Thursday, October 11, 2012

Needle Felting and a thought on learning a new skill

This week I learned how to needle felt.

Needle Felt -
Needle felting is a popular fibre arts craft conducted without the use of water. Special barbed felting needles that are used in industrial felting machines are used by the artist as a sculpting tool. Using a single needle or a small group of needles (2-5) in a hand-held tool, these needles are used to sculpt the wool fibre. The barbs catch the scales on the fibre and push them through the layers of wool, tangling them and binding them together, much like the wet felting process. Fine details can be achieved using this technique, and it is popular for 2D and 3D felted work.
Within the span of four days I've managed to add over 25 new pins on pinterest of future Felting animals, visit Michael's four times in two states (I travel), purchase about 50.00 worth of materials and felted enough animals for a small starter zoo for barbies. I've talked to entire airport full of people about what I was doing as well as showed several ladies on my plane how to do it.

Although I tend to get over-excited when I discover a new talent. I think my experience needle felting is fairly representative of other people (perhaps a different skill or different methods).

My thought is this, what would be the marketing potential if someone was able to capture the same sort of excitement I had with learning a new craft... and can it be recreated and deployed elsewhere?

How it started:
Some time ago at the Maker Faire in San Mateo Kenneth had found this little owl that had been needle felted and tried to get my attention and excitement about it.

I had never heard about it and although I was mildly curious, I hadn't really looked into it. He had mentioned that he wanted to go back to the Needle Felting booth and buy that owl because it was so cute, but never made it there.

Fast forward to Maker Faire NY where I was an attendee walking around looking at things in the maker shed where I saw a needle felting kit.
Woolpets Needle Felting Kits!
WoolPets in the MakerShed : Borrowed photo from Flikr ksharpphoto
During the several months between the MakerFaire San Mateo and the one in NY that I was now at we had developed a series of jokes about penguins... + I remembered he wanted to have a needle felted owl... and I bought this kit intending this to be a gift to him when I saw him next.

Wool Pets Penguin Kit: Sold at Maker Shed Photo from:

The little Chinese take out box sat in my suitcase as I traveled back to Dallas, then to Seattle before finally making it to California where he was.

When I gave him the box he explained a little more about needle felting.
"My sister does a lot of these, she really enjoyed doing them.
Once you get really good, you can make a lot of neat animals.
She used them as puppets with the kids she was teaching.
etc. etc."

The following day, the kit was still sitting unopened on the table and I was graciously avoiding my laptop and outlook email.

"Um, do you mind if I tried out your kit? I'm curious how Needle Felting works..."
Although slightly Indian giver-esque, he said yes under the condition that I didn't break the needle (which I didn't know that was an issue).

And I started.
everything I needed was inside of this little box:
the wool, all of the colours, the needles and an instruction booklet.

I liked the simplicity of the instruction booklet. It got me started ... but in the end... I ended up disregarding the remaining instructions and going down a different route with my penguin.

Example of the instruction booklet starting from a different kit: Source: Blueberry Forrest

After ten/fifteen minutes and having Kenneth watch over to make sure it was turning out "cute" ... I turned out a penguin.

My completed penguin.
Although my penguin was a far cry from the cute and fluffy one that was on the box... it still looked like a penguin and because it looked more like the penguins from the iPhone doodles that Kenneth and I were passing back and forth... I was rather happy.
the inspiration penguins (iPhone doodles)

Kenneth and the new penguin reading Ham Radio Magazines :-)
After that little penguin... I decided I liked needle felting.
1. It reminded me a bit like voodoo dolls. You take a special pointy needle and stab at an object. Only instead of hurting the target, you were taking that stress and putting it into making a cute animal.
2. It felt like sculpting, but with wool instead. I was able to visualize my end product and turn it into one by manipulating the needle.
3. It was easy.

Putting the rest of the kit away (so that I didn't use ALL of the kit) I got on the Internet and started to look up other Wool Felting projects.

Rough order of what I found
The properties of wool that make wool felting possible and how the craft originated.
Prices of felt on ebay.
inspiration of other types of things that could be made
First, I found out how to make better beaks... and possibly larger wool felted animals.
Couple of ideas of what to actually do with the completed animals.
The benefits of kids playing with wool versus plastic toys.
Where to buy a lot of these materials.

I ended up deciding that my mom would enjoy doing this ... and bought her a seal pup kit instead.

The next day on my way to the airport to go back to Dallas I sheepishly (no pun intended) asked Kenneth if we could stop by Michael's again. We had gone there the day before ( to get things to repair my backpack) where I noticed wool felting materials near the sewing materials.

Once there I knew what to buy
The felting needles
Various colours of felt.

After buying those, I was dropped off at the airport where I had a few hours to kill before my delayed plane came.

I tried my first pet without the starter instructions. A baby chicken my sister and I used to play with when we were little called "Piyo-Piyo".
And... Success, made this:

Which, then looking at the colours that I had... I decided to make a penguin that was much better at representing the cartoons that I like to draw about them.

Inspiration for the penguins. My penguin relationships cartoons you can find on my tumblr feed.

The penguins I draw, in needle felt.
While I was poking at this penguin to make it, the TSA rep sitting across the way was curious and I explained why Needle Felting worked, what was it about wool... and what you could make with it. (Basically a regurgitation of the Internet research I had been doing the night before).

Having something to show people and demonstrate was a lot more effective than just talking about it. I'm not sure if anyone went and got their own kits, but now a lot of them understand what needle felting is.

sharing on facebook

Somehow in the midst of learning how to needle felt I transitioned from a consumer to an advocate.
Since then I've created... well,
another penguin ( I need a pair to do my penguin relationships comic), and a baby seal.

Then, I stopped by a local shop in Dallas (the cute name Shabby Sheep) after Jury Duty and bought some green wool + introduced the ladies there to Needle Felting and learned how to incorporate wire ... and made a dinosaur.

using pipe cleaner to be the base of the neck and the tail, now this guy is pose able.

Later, a T-Rex and then a large polar bear.

I can't stop myself from wishing that somehow I could bring this same type of energy to others by learning.
What was it about needle felting that made me so inspired and ready to tell the world about what I had accomplished?
And could this... this type of environment be applied to other things?

A look at the kit:
The kit itself was really a good way to get me started.

Unlike learning how to screen print, it was small, affordable and contained all of it's materials in ONE box. Although the process was fairly intuitive it was able to establish an end goal (the completed baby penguin) and show the way (instructions).
I imagine the kit as the following:

You're up at the lake with your older brother and friends and sleep in. When you wake up, no one is around, but there is a note on the door with a small map drawn, "At the Fergusons, take the scooter to come."
The scooter is right outside the door.
You know roughly where the Fergusons are, but you've never used a scooter before.
You're ridden a bike before and you could walk to the Fergusons.
What do you do?
If it were me? I would look at the map and focus on learning how to ride that scooter. If it failed miserably, I'd probably leave the scooter behind and head over to the Fergusons on foot.
However, the end result is the same... I'm getting to the Fergusons.

That's sorta what this kit did.
It gave me the tools.
it gave me a desired path to take (the instructions)
but more importantly, it gave me an end goal.
If I were to follow the directions, that is what I would obtain.
At any step of the way, I would be able to show how I was progressing to my goal.

The process:
It was easily understood.
Although I looked into it in depth on line, which was available, but I didn't have to understand the individual fiber contents of the different types of wool to get started. All I needed to know was, Wool when tangled together can be made into shapes.

Having this clear "How To Message" was essential in me being able to relate what I was doing to anyone else.

Otherwise, a bunch of people in the San Luis Obispo airport would be looking at me, leaned over a small stuffed figure, punching a needle into it... and think I was some sort of crazy person (then probably check around and make sure that I hadn't snagged a lock of their hair).

It wasn't until I actually started to needle the felt did I see exactly what it meant by, "hooking fibers" of wool. But, having the show portion of the show and tell, really helped me not only gauge my own progress, but it helped me relate what I was doing to everyone else who wanted to know.

The Results:
Being able to leave the instructions behind and focus on the creation of something different from the book was what hooked me thinking about it creatively. Once I covered the basic technique I was able to move to the application portion. If I had messed up in any portion of it, I could easily revert back to following the directions to salvage the project.

What I think is important:
A clear and measurable end goal.
Able to measure progress against the goal
Early Successes
Clear directions that are easily understood and explained
A Show and Tell component
Low-Barrier of entry and easily accessible upgrade.
Low-investment. If it went wrong, I didn't sink hundreds of dollars.
Low investment of time too and brain power. I could do this while watching Star Trek or sitting on the plane, I didn't need to have all of my facilities locked into the activity.
Many inspiration possibilities
information readily available.
lots of success stories from people like me.

I'm sure other reasons will come to me, but those are the ones that come to mind.

Lady Bird... haven't figured out how to make Antennae yet. 

Snuggly Polar Bear



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  2. Thanks for your story :-)
    Needle felting is a fairly unknown craft (even in "craft" stores) and yet it is relatively easy to learn (numerous needle injuries aside).
    I can't seem to watch movies while needle felting - I end up like swiss cheese because I'm not concentrating enough.

    1. Thanks for reading! I really like needle felting a lot!
      I just discovered putting a broom head on the bottom of my sculpture helps, but... the problem is really that I don't ever pay attention to movies :-)