Above is a link to one of the first sites I visited when trying to learn to needle felt . Although the emphases is on wet felting, there is a great chart on sheep breeds and micron count .
One of the reasons I wanted to do this series of tutorials is that I feel that their is less information available for needle felters and most fiber related articles are directed at spinners, knitters and wet and nuno felting . Although some of this information is helpful for needle felting, some is the opposite to what works best in needle felting . What we all do share is an interest in the fineness or coarseness of the fiber used and this is often described in terms of micron count=diameter of the fiber . The finer the fiber the lower the micron count . The lower the micron count the softer the resulting yarn or felt but also the longer the needle felting time and the more likely to get "poke holes" when felting . SO that is the trade off but there is a solution....
using a medium fiber for the core and covering with a softer merino or alpaca . Speaking of alpaca...here is an interesting article about it......
On of the things that I though most interesting to me was that alpaca has a higher tinsel strength
then similar micron count wool . I believe that silk would be even higher and wonder how the plant fibers compare ? Which brings me to ...what fibers can be needle felted ?
I can only list the ones I have tried so far but I would highly recommend your own experimenting .
You can often buy sample sets of different "luxury" fibers on Etsy as well as different breeds of sheep/alpaca/mohair . If you don't see one in a specific shop that carries a large veriety of different fibers, it doesn't hurt to "convo" the shop and ask if they would make a special order for you .
I have tried several different sheep breeds from coarse Romney to the softest extra fine merino .
I can not say that "this" is the fiber you should use because it depends greatly on what you are making . Romney does needle felt quicker but I don't personally like the coarse surface to work with or touch . However, it does give a nice clean shape with few to no poke holes . Below is the link to one of my favorite artists using a coarser wool . I love the simple lines and amazing detail he achieves with this wool . (He also has some great bug photos and needle felting tips so check out his side links )
Merino is my favorite all around fiber but is not great when doing larger sculpture . I think using a medium coarse fiber batt...if your doing a large sculpture plan on making a lot of felties, a quilters batt is a great investment . One of the nice things about this is that you can divide it into equal sections when you are making, arms, legs, so that you don't end up with an uneven animal . This is one advantage to buying fiber in roving form as well . Handmade batts can often be harder to work with as far as breaking down into even sections as the fiber depth is often more variable .
Although alpaca farmers hate when I say this, I do not think alpaca is a good base for needle felting . It takes a long time to get it to firm up and the longer fiber which may be great for spinners is actually harder to work with when needle felting . I would say the same thing about mohair but their both the best when it comes to making lovely looking outer surface and root well into a wool base sculpture . Even though I don't make "realistic" animals, I love using the natural colored alpaca on the surface and mohair for adding interesting embellishments .
Other, other fibers...
New experiments have revealed that corn fiber(Ingeo) also makes a wonderful surface fiber for animals . Unlike the merino, when rooted into the base wool and left with the ends loose, to make a "fur" the corn fiber does not end up matting over time . That means that it can be handled more the merino "fur" that felts or pills with to much handling . I suspect the same might be true for the other plant fibers...soy, milk, Eucalyptus, etc . I have also used it to make some nice little horns and teeth and it actually compacts well . I don't know why this works, since I was taught that animal fiber felts do to it's scales but it does hold a hard shape though not as durable on it's own as when mixed with wool .
Silk roving can also be felted into wool but with an important difference....to many fibers can break your needle if you let it bunch up . This is really strong stuff . When I use it I am careful to feed only small bit of fibers under the needle at a time . This is one you should practice with before adding it so you don't end up ruining a nearly completed sculpture but it's worth the effort to learn as it adds a lot of interest in the texture and colors can be amazing .
Buying fiber on-line > Warnings !
Although I buy from larger companies, I have also bought some amazing fiber on-line, Etsy, Ebay and smaller family farms . I've also bought some total garbage . Even 20% "fail" rate can get expensive and be frustrating . For this reason, I would recommend buying small amounts when you are buying from a new to you seller . If reviews are available, read them before buying . I have been sent beautiful wool that reeked of moth balls and wool ruined from poor dying that either burnt the wool or did not hold the dye . I've bought some fiber listed as having been "washed and having small amount of VM<(vegetable matter) that was ready to spin" that was so filth and full of bugs and poo, even several washes could not save it . It is an unfortunately reality that some small business ruin it for the majority of ethical ones that force us into buying form larger companies just to get consistent quality .
As mentioned I do think batts are good if you can get then but I generally buy roving which I am told should actually be called "top" but is almost always listed as roving . Basically it is fiber that has gone through a carder to a line the fiber in the same direction . One of the advantage if this form is that you can easily break it into equal sections to help make sure your arms, legs, ears, etc are the same size . This is harder then it sounds and one of my personal nemesis....I often have one piece a bit larger then the other but I try and get as close as I can .
Pricing like everything in a free market can vary greatly . I have bought bulk wool and Mill Ends for less then a dollar an ounce and paid as much as $7 for a hand blended batt with silk and alpaca . I generally try and shoot for around $1-2 for undyed roving , coarser blends should be a bit cheaper but are often as much as merino on Etsy . Commercial dyed roving runs around $2-3 and hand dyed $4-5 plus shipping which can get steep at some shops . There is usually a small increase if silk or plant fibers are blended in . It would be nice to say that the more you pay the better then quality but that just isn't the case .The most important things to look for is return policy if fiber is sub-par and buying small quantities until you get to know your seller .
Part 3 we finally begin the felting .
Well, that's about all I can think of right now, any questions please feel free to ask .