Wet Felting vs. Needle Felting: Differences & Basic Guides

On the left, pink wool is being felted with soap and water, and on the right, pink wool is being needle felted.

When most people hear the word felt, images of a billiard table’s lining come to mind. For crafters, however, felt conjures much more creative thoughts. 

With just a few supplies and inexpensive tools, you can make a totally new, unique piece of fabric to enjoy on its own or to use in other projects. 

Flat, decorative items, three-dimensional creations, and appliques can be produced by the home felter, but which of the felting techniques is best?

What’s the difference between wet felting and needle felting? The main difference between wet and needle felting is that wet felting uses hot water, soap, and manual agitation to mesh the fibers into felt, and needle felting uses the up and down motion of a needle felting tool to create the necessary friction to form felt.

It’s true that wet felting and needle felting both employ friction and agitation to bind fibers together and can produce similar results. 

However, they are two separate techniques, and most people find that they prefer one method over the other. Let’s see which technique is right for you. 

What Exactly Is Felting?

Felting is the process of interlocking fibers together using compressing and matting techniques to form a fabric we call felt.

The fibers are typically derived from animals, such as sheep, goats, and rabbits, though synthetic or blended fibers are sometimes used.

Historical evidence points to felt as being the oldest textile known to man, most likely originating in central Asia with nomadic tribes and their herds.

Felting Methods

Felt made for commercial use is made on huge machines with hundreds of needles. Home crafters, however, typically use either the wet felting or needle felting method.

What’s the difference between the two methods? 

Wet felting is done with hot water, soap, and rolling motions. Needle felting uses notched needles to weave the fibers into felt.

Regardless of which method is used, the process is irreversible. Once fiber becomes felt, it stays felt.

Some serious felting enthusiasts use special attachments on their existing sewing machine or use an embellisher to machine felt, but wet felting and needle felting are by far the most common ways to make felt at home.

Fun Fact

Remember watching Alice in Wonderland as a child and hearing the phrase “mad as a hatter?”

It’s thought that this saying came about due to a felting technique called carroting, once used to make hats.

In carroting, fiber to be felted was removed from beaver or rabbit skins through the use of mercuric nitrate, a toxic mercury compound. 

After prolonged exposure to this solution and the dangerous fumes associated with it, many workers experienced psychotic reactions, among other problems, and the phrase made famous by Lewis Carroll was born.

Why Felt?

You can create all kinds of items from home-crafted felt. Examples include:

  • Ornaments.
  • Appliques.
  • Clothing items like vests, hats, scarfs, etc.
  • Wall art.
  • Decorative pillows.
  • Baskets.
  • Soft animals.
  • Children’s toys.
  • Drink cozies.
  • Dryer balls.
  • Mobiles.

You can see the sky’s the limit when it comes to felting possibilities. Now, let’s take a closer look at the two felting methods.

Wet Felting

A combination of hot water, soap, and friction effectively binds fibers together to produce felt. 

If you’ve ever accidentally tossed your favorite wool sweater into the washing machine and later discovered that it had shrunk significantly and changed texture entirely, you’ve inadvertently practiced the art of wet felting.

The wet felting process is actually rather simple. 

Layers of fiber are placed on a mat of some sort, usually bubble wrap or bamboo sushi mats, in alternating directions. Small scrap wool can be added on the final layer to form patterns or random designs. 

Once the layers are complete, the fiber is sprayed with a mixture of soap and hot water, pressed down firmly, and the mat is rolled up jelly-roll style. 

The crafter then manually rolls the log back and forth over and over to create the friction necessary to bind the fibers together into felt.

Wet felting is mainly used to create flat objects or sheets of felt to be used in making appliques, bags, scarves, etc.

Three-dimensional items are possible with wet felting, but needle felting is more often used to craft 3D pieces.

Supplies Needed for Wet Felting

Of course, you can’t felt without some sort of wool or fiber. For those new to the felting hobby, wool roving is going to be the easiest fiber to work, and it comes in a huge assortment of fun colors.

Carded wool batting could also be used, but it’s probably best to steer clear of raw or fancy fibers until you have more experience.

A few pieces of bubble wrap will work for your first few projects, but as you get the hang of wet felting, you’ll want to begin using bamboo sushi rolling mats either along with the bubble wrap or with tulle or organza fabric to roll your felt.

A spray bottle filled with hot water and a few drops of dish soap will be fine for small felting projects.

If you’d like to add colorful designs to your project, gather up some bits of colored wool to add on top of the final layer of fiber before rolling.

Needle Felting

Needle felting uses no soap or water, hence its other name, dry felting.

In needle felting, a needle felting tool with specially barbed (actually notched) needles is used to interweave fibers together to form felt.

The needle felting tool is repeatedly stabbed into the fibers.

Because the fibers have tiny barbs or scales on them, the notches of the needles are able to interlock the fibers together simply by being plunged into the piece over and over again.

Flat Needle Felting

As with wet felting, you can create a wide variety of flat shapes and designs. Although this can be accomplished freehand style, many felters use pins to outline their desired shape before beginning to felt. 

Other felters use cookie cutters or stencils to help shape their project. You can even make long items such as scarves with flat needle felting.

3D Needle Felting

Needle felting also allows you to make three-dimensional, soft shapes. Cute little felted animals are popular right now, but really, you’re only limited by your imagination with this technique.

You can use wool or fiber for the entire 3D shape by starting with a small, rolled-up ball of fiber and slowly adding to it as you go.

However, to save fiber, many felters begin a 3D creation with a base of some sort. Small Styrofoam balls or wire are often used to make the internal structure, and then fiber is used to form the rest of the design elements.

Supplies Needed for Needle Felting

Again, for beginners, wool roving or carded wool batting will be best.

You’ll also need either a foam needle felting pad or a felting needle mat to protect your work surface and finger protectors to avoid painful mistakes (those needles are very sharp).

Last but not least, you will need a quality needle felting tool (or two). 

Best Felting Needles

Phinus 30 Piece Set – This is a single needle tool perfect for small projects and fine, detailed work. This set includes:

  • One storage bottle.
  • One wooden handle.  
  • 30 needles in three different sizes (3.07, 3.39, and 3.58 inches).

Clover Pen-Style Needle – This needle felting tool looks very much like an ink pen and can be used with one, two, or three needles at a time (both thick and thin gauge will fit).

It fits comfortably in your hand and is great for creating flat and 3D designs and appliques.

Phinus 7 Needle Tool – This clever device holds up to seven needles at once and has a safety option of storing needles internally when not in use with the twist of the bottom tube.

The multi-needle capacity increases the speed at which you can work – perfect for larger projects.

Mayboos 90 Piece Set – This felting needle tool holds up to eight needles and features a wooden handle with a comfortable, rounded surface.

This set also includes a single-needle tool for detail work and 90 needles in three different sizes (30 of each).