Note: If you’re looking for some seriously good metaphor and clear instruction, check out Uniquely Felt’s section on soap. I’ve broken down the most fundamental points for you, but there’s definitely more to learn!
Soap tastes weird and makes your eyes itch, but it certainly is crucial while felting! First and foremost, it swells the scales on the fibers so they can entangle, and it also speeds along their migration. Just as importantly, it allows your hands to slide over the fiber without disturbing your layout.
While any soap will work in a pinch, as regular readers and experienced felters could probably predict, different kinds of soap work well with different kinds of fiber. In general, the coarser the fiber, the more soap you need. For example, our C-1/Pelsull wool needs more soap than our merino combed top roving. But what kind for what soap works best ?
Olive oil soap is milled, which makes the bar hard and silky. Many felters prefer it, because it doesn’t create many suds, which is especially helpful for felting with finer fibers like merino. Too many soap suds can slow down or stop the felting process. However, when felting with coarse, large-diameter fibers, soap suds can help break the surface tension that repels water. A soap suds lather is also helpful in the last phases of fulling some hat-making or boot-making procedures. In this case, soap prevents abrasion when you rub it with your palm washboard, glass washboard, or other fulling tools.
Christine White recommends avoiding high detergent soaps like dish soap with beginner felters, because that way they are less likely to add too much soap and slow down the felting process. Using liquid soaps is great when working with children if you are in charge of the dispenser! Only use a little to begin with, because liquid soap is very concentrated. Christine also loves a basic glycerine bar of soap, and thinks of it as an all-purpose option.
Here are suggestions QUOTED STRAIGHT FROM THE SOURCE!
- Always add the soap to the water, not the other way around. You’ll create less foam that way.
- Fill your contained partway with warm water.
- With dry fingers, dip into the water and notice how it feels when you rub your fingers together.
- Stir in a few drops of liquid soap or lather bar soap under the water
- Again with dry fingers, dip into the mixture and rub your fingers together. This time they should feel slightly slippery. If they don’t, add a little more soap, but keep in mind that the feeling is a subtle one. Better to have less soap and add more later than to have too much and start over.
- While you’re felting, keep a small dish with soap and water within easy reach. Whenever you need to add more soap, just dip your fingers into the bowl.
When felting in a new place, be aware that pH levels can vary drastically depending on your location. If it’s taking forever, try using a new kind of soap; dish detergent is extremely concentrated and isn’t usually your go-to, but it’s worth a try if nothing else is working!
Starting with less soap and adding more is always the better option, but if you find yourself with too much soap, you can always sponge it off with clear, warm water.
Once you’ve fulled your piece entirely, be sure to rinse it off (in whatever temperature water you want). If your felt is in the beginning stages and you need to take a break, rinsing it off might harm the felt more than the acidity of the soap. If it’s going to be waiting for a week or two before being felted some more, fold it in tulle netting and very gently rinse it.
Of course, you should experiment and find what works for you. Everyone discovers their preferences with a bit of time and experience. Let us know what you find out!