiastic stabbing can also either tire you more quickly or cause you to feel muscle or joint fatigue faster than the softer foams. This problem may be a solution since it promotes shallower careful stabbing. This foam may also be better used with a slightly thicker wool base, a pre-felted batt rather than a thin sheet of lightly felted pre-felt
14 firm close cell foam
15 laying out dragons wing on close cell foam
16 Dragon standing on the close cell foam
17 a smaller version of the kids play interlocking foam tiles, which would allow for larger projects.
The Pink (I think I may come in other colours) foam insulation for basement walls is another option if you want to work big. I have a couple of pictures I would like to work on in a larger format so the pool noodle kneeling pad foam will be too small. (I know I could work one area at a time but I don’t really paint like that. I like to see the whole piece. I tend to work basically from background to foreground like a pastel but also adjust tones with thin wisps of overlays of fibre like a Watercolour or a vary washy acrylic. (Yes, I know it’s scandalous, but I did use my acrylics like watercolours occasionally, the Horror!!!). Pink foam is cheapish and acquired easily at a home building store. Sometimes it can even be found as garbage at constructions sites. The piece I have is 23×24 inches. It can be purchased in up to 4×8 foot sheets so the scale of your work can get Big if you want. At that size, it is not too heavy but it is awkward to move around and does not fit on a bus easily. The other piece of Pink foam insulation I had was closer in feel to Styrofoam and it made a truly unique sound when you stick your needle into it. It sort of screams, in a way that does send shivers down my spine. If I kept going, I might be able to overcome this squeamishness since I know of other artists who do use this product for large scale work. This new “Foamular” hard foam is not as shriek-y as the previous piece of pink foam, so try to find one that is not as much like Styrofoam and closer to the close cell foam (at least for felting I am not sure if one or the other is better at insulating your basement).
18 close cell insulation foam board (Pink)
As I mentioned before for the ½ inch firm foam, also applies to the pink foam Styrofoam insulation sheets. Both have an unexpected advantage in depth training. They can be helpful if you find your enthusiasm in stabbing is destroying surfaces quicker than you would like. With many of the foams, the needle will easily enter the working surface under your work, with the firm foams you can feel (and with the older pink insulation, hear) as the needle hits the work surface. The hope will be that you notice this and reduce the depth of your range-of-needle movement. (Remember look at the position of the barbs on your needle or needles. For most uses you don’t have to go any deeper than the working depth of the needle which engages the barbs.) Using a good working depth and not wasting energy plunging into your work surface will also reduce stress on your body. The exception would be when you are attaching parts of a sculpture, (Oops! I forgot to attach a limb!!). When attaching parts you will want to have the needlework deeply into your piece, sometimes beyond the working depth of the needle, but again not deeply into the mat.
While we are talking about foam, I should talk about the black foam Ann gifted me with. It was part of the interior packing for boxes of air filtration units, which were delivered to her husband’s work. Its structure is more open foam than the pool noodle. You can see little bubbles that make up this foam. I, unfortunately, tore the pieces apart before I thot to take a picture for you! I used a single needle as well as the fake clover tool to work on one mouse ear. It created a dent in the area I worked heavily on, quite quickly. It has a soft feeling as the needle entered the foam so may be quite nice to work with if I was using a thicker base layer (my test pieces were mouse ears and vary thin!!) I have asked Ann to save me a piece of the larger padding for a larger project.
19 Open Cell Packing foam
20 Anther view of the dent from a mouse ear
I have watched the rice in burlap bags used, for a number of years now, and was very curious what the feel would be like to use one. So, I have purchased a bag of burlap wrapped rice when it went on sale at the grocery store (Chinese New Year had excellent prices!). It was specifically identified as “not-for-cooking, this-is-an-art-thing” when I brought it home. I had wanted to try out the rice in burlap to see how it would feel as a work surface. When I was ready to try it out, it took me a while to locate the bag (it was sitting with the other bag of rice hidden in a corner of the kitchen. A sneaky hiding spot, it probably didn’t want to get impaled, repeatedly.) Unfortunately, Rice in burlap, at least this brand, only comes in 10lb bags on sale!
21 the brand of Burlap Sack of Rice I purchased
22 testing the bag of rice with mouse ears, flip frequently
23 little fibre attachment to the burlap but larger ears may have produced a larger amount of adhered fibre (note the needle-reacquisition-from-the-floor item)
24 Mouse is comfortably sitting on the rice bag
I found that the burlap did grab a bit of fibre and required me to flip the mouse ears frequently. (I have heard rumours that something rubber rubbed over the bag will lift some of the embedded fibre without damaging the burlap.) The feel of the needle entering the rice bag (end-feel) was quite comfortable (low not a lot of resistance). Since I have seen patches offered for burlap covered rice bags I suspect that the burlap if stabbed frequently in the same spot will wear out. Being able to add an inexpensive piece of burlap to keep it going should make this an economical, (if heavy), option to stab into or even better, to stab on top of rather than frequently stabbed into. I am unsure how long the rice will last. In Ottawa, we can have an outside temperature swing from -40c in the winter to +40c in the summer. If your studio was outside in a lot of humidity I would suspect the rice would not last as long. In addition, if left undefended, this would be a very attractive item for the local chipmunks, field mice, Voles and probably the raccoons too.
Now there are 2 types of surfaces left that I have not yet been able to acquire that I would like to try, wool pads and a clover tool brush mat.
There are two wool options, one seems to have a wool cloth or felt stuffed with wool or a thick wool pad like an acoustic felt or firm ironing board pad felt.
A Wool pad, (like an ironing pad), I have been trying to track down. From what I have found online, from those who use or sell them, avoid the ones that stink and don’t use those. I suspect the smell will be from a chemical additive, possibly a fire retardant, or it is not made from 100% wool. There are also mentions of wool adherence to the surface so again frequent lifting like the rice bag is recommended. I have seen mention of a thin piece of wool felt between the wool pad and the work, again it requires lifting to keep the wool from wanting to adhere where you don’t want it to stick. I am also wondering if the type of process used to make the felt will make a difference. Since most photographs I have seen so far, look like hot press rather than needle felting machine-made felt. This is not like the felt wadding that was under my ironing board, but a ¾ to 1 inch thick very firmly felted pad. I am looking forward to getting my hands on a piece of this to try out too. So far, there are not many places selling it as a felting surface and the price has been painful when you add shipping. (I will be a wimp and wait for the pain level to go down! –when it’s cheaper.)
A second needle-felting pad is popping up in some Etsy stores. It is a wool cloth or firmer felt cover that is stuffed with wool. It’s marketed as a more environmentally friendly option to the various foams used as felting surfaces. these are still relatively new and I would be interested in investigating both, what the end feel of the needle is like and what sort of length of use can be expected before patching would be required (similar to the rice bag patching perhaps?).
The other surface I have I have not yet tried is the Clover brush mat. Its small size and the very large price has kept my curiosity in check. If I find one secondhand, I will defiantly investigate this too. I suspect the end-feel of the needle entering the brush would be very low resistance since there are just bristles and air spaces between them. I think the smaller working surface would keep this from being a favourite work surface for me. It is still worth investigating and may have some useful purpose in my felting tool collection. (Unlike the cellulose sponge I began with, that has been brought out to classes as a cautionary tale.
Now because I have heard rumours that I can be verbose, I also made you a chart. You can add another box with your notes on findings from different work surfaces too. The feeling of how the needle enters a work surface is from low to high resistance but what feels best to you is subjective. Try different work surfaces and see what is best for you for that project. I do change what I am using not just by what is close to hand, but by the scale of the project or what feels right for that piece.
|Felting Surface||Feel of use with the needle||Size/projects||Notes:|
|a sponge||Cellulose felt slightly firmer than synthetic.||Small size projects.
Car sponges are larger.
|Both are cheap and easy to obtain.|
|upholstery foam||Soft, little resistance from the needle.||Larger sheets can be purchased and comes in deeper thicknesses than other foams.||Can be pricey. I have read from different sources to avoid foam with fire retardant.
Working in one spot will deteriorate foam
|foam seat cushions||Soft, Soft, little resistance from the needle.||I usually see 2” deep by ether 12×12 or 24×24 but other sizes are available.||Leaving the plastic cover over the foam reduces the wool sticking and seems to lengthen the life of the foam a bit.|
|foam kneeling pad
– pool noodles
|A bit more resistance than upholstery or cushion foam but still easy to insert the needle.||11.5”x13” but a larger pool floaty was available briefly.||It can collect fibre and collapses as it is used. I have used these a lot and find them vary economical for 5×7 and 8×10 landscapes.|
|closes cell foam (Kneeling pad or interlocking play floors or some yoga mats)||Firm, there is resistance to the needle entering the foam. if you tend to try to kill your felting with enthusiasm, this will tier you as well it may stress your joints.||The kneeling pads I have are 7.5X17.75||They are easy to pack with you and can be used for both sculpture and pictures. They do tend to make me aware if I am stabbing too deeply. Puncture holes but no denting noticeable from 1 ear construction|
|Black plasticy packing foam||Not as firm as the close cell or pool noodle foam||Varies by the box it came out of. (Air filtration box)
Free from Ann.
|This dented just under ¼ inch after making 2 mouse ears in the same spot with the punch tool. this would be better for pictures with a thick felt base. But otherwise worked well.|
|Pink foam insulation||Firm even more resistance. There is also a sound that may offend your ears as the needle enters the foam.||Easily available from building supply stores up to 4’x8’.||Good for learning not to stab too deeply, good for Large pictures.|
|rice in burlap bags||Vary comfortable to work with.||I waited till the rice bag went on sale. the size was 12×11”||I purchused a 10lb bag so I with back problems this is not a bring it with you surface. I suspect with extended use it will ware thin since I have seen burlap patches discussed on line.|
-Felt over Wool stuffing pad
-Firm felt pad
|-have not yet acquired one|
|Clover brush mat||-have not yet acquired one|
25 Chart of wool felting surfaces
I wish to thank Mouse for Her (?) assistance with this post. I watched Sara’s latest felt-along mouse but wanted to try a more close to life-size mouse. Mouse is close but still a bit big for a field or house mouse. Mouse also didn’t like the brownish outer layer I had made for her and insisted white was rite, well for her. I am sure the next one will be more mouse sized and I hope brown or maybe a lovely charcoal, like the voles in the backyard were.
26-32 Mouse volunteer to investigate felting surfaces.
I hope this has given you a few ideas about possible work surfaces to keep you Happily Felting.