Felting bar soap
Felted soap is not everyone's cuppa tea, but it has its place in the soaping world. Felted soap makes a cute gift. Young children learning to bathe will find a felted bar easier to handle and less slip resistant if stepped on. A bar of felted soap is also handy for travel, since the felted covering can double as a handy travel case.
I originally felted several bars of soap to give to my honorary nephew (now going on 3 years old) who liked to eat soap. I may take a felted bar on our next vacation to the ocean to see if it lasts better than a not-felted soap -- salt air and high humidity are not kind to handcrafted lye soap.
That said, I can't say I care to use felted soap for routine bathing -- the feel of the felt against my skin is too soft. I prefer the more scrubby feel of a bath pouf or exfoliating washcloth. A person who likes to bathe by rubbing the bar of soap against the skin, however, might like the feel of felted soap.
The following are some thoughts about where to find suitable materials for wet felting, some tips about making the job easier and more pleasant, and a brief outline of the process that works for me. I also provide several links to excellent illustrated tutorials about wet felting over soap and rocks -- these ladies have done an excellent job with these tutorials.
If you are new to wet felting, I suggest getting 2-3 ounces of Merino or Corriedale wool "top" or "roving." That doesn't sound like much, but you should be able to felt 4 to 6 average-sized bars of soap per ounce of wool, so a few ounces is plenty of wool to start with.
To keep costs down, I suggest visiting a local fiber arts store that carries knitting, weaving, and crocheting supplies. If your store is like the one near me, you will be able to choose from a variety of colors and wools. I usually wrap my soaps first with a plain natural color Merino, and then add thin layers and strands of colored wool over the top of that. If you want to follow that approach, you might buy an ounce or two of a basic, neutral color and round that out with several half ounce hanks in a variety of accent colors.
Larger craft stores such as JoAnn Fabric, Michaels, or Hobby Lobby may also sell pre-packaged sampler packs of wool fiber. At the time of this writing, even Walmart is selling wool fiber samplers in its stores: http://www.walmart.com/search/?query=wool
Wool fiber can also be purchased online, but the total cost may be higher. Mielke's Fiber Arts store is a reputable online business with fair prices. My first pick from Mielke's would be the small Merino sampler: http://www.mielkesfiberarts.com/prod...o-top-sampler/ My second would be the small Corriedale sampler: http://www.mielkesfiberarts.com/prod...-bag-of-candy/
Don't get carried away with the idea of using coarse wool fiber, non-wool "locks", and other decorative embellishments on your wet-felted soap. You want a felted soap to have a tight, smooth finish. Embellishments can create an irregular bumpy surface or some fuzzy or floppy bits. That kind of thing can be interesting on an art piece, but can be unpleasant feeling or unattractive looking when bathing.
The best type of soap for felting will be one that is does not easily get mushy when it is wet. It doesn't matter whether the soap is store bought or hand crafted -- either kind will work fine. If you are a soap maker, wet felting is a great way to use up soap bars that look less-than-perfect, but are otherwise nice soap.
The shape of the soap can make a difference. It's easier to felt over an oval or round soap rather than a rectangular soap. Gently rounded edges felt easier than sharp square corners. If you want to felt a rectangular bar with sharp edges, you can use a knife to soften the shape of the bar and round-off the edges.
Arianne Arsenault (see "Tutorials" below) grates a freshly made bar of her handcrafted soap, hand forms the shreds into a flattened disk with rounded surfaces, much like a hamburger bun, and felts over that. Then she lets the young, felted soap cure.
Many tutorials show the person felting soap with bare hands. This might be fine for a bar or two, but it is a good idea to wear gloves if you do more felting than that. The soap, water, and ongoing abrasion are hard on skin! I wear thin nitrile gloves, but other felters like the flexible, textured gloves sold for washing dishes by hand.
Felting takes patience -- you cannot rush the process. When I felt soap by hand, each bar takes 15 to 30 minutes from start to finish. Felting is a forgiving process, however, so I take a break when my hands get tired or I need to rest.
My felting method
There seem to be as many methods of felting soap as there are people who do it. For example, some felters enclose the wool-wrapped soap in a nylon stocking. I've tried that, but I like to felt soap without the stocking. Read the rest of this article, study a few good tutorials (see "Tutorials" below), felt several soaps to get the hang of it, and decide what works best for you.
I often work on the kitchen counter and in the sink, but any waterproof, flat work area will be fine.
Lay out a mat of wool fiber on the counter using a base color. For an average bar of soap, the finished mat should be 6 to 8 inches wide and 18 to 24 inches long. The mat should consist of two thin layers of wool. The fibers in the first layer should lie in one direction and the fibers in the second layer should go crosswise to the first. You want the wool fibers to go in different directions, so the fibers will shrink down evenly and smoothly over the soap.
Make a mat large enough so all parts of the soap bar are covered with at least two thin layers of wool. You do not want the wool mat to be too thick, however, because the wool will take forever to felt and the finished covering may be uneven and lumpy.
Once the mat is made, add thin wispy squiggles of accent colors to the surface of the mat. To make a squiggle, I first pull off a small strand of colored wool and gently tease it wider and looser until it is a wisp so thin I can see through it.
If these squiggles are too thick or heavy, they have a tendency to remain loose and not felt as nicely onto the base wool. This is especially true if the felter is a beginner. So ... word to the wise ... keep the color accents thin and wispy, at least for your first few tries! (For more about this, see "My decorative technique" below)
Once the mat and accents are laid out, gently flip the mat over so the accent colors are on the bottom. Next, loosely wrap the soap with the mat of wool fiber. Do not wrap the mat tightly over the soap -- that was a beginner mistake I made. Tightly wrapped wool takes forever to felt. You want the fibers to have a little wiggle room so they can shrink up and felt together. Make sure the edges and corners of the bar are well covered -- a smoothly rounded bar of soap will make this job easier (see "Soap" above).
Gently wet the wrapped soap with warm water. You can dip the soap into a bowl of water or hold the bar under a thin, gentle stream of running water.
Gently pat and squish the wet wool to encourage it to compress and flatten into place. The feeling is like patting a tender plant into the soil -- gentle but firm compression, but definitely no rubbing. Pay attention to any sharp corners as you pat -- keep those bits well covered with wool. As the patting goes on, you will feel and see the wool gradually compress and become less squishy.
How do I get the wool to stay on the corners and edges, you wonder? Sometimes I don't! I have to pay close attention to keeping those areas covered!!! When the wool is still in the "patting and squishing" stage, I can still can move the not-yet-felted wool around and encourage it to stay as thick as possible on the corners. It's the hardest part of felting over a rectangular bar.
From time to time, try to pinch and pull a few fibers away from the underlying mat of wool. If the fibers easily pull away, the mat has failed the "pinch test" and you should continue to gently pat and squish without rubbing. If you start to rub or roll the wool while the fibers are still loose, the fibers may roll into thick wads, pill into hard balls, thin out along the corners and edges, and generally refuse to felt well.
When you can no longer pull up fibers with a pinch test, then the wool has reached a "prefelt" stage that can tolerate more handling. Now you can start to rub and roll the soap in your hands rather than just pat and squish. This firmer handling will encourage the fibers to interlock more firmly and tightly until the result is a nice, thick felt. You can also rinse the felted soap first in hot water, and then in cold water. This "shock" treatment encourages the felt to tighten and compress even further.
Once the felt feels firm and lies flat on the underlying soap, you're done. Rinse the soap with cold water, remove excess water with a towel, and let the soap dry thoroughly for a day or two. At that point, the soap is ready for gift giving, storage, or sale.
My decorative technique
I made my first felted soaps after studying several tutorials on the internet, and I was not happy with the appearance of the soaps. The layers of accent wool were thick and lumpy, and they did not felt well to the base wool. The finshed felt was not felted firmly enough, and it was too thick in some places and too thin in others. I took a hands-on class with a local felt maker and her advice and coaching made all the difference. I learned to lay out several thin layers of the base fiber on a table and then use wispy thin layers of wool to build up a pattern of color.
This technique is a little like watercolor painting -- the base layer of fiber is the paper, and the wisps of fiber are similar to the thin washes of watercolor paint. What I had been doing before was more like oil painting using a big heavy brush and lots of pigment. I don't think more experienced felters necessarily need to do this 'watercolor' thing, but it really has helped me improve my technique.
Illustrated, detailed tutorial about wet-felting soap by hand by fiber artist Sally "Sallybea" Gulbrandsen
Illustrated, detailed tutorial about wet-felting soap with a tumble dryer by Sallybea
Video tutorial about wet-felting rocks by fiber artist Terri Pike
Video tutorial about wet-felting soap by soap maker Arianne Arsenault, La Fille de Mer