Felted Woolies are things made from reclaimed, recycled wool. I find wool at thrift stores and garage sales. I clean it, felt it or unravel it, and make new things. I seem to have a bit of trouble focusing on just one project--so I make a lot of different things, practical and not so practical.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Stuffing with Recycled Sweaters: Advice from FeltedWoolies

Perhaps at a later date I'll add photos to make this easier to follow, but for now, here it is without photos.

Recycled sweaters make great stuffing for all kinds of plush objects, but there is a learning curve that discourages some crafters.  I’m here to help you through that learning curve with my tips for success.  I’ve learned a lot over the past few years when I’ve been using recycled wool as stuffing exclusively.  There are many advantages that I will outline in my tutorial—both economic and artistic.  The lint the sweaters make is a distinct disadvantage.  I find a simple lint roller with the tear off masking tape is essential.  Some shapes are easier to stuff with recycled wool than others.  Tubes, large and small, are easier than spheres.  Some of the techniques that I use for shaping a face or a big tummy could be adapted to use with fiberfill—but will only work with toys made from knit fabrics.  Even heavy felt has some give to it. 

The one given when working with recycled sweaters is that the materials are always changing.  Whether you are recycling clothing from your own closet or the thrift store, you will likely  be using a different fabric for each project.  That makes it fun, but also a challenge.  You have to adapt your techniques to the changing materials.   Most of my techniques are common sense, but many solutions occurred to me after I’d struggled with the same problems over and over.  I want to see crafters use more recycled materials, so if my tricks help you do that, great!

I won’t promise that my instructions are foolproof.  I’ve stuffed enough toys, and read enough books and blogs about making plush dolls and toys to know that the stuffing process is time-consuming and absolutely critical.  The cutest toy can be ruined by a sloppy stuffing job.  Believe me.  I’ve hurried through the process too many times and been disappointed by my finished product each and every time I failed to be conscientious about the stuffing process.  My own plush creatures tend to be on the “primitive” side.  I’m not a stickler for perfection.  If one ear is off, it gives the face character that I like.  If the stuffing is uneven, I’m okay with it.  However, if I want perfect symmetry, I can do it with recycled wool just as easily, or with just as much difficulty as I can with polyester fiberfill. 

If you can find sweaters on sale at the thrift store for just a few dollars, you end up with stuffing that is less expensive than the polyester fiberfill stuffing from retail stores.  One large sweater will stuff two or more toys or animals about 16 inches tall.  A bargain!   Just be sure to choose a light color sweater if you are stuffing a light color plush item

Recycled sweaters are also an environmental bargain.  No matter what kind of other stuffing you consider using--bamboo, recycled polyester or regular polyester--nothing beats a recycled sweater for its low carbon footprint.  (Assuming you don’t drive all over town looking for the perfect sweater to cut up and turn into stuffing.)  Your stuffing will have a carbon footprint of almost zero, all you have to count is the energy you spend washing and drying the sweater, since that is the first step in the process.   

However, monetary and environmental economy won’t matter if the fibers don’t work as well as good old polyester fiberfill.  Stuffing can’t be lumpy, you must be able to control the softness or hardness of the toy or cushion, and it has to be easy to manipulate.  I’ll address each issue in turn.

Lumpiness.  You can keep your stuffing from being lumpy by using the right sweater or sweaters to begin with, washing, fulling or felting them for stuffing, and cutting the wool into uniform small pieces or using big pieces and not cutting them at all.  Choosing the right sweater to begin with can be tricky.  Color is one concern that you can control, but you never really know how a particular sweater will felt.  (Instructions for felting wool sweaters are all over the internet.)  The same cycle in my washer turns some sweaters into thick, dense, beautiful felt, and leaves others barely altered.   For stuffing, you don’t need, or usually want, that delicious thick dense felt.  I often use sweaters that don’t felt up well as stuffing—or sweaters where the color bleeds and turns a beautiful pattern into a grey mess.  In other words, I use my mistakes as stuffing.  Thin merino sweaters usually don’t make soft stuffing.  Heavy weight sweaters made from bulky yarns, with or without fancy pattern stitches like cables usually make good stuffing, if you don’t felt them too heavily.   Stuffing is a good way to use wool blends—even a 50/50 wool polyester blend sweater will make good stuffing.  I’ve not tried it, but I imagine bulky pure polyester sweaters or polyester fleece would make fine stuffing.   I don’t use the sanitize cycle when I’m washing a sweater that will be stuffing.  I use a short hot cycle.  I want the sweater to be very clean, but not stiff, think felt.   

To control lumps, consider the shape you want to stuff.  For a simple tubular shape, say and arm or a leg, without fingers or toes, don’t cut the fabric into small pieces.  Cut a piece at least twice as long as the shape, and wide enough so that when you fold it two or three times widthwise, and once length wise, it mimics the shape and density of the finished arm or leg or neck or tail.  Bury a wooden rod, blunt end of a knitting needle, or other not too sharp object into the fold of the fabric and push it into the shape you want to stuff.  Pull out the rod and you are done.  If you want both legs or both arms to be about the same size, just be sure you start with a piece of fabric from the same sweater that is about the same size.  Magic!  No lumps, and arms or legs that match.  This is easier than using fiberfill in my experience.    You don’t have to stuff bits of fluff into the tube one at a time or worry about whether the arms or legs match   The bigger the tube, the wider and longer the pieces are that you start with.  A giant toy would need to be stuffed with a blanket.  A tiny toy, just a little thin strip of light-weight fabric.    If you have toes or fingers, cut some of the washed and dried fabric into appropriate thin strips and stuff the small parts using the same technique first before you do the big piece.  When the open part of one shape extends into another, say the arm or leg is one piece with the body, make your rectangle of stuffing long enough to extend into the body and become part of the stuffing for the body.   If you have very small parts to stuff, unravel some of the sweater before you wash it and use the yarn to stuff tiny fingers or any very small parts: beaks, horns, etc.  .  You can roll the yarn into a little ball to get it into a tight spot and then use a knitting needle or small dowel to push it around.  

If I'm sewing stuffed legs or arms or other parts to the main body of the creature, and I want to be sure the leg or arm doesn't fall off, I try to catch the stuffing of the arm with my thread for some stitches and the stuffing of the body for others.  If the stuffing of the arm is one big long piece, that gives the arm a great deal of firmness.  You are not holding the arm on by the outside fabric alone, you are using the stuffing as well. 

For big tubes, or spheres I use a combination of techniques depending on the weight of the fabric that makes up the object I’m stuffing.  If it is a heavy dense fabric, I’ll stuff the sphere with small pieces.  I cut them uniformly, 1” by 1” or even smaller.  Then I stuff the shape until it is as soft or hard as I want.  I think it is easier to get a nice heavy, hard stuffed object using recycled wool felt.  Fiberfill is deceptive.  You need a lot of it to make a nice hard object.  If it is a small animal that I want to be sure will sit up, and not fall over on its nose, I try to put light weight, fluffy bits in the head and nose, and heavier pieces, perhaps including some seams, in the bottom.  I may even use felt from two sweaters, a fluffy one for the light parts, and a very dense one to balance and weight the bottom.  You could add some kind of weight—rocks or beans—if the object isn’t a toy for a small child and you can be sure it won’t get wet.  Be careful using corn as a stuffing if there are any mice around! 

If the outside of the object is made from thinner felt or a soft fabric like cashmere, every bump or lump in the chopped up stuffing will show.  I find it useful to use a large piece of stuffing fabric, perhaps doubled, to make an interior lining for the shape.  There are two ways to do this.  One is to push that lining into the shape first, as if you were stuffing a tube using the technique above, and then fill the inside of the tube with small pieces until the whole shape has the right firmness.  The other is the reverse: stuff with small bits first, and use a dowel to place a large piece between the small bits and the outside of the shape to keep any lumps and bumps from showing.   (If you cut the bits evenly to begin with you shouldn’t really need to do this.  It is a bigger problem when you are using scraps from other projects as stuffing.  Those tend to be more uneven.)   Think of it as adding a good solid foundation garment to a plump old person with a bit too much cellulite.  (Or not…  Thinking of that may just destroy your interest in the project at hand…) 

You can use wool stuffing to shape the face, adding a big snout or a narrow nose.  This only works if the outside fabric stretches, at least a bit.  Say I want to give a face some shape, but the actual fabric of the face is flat.  Stuff the head just about the way you want it without the bulge of the nose or snout.  Next, figure out about how big you want the bulge on the face to be.  I take a rectangle of felt a bit wider than the bulge, and three or four times as long.   I fold the top down so the felt the size of the bulge is double and sew it into a pocket.  Now take a ball of small pieces about the size of the desired bulge and stuff this pocket.     Using your hand, the blunt end of your trusty knitting needle, or a wooden dowel, push the pocket of stuffing in place between the existing stuffing and the outside material.  The pocket keeps the “bulge” all together and allows you to move it with your hand or a tool into the right place.  It can take some fiddling to get it just right.  Sometimes I sew all the small bits that make up the bulge into the pocket before I try to insert it into the finished piece, just to be sure they don’t fall out as I manipulate them inside the object.   Having the extra fabric on the rectangle gives you something to pull on if you need to remove the bulge and start over.  It also helps integrate the stuffing from one section of the object into another section.  Just as the longer than needed pieces that stuff arms or legs that are attached to a body can help connect the appendages to the body, the extra long rectangle will connect the face to the body or neck.  The same technique could be used to add knobby knees to a leg, the hint of an udder to a cow, a big round belly to a bear, or whatever you can imagine.  

With practice, stuffing with recycled sweaters can be just as easy as stuffing with fiberfill.  Ok—not really.  But it can be ALMOST as easy, and you can do it!  If nothing else, stuff all the tubes, the arm and leg kind of things, with recycled sweaters and the rest with fiberfill. 

Monsters again

It is interesting to note how many of Joseph's helpers have said "oh, your monsters have always been my favorites" when I've shown them what I'm working on right now.  If I trust young and hip college students to gauge the market, I'll make a lot of these.  Well, they seem young and hip to me.  I'm not sure the aspiring special educator subset of the college population is exactly the hippest, or is destined to have the greatest slice of the disposable income pie, but when has that ever mattered to me.  They are all young and smart and creative and I value the opinions of these women.  I'm working on getting good photos to submit with my applications for summer shows.  With official retirement looming, I'll have time this spring to make preparations for more shows this summer.  Yippee!!

Saturday, February 4, 2012


I found the pattern on pintrest. From "The Purl Bee."  Here is the address for the pattern.  The original made the penguin from really cute cottons, but mine, of course, is recycled sweaters.  I was cutting out sheep today, so I had the white and black felted sweaters out already.   I made some little changes in how I put the pattern together--I sewed the center panel onto one side of the back before I sewed the head seam, and I sewed the wings on differently, just 'cause I didn't look at the directions when I got to the point of sewing on the wings...

 The pattern is really great because the penguin has good balance and he (she??)stands up pretty easily.  Also, I just like the shape of the head and neck.  Some of that can be controlled with wool felt by how you stuff, but some is up to the cut of the original pattern.