DIY Felted Soap
Use the historic technique of wet felting to create an exfoliating, low-waste soap bar cover.
The oldest known textile used by humans isn’t woven. It uses no loom to make and needs no special equipment or ingredients. It’s the stuff of myths and legends — quite literally.
Feltmaking is older than spinning and weaving, and many cultures have legends about how it was invented, from travelers wearing wool-packed sandals while on the run to a frustrated shepherd crying and stomping on a pile of wool. The legends all contain kernels of truth; they all refer to the three elements necessary to produce felt: fleece, moisture, and agitation.
Historically, felt played a central role in people’s lives in Central Asia, Mongolia, and parts of the Middle East. These peoples made saddles, tents, and clothing from felt because of its strength and resistance to wet and snowy weather. The Romans and Greeks knew of felt as well; Roman soldiers were equipped with felt breastplates for protection from arrows, as well as felt tunics, boots, and socks. Because of its weather-resistant properties, felt is still in use in many parts of the world, especially in areas with harsh climates.
Felt works well in combination with soap, because of its resistance to deterioration. Wool is exfoliating and may have antibacterial qualities, and the soap creates a nice lather without wasting its suds. And, even better, when the soap is all used up, the wool will remain intact without soap in it. This means the bar of soap can be used until it’s all gone — no more leftovers!
Image Susan Verberg
Preparing to Felt
Use scratchier wool when making a felted soap bar, because the coarse wool around the bar helps exfoliate the skin. You can use low-grade roving (wool that’s processed but not yet spun) and spinning leftovers. Those little “nubbies” pulled out during spinning and castoff, a couple of feet of experimental yarn that sounded better than it looked, the free fleece from the neighbor’s lawnmower sheep — any and all can be used in felting soap. While I’m only an occasional spinner, friends of mine are avid spinners and dyers, and any leftovers they have from their projects they send to me for my own use.
Before working with unknown fibers, check to see if it felts. Some fibers don’t felt as easily as others, and it’d be a shame to go through the effort of wrapping pretty soaps to find that the fiber didn’t take. (See “Types of Felting,” below.) A good way to test a fiber’s felting ability is to put some fiber in the palm of your hand, wet it a little, and rub it well so that the friction makes it hot. If the fiber doesn’t felt during this process, then it’s unlikely to felt well around your soap. Cotswold, Icelandic, Gotland, and Scottish Black Faced are all fast-felting wools that would be scratchy and good to use around soap as a rough surface. Merino is a softer fast-felting wool.
Just as using the right fibers makes felting easier, it also pays to choose the right soap. In my experience, hard olive oil or castile soaps are a good choice. Since I make my own soaps, I create either a 100 percent olive oil or a 100 percent lard base and let it cure for at least two months, so that it’s hard enough to hold up to the felting process. Hard soaps with less lather are easier to felt around. Too much froth, and the fibers will just float around, which makes it difficult to tighten the felt. Therefore, avoid using glycerin soaps. Not only do they froth so much that it’s hard to feel what’s going on when you’re felting, but they also don’t hold up well during the wet-felting process.
Types of Felting
The historical technique of using water to felt fibers is called “wet felting.” Only certain types of fibers can be wet-felted, including most types of fleece (such as sheep, alpaca, and camel); mohair (goat); Angora (rabbit); and hair from rodents (such as beavers and muskrats). These fibers can be felted because they’re covered in tiny “scales.” Moisture, motion, and heat within a fleece cause the scales to open, and agitation causes them to latch on to each other, creating felt. Plant fibers and synthetic fibers have no scales, and thus don’t wet-felt.
The modern technique of needle felting uses needles to felt without using water. These needles have notches along their shafts that catch fibers and tangle them with other fibers to create felt. Needle felting is used in industrial processes to create large sheets of felt, and in crafting to create three-dimensional shapes and adornments.
Make a Felted Soap Bar
Felted soap works great on feet, elbows, and other tough spots. It also may help remove oil and dead skin cells from the face, making the skin softer and preventing breakouts. The one thing felted soap does not do is refill. But once the soap is all used up, the felt can still be useful. It works well to scrub the tub and shower — although, in our household, it quickly is put into a zip-close bag of catnip and reincarnated as a cat toy.
- Bar of soap
- Wool roving
- Decorative yarn
- Pantyhose or plastic netting from citrus or onion bags (optional)
Image Susan Verberg
1. Wrap the soap with roving from left to right. Then, go over it again, wrapping from top to bottom. Make sure all edges and curves are covered.
Image Susan Verberg
2. Once your soap is nicely covered with roving, add bits and pieces of contrasting roving if you wish. At this stage, the wrapped wool roving will still be bouncy and loose, and it’ll often want to unwrap itself. To keep the roving together, wrap decorative yarn around the soap. Uneven single-ply yarns will make beautiful felt patterns and felt well into the surface of the covering.
Image Susan Verberg
3. Felt the soap by hand or by washing machine. If you want the fibers to stay where you put them, place the wool-covered soap into a piece of pantyhose or plastic netting to hold it in place while you wet and rub it by hand. Alternate between cold and hot water to help shock the fibers to shrink together. A bamboo placemat makes for a perfect bumpy rubbing surface. With merino, it only takes about 2 or 3 minutes of rubbing to form the felt-y skin. You’re finished when the fiber makes a solid case around the soap; it should be hard to pinch a few fibers and pull them free, if they come loose at all. If you own a washing machine with a short setting (often called “sport cycle”), you can use that to felt the soap instead of using a regular cycle, which will take so long that the soap will likely dissolve more than you’d prefer. To help felt soap in a machine, put the stocking-covered woolly soap in a thick winter sock, and close the end with a knot or a yarn tie so the soap doesn’t come out during agitation.
4. Once washed, pat your soap dry with a towel, and place it on a cooling rack to finish drying.
Susan Verberg lives on a 5-acre homestead in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, where she gardens, keeps goats and bees, and makes soap for her shop, Far Mountain Soap.
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