How to Shrink or “Felt” Knitted Wool Fabric: A Basic Overview

A swatch of felted fabric sets on top of a knitted (not yet felted) fabric of the same pattern to show the difference between felted and unfelted knitting.

During the many workshops I have taught, I have seen a good number of felting disasters: One time, a woman brought a black purse body to one of my finishing classes. Instead of being a pristine black, it was covered with tiny white dots and fuzz.

“O dear,” I thought immediately . . . “What happened?” I was almost afraid to ask. The woman next to her beat me to it: “What’s all this white stuff?” she asked, brushing her fingers over all the dots and fuzzies.
“I don’t know what happened,” the woman said, irritation and disappointment in her voice. “I followed the directions. I put towels in the washer like you are supposed to–”

That was all I had to hear. I knew immediately what had happened.

And then there was the time when a woman came to class with a bag so badly creased that she wanted to disown it. She would hardly look at it.

“Tell me about what happened,” I said repeatedly in response to her “I don’t want to talk about it. It’s ruined.” Finally, she said, “I put it in the smallest load size, just like your’re supposed to, because then it has the most agitation . . . “

“O dear,” I thought. “I know what happened.”

Most of these felting disasters could have been prevented if the knitters had followed a few of what I regard as basic principles of felting (technically “fulling”) knitted fabric. Some of my basic principles may differ from what you have heard or read before. Stay with me!

Felting carefully is an essential step in creating a beautiful knitted felt bag. And there are a lot of variables to keep in mind . . . Time in a state of agitation is only one, and that is fairly far down on my list. Let’s go more basic, and sooner in the whole process. Let’s start with the wool itself . . . Or even further back, with the sheep.

How your knitting felts depends on a lot of things: type of wool, percentage of different wool fiber types, the color of the yarn, the temperature and ph of the water, the amount and type of agitation, and the length of time in a state of agitation.

The fiber content of the yarn you use makes a difference. Working with a100% Merino wool will felt more readily than most 100% wool yarns, for example. Think about it: there is no “wool” sheep. There are Merino, Jacobs, Leicester Long Wools, Blue-faced Leicesters . . .. Each different breed has a particular type of wool with very specific qualities of smoothness, sheen, strength, softness, or kink–these are my terms, NOT technical terms.

The color of the yarn makes a difference, too: dark colors sometimes felt more readily than light because light-colored yarns may have been bleached. . . but sometimes dark yarns have been bleached in order to saturate them with so much color; consequently, the wool is somewhat stripped and may felt less well.

Here is another way to think about it: the reason for differences in shrinkage is that different colors require different chemical combinations and sometimes different lengths of time in the dye bath (darker colors, for example, may take longer and are sometimes harsher). These differences can result in different felting times. Pure white, for example, very often will not felt. Yet a creamy white that has not spent time in a bleach bath will have little trouble at all felting.

How do you tell, ahead of time, whether the yarn and color you want to work with will felt well? You can create a fair-sized sample of fabric knitted with the color and fiber you want to test. Then shrink it in the desired way. In other words, make and felt a sizeable swatch before you commit to a large project. Or pick one of my tiny purse patterns and see how it felts, as a substitute for swatching. You can always line a tiny purse, no matter how well it shrinks, and put it in the frame.

What Else Has An Impact On How Well Something Shrinks?

The size of the bag or other item you are shrinking also has an impact on felting time. Contrary to what you might think, it may take tiny bags longer to felt than large ones. Why? Because that tiny project is getting tossed around with the agitation. In other words, there is less drag on a small project. The greater drag on a larger purse will cause it to felt more quickly and often more densely.

Another factor? Colorwork: A two-color, stranded bag will felt faster than one that is a single color with no strand work. Why? Because the carries across the back are another kind of surface area that experience drag AND unknitted yarn also felts faster and more readily than knitted yarn.

What is the same with every bag, however, is that careful attention to each individual project through constant monitoring will ensure felting success, regardless of the time it takes.

Careful attention to each individual project through constant monitoring will ensure felting success, regardless of how long it takes that project to shrink to the desired size.

What follows are my recommendations for best felting practices for beautiful results every time, regardless of how you are agitating your project . . . via top-loading washing machine, clothes dryer, or a bucket with a plunger:

Felting Bags Using a Top-Loading Washer

Load size matters: For this method, felt your project in a top-loading washer that is set to the hottest water setting. Also important: choose the smallest load size that accommodates your project and allows it to move freely:

  • For tiny or small bags, putting your washer on the absolute smallest load size is critical so your bags get maximum agitation.
  • For medium bags, the medium or large setting should work well.
  • For larger bags, the largest load size is crucial so that your bag does not develop set-in creases.

Each bag should get its own lingerie bag: Put each bag in its own lingerie bag, one that is big enough, as with load size, to allow your bag to move freely. Large lingerie bags for large bags, tiny ones for tiny bags (or large ones knotted to be small), etc. The lingerie bag does two things: it keeps the felt from getting too crazy furry and because it keeps the fuzz down, it also reduces the amount of wool lint that is released into the water and later into your pipes. I have suffered the consequences of lint clogged pipes . . . I don’t want you to.

You might want extra agitation but it is not necessary: It may be wise, though it is by no means necessary to add tennis balls to the wash for extra agitation. I have never found it particularly helpful, but some swear by it. What I do add is a soft canvas bag to the load for balance when I am felting medium to large bags. With tiny purses, there is no balance proglem, unless you are felting LOTS at a time.

Create an alkaline environment: Once the water is in the washer and the bag is in, put just a little bit of wool wash (like Soak or Eucalan) or a tablespoon of baking soda to the water. This makes the water alkaline and helps the felting process along. It is not necessary insofar as it is agitation combined with water that really makes the felting process go to town.

Start the blocking process in the wash: Check the load often and move the bag around in the washer, making sure no set-in creases develop. I think of felting as the beginning of the blocking process. At frequent intervals, pull the bag out of the water to make sure it is not getting creased, that the sides are felting at the same rate, that the bottom stays rectangular, that the front and back are the same width, the same height, that the bag is not felting smaller than the frame (if applicable).

You are in charge of felting, not your washer’s cycle timing/schedule: To conserve resources, turn back the agitation dial until the bag is finished felted to your liking, or reaches the finished measurements listed in the pattern, rather than letting the machine complete multiple cycles. When your bag has reached the proper size, rinse with no agitation – that is, do not put through the “rinse” cycle –  or rinse in cold tap water in the sink – and then spin dry in the spin cycle. I press the bag as flat as possible around the washer drum at the outset, but don’t worry if it slumps. Once the cycle is complete, remove the bag and pull into shape. IF, however, you have a washer with a particularly violent spin cycle that may put creases in your felt . . . avoid it. Use towels to press out excess water.

EXTREMELY IMPORTANT: LINT ALERT! It is critical that you do not use towels or other items that will release lint onto your felt as balancing agents. I have seen beautiful bags ruined by getting covered by towel lint. Once cotton lint it falls in love with your felt it is virtually impossible to get out without a lot of painful hand-picking. And sometimes the best thing to do is cover every piece of lint with a bead. It’s a laborious but often spectacular save . . . and the beading looks fabulously random!

Felting in HE/Front-Loading Washers

For those with washers that cannot be opened or do not provide agitation, or those with high-speed spin cycles that might crease your bag, I recommend that you felt in the clothes dryer (below).

Felting in a Front-Loading Washer

Using a violent top-loading washer produces a nicer felt more quickly than a front loader, but this does not mean that you can’t felt in a front loader. There are a few things you can do to help things along:  add some tennis balls, sports shoes, and old blue jeans to your wash to increase the agitation or friction that your woolies have to contend with. And use that little timer to check your felt at about 2 – 3 minute intervals (REALLY, that often!). Be sure to pull out any creases that look as though they are setting in, and to uncurl the curl at the top of your bag that often develops in a front loader. You will be attending to that curl in order to make it straight. 

Felting in a Dryer

Wet your bag before you dryer felt it: Soak your project in warm or hot water that either has in it a tablespoon of baking soda (dissolved) or a delicate clothes or wool wash such as Soak or Euclan. If you have none of these things or prefer not to use soap and/or detergent, go ahead and go without. Soak your bag until it is thoroughly saturated and really floppy. Put in the clothes dryer and get things going on the hottest setting on your dryer.

Keep the bag completely soaked: As with felting in the top-loading washer, it is the agitation of the dryer and the wetness of the bag that causes the felting. To that end, stay close by and check often to make sure your bag stays completely soaked. It can start to get dry quickly, especially smaller bags, so take out of the dryer with great frequency and regularity to re-wet. This may mean every 2 – 5 minutes. Keep bags soaking, absolutely sopping wet for the duration of the shrinking process.

Block your bag constantly: Every time you check your bag to make sure it is completely wet, also take the opportunity to “block” it. Pull the bag into shape, make sure it is felting evenly and not creasing in any way. Once the bag has shrunk to the desired measurements, pull it into shape using the photographs on the pattern cover and what is pleasing to your own eye or use your sense of what fits the purse hardware to direct your efforts. Remove from the dryer and press out as much water as possible with towels. You may go through many towels. Then let air dry until just slightly damp. Follow the blocking instructions below.

What To Do If You Are Stuck Without Any Washer or Dryer At All

I know a man who, when without a washer, devised the following to felt on the go. Caveat: this really only works for small and small-medium sized purses.

Pick up, at your local hardware store, a bucket (a rather deep one, I think), a toilet plunger, and some detergent. Procure for yourself a good bit of hot water and then work at that felted bag as though you want to make butter out of milk. This is a great method for the apartment dwellers who must content themselves with coin-op washers, the person in search of a workout for svelte arms, and for the felter in a hotel or some other locale lacking the benefit of an accessible washer or dryer.

Blocking Your Felted Bag

At the conclusion of the felting process, block your bag until it dries to a state of slight dampness. Finishing is best accomplished on a damp bag, but not a wet bag: stretch the bag so that its height and width are even all the way around. 

You can stuff the bag with newspaper, plastic bags, or anything else at hand, such as a rolled up dry towel or even skeins of yarn you might have around. You may want to use a small plate or bowl to give circular bottoms shape, or a box to help a square or rectangular bag develop or keep its crisp shape. I have, on occasion put same-sized books in thick plastic bags and then put them in the bag until it dries to a nice slight dampness. 

Once the bag has dried to a state of slight dampness, now you are ready to begin the finishing process! If your bag has reached this state several days ahead of the moment you want to finish it, put it in a right-sized plastic bag and put it in the fridge (or even freezer if there is a long delay between slightly damp and the time to finish the bag.  

IMPORTANT: Again, I must state EMPHATICALLY that you should not work on a sopping or even just really wet bag during finishing. You will get soaking wet and the bag can’t be properly finished this way. If you have a top loader at home, please put the bag through the spin cycle and then let sit in the fresh air until you can just feel its dampness. This means it is ready to finish.

Share Your Questions and Comments

Have you tried something unique that worked when you felted one of your own bags? Any advice for other readers? Are there felting question you have that I did not anticipate in this post? If so, please share them in the comments and I will answer each and every question. If you have any finishing questions or concerns, share those as well. I am happy to build future content based on your needs. I would love to hear from you!

2 thoughts on “How to Shrink or “Felt” Knitted Wool Fabric: A Basic Overview

    • Yes! Or the freezer. It means you can do one part of the project while you wait for the time to do the next part. It also allows you to shrink multiple projects in the same water bath even if you can only get to them one at a time over a period of days or weeks (or months).

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