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Felting, stuffing or boiled wool?

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If you ignore one of the basic knitting rules: “You should not put wool in hot water”, you risk the dreaded consequence of such an action – very small, very stiff, small sweaters that no family member ever wants to grow into. The approach to hot water as a friend rather than an enemy offers the opportunity to enjoy a wonderful new perspective on rows of knits and stitches. Since the felting process results in a significant change in texture and appearance, the simple knitting of stocking stitches can be magically transformed without knowing the complicated knitting technique.

Felt is a warm, windproof material that, despite its matted texture, feels remarkably light and soft. When producing a felt fabric, the basic raw material is always the same, but the production method can vary. The raw material common to all methods is a protein fiber from animal sources, mostly wool. Other protein fibers such as mohair, angora, alpaca and some furs can also be felted successfully. Why only animal fibers? This is because these fibers have a unique surface structure that consists of overlapping scales. These scales react in response to immersion in hot water, open and snap together, creating new formations. This locking process is further assisted by the scales being moved by some form of movement, such as. B. by kneading by hand or by the action of a washing machine, rubbed against each other. A further mixing of the scales is achieved by making the scales slippery with the help of a foamy, soapy solution. Once these scales have found their new positions on the fabric surface, there is no going back. These newly positioned scales remain connected in their newest relationships and the happy result can be felt.

“Felting” is the term most commonly used to define the transformation of a protein fiber into this warm and wonderful fabric. In the strictest sense, felting describes the process in which wool fleeces (raw wool that has not yet been spun into yarn) are taken, hot soapy water is added and the wool floss is kneaded until the fiber scales interlock. The word “felt” occurs in Old High German. This language was used before the 12th century, indicating that we are still researching a very old craft in felting today.

“Fulling” is the process for the production of felt fabrics from already woven or knitted animal fiber yarn. By filling, the woven or knitted fabric is passed through the process of hot water and stirring to facilitate shrinking and creating felted fabric. In the Middle Ages, “Fuller” textile workers who used Fuller’s Earth were a highly adsorptive clay that removed grease and oils from the woven fabric. Stirring the cleaning action would shrink and matt the fibers, creating a fabric that would not unravel. The term Fulling comes from “fullare”, a medieval Latin word that means “walk or trample”. This process emphasizes the movement required to move these fiber scales to intertwine. Nowadays, it is more common to use Fuller’s earth as an ingredient in a cosmetic face mask, where it exerts its shrinking power on other tasks.

“Boiled wool” is another descriptive term for felt cloth. It is the characteristic fabric that is made in Austria and used to make chic Tyrolean jackets that are decorated with cable ties and tin buttons. Here too, the basic raw material is wool yarn. The process is the same as filling, but is completed on an industrial scale to make it easier to handle larger quantities. Computer-controlled controls fine-tune the water temperature and agitation to achieve a consistent result. The yarn is first dyed, then knitted and shrunk without the help of chemicals. This process produces felt that is available on the farm and can be cut into sample pieces that are to be assembled into garments.

Take your time to experiment with the felting process and the reaction of the knitting yarn. Knit stocking stitch patterns from pure wool yarn. Care should be taken. Do not use wool yarn that has been processed as a super wash yarn, that is, no yarn that can be machine washed without fear of shrinkage. Since shrinking is the goal when felting, these yarns are not suitable for felting projects. Knit a series of patterns, possibly in different yarn weights and colors, taking note of the knitting measurements. Place these samples in the washing machine’s hot water circuit and remove them after rinsing and spinning. Align the edges of the samples and let them dry flat. Measure the samples again and compare them with the original measurements. If felting has occurred, this is indicated not only by the change in dimensions, but also by the texture of the fabric. If you keep the felted fabric exposed to strong light, you should hardly be able to distinguish the grid from stitches and rows. The felted sample should be very matte and if you cut the knitwear it will not be unraveled. Note that the knitting remains soft and light, not stiff and hard.

If you’ve turned your hand knitting into a felted garment, you may think that it has gone through the most violent and tortured laundry knitting yarn has ever endured. Now and forever assume that you can throw this felted garment into the hot wash. Treat your felted garment with “wool rules”. Hand wash with a mild soap or wool detergent in lukewarm water and do not rub or soak as additional felts may appear. Dry thoroughly after rinsing. Felted hand knitting can always be improved by brushing and even lightly pressing with a warm iron to give the surface a smoother look. If you store felted clothing for a long period of time, you must put a moth repellent in the clothing.

These are the basic guidelines to guide you on the felted path. If you take the plunge and experiment with different yarn weights, brands and colors, you will expand your knowledge of what really happens when a particular yarn meets hot water. After all, knitting is easy and the results can be spectacular.

© Maddy Cranley 2007.

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