Sheepish: An Easy Needle Felting Tutorial for a Handmade Toy

IMG_6580 Needle felting is an inherently satisfying little craft, as I’ve mentioned once before. The materials are simple, the design principles easy to learn, and the results are wonderfully cute.

Of course, having handmade toys in the mix also makes your home feel more cozy. As a bonus, kids notice when you’ve put the effort in to make at least a few of the objects in their lives. It gives them a sense that things in their lives can be an act of creation, not just purchases from a store. And it may even inspire them, someday down the road, to make their own toys, which could never be a bad thing.

Below is a step-by-step guide to needle felting a sheep. But the principles could be applied to make virtually any animal at all (like these in my prior post), which is another aspect of this craft’s creativity. If you need more inspiration, there are wonderful felted animals and characters by crafters on Etsy (like here or here), or you could always check out a local wool and sheep festival. Our Maryland event last spring had a ton of vendors with lovely little creatures for sale.

IMG_6525Here’s what you need:

  • A block of some material that can be poked (since I bought this poly foam, which is really the only un-green thing about the craft, I found a shop selling foam rubber, which I have not used but would be greener);
  • A few felting needles (they break easily, so you’ll want a few to start, from Amazon or far better priced in bulk from wool shops like one, which usefully color coats their needle sets, or this shop on Etsy). Definitely pick up some larger needles, like a 38 gauge, as well as finer ones for finishing. As a favorite supplier explains:

    The needles are available in several sizes or “gauges.”  Most dry felting work, done with medium grade wool, uses 36 or 38 gauge.  For finer surface work, or finer fibers, move up to 38 star or 40 gauge.  For coarser fibers, move down to 32 gauge.

  • A wooden handle for the needle if you like;
  • Perhaps, if you like, a multi-need tool for the early stages (though this works better for flat projects, as I find multi-needle tools have a flattening effect);
  • Some sharp scissors or wire cutters;
  • Some roving in colors suited for your project (on Amazon here, or from a much better and cheaper selection on Etsy, e.g., here or here; you can also find even more eco-friendly plant dyed selections). Avoid superwash roving, which is used in spinning but which is not good for needle felting. To make the sheep, you’ll need a little black for the eyes, some gray and a chunk of off-white; and
  •  Two pipecleaners. White works well for this project.

The concept is straightforward: the needles are barbed, and each poke knits the roving together, eventually becoming more solid. The only rule is to keep the needle moving straight up and down, as the tip breaks easily.

The other precaution is to try to keep from poking your fingers, as the needles are super-sharp. This does not keep me from doing it in front of the television, though, so some injury is likely inevitable. But the sheep is worth it. Kind of.

To make the sheep:

Decide the dimensions. This sheep began with a ball of wool about 4 inches long and two inches across, and I wanted an animal about those proportions in the end, so as it became more compacted, I kept adding wool around it.

To save roving, you could also use wool batting in a ball on the inside, or even old balls of yarn, tightly wrapped, and wrap the cream colored roving around it by laying it out flat first and folding it around the ball, as I do with the Easter eggs here.

Poke the ball of wool with a needle (larger number needles or a multi-needle tool works well for this early stage). Turn the wool over and over to maintain the shape evenly and keep it oblong. Push on it with your finger to determine how felted it is becoming and measure the springiness, to keep it roughly even.

IMG_6526Once you have a nice shape formed, but before it becomes too tightly felted to create too much resistance, poke two pipecleaners through it at the front and rear ends of the sheep, which will form the basis for legs that allow it to stand up.

IMG_6527IMG_6530Trim the legs with sharp scissors or wire cutters so that they are even and fold over the sharp ends slightly to form the beginnings of feet. Stand it up to see whether it works, and adjust as necessary. The pipecleaners may not be of exactly identical length, because where they go through the shape may require more or less of the pipecleaner to be inside the body of the sheep.

IMG_6529Wrap additional roving around the sheep to add bulk and secure the legs inside the body. Poke and shape with your needle until the new wool is integrated, but leave what will become the neck area less worked than the body as a whole.

IMG_6531Rolling a small ball the right proportion for the head, add it to the body where a neck should be and secure it by poking the edges together with a needle.

IMG_6533 Form the head, which on sheep is a bit oblong, and further shape the body. I find it helps to refer to pictures of the animal on line for details like head shape, which are critical to recognizing the animal.

IMG_6535 Once the basic form has been created, shape the head into a triangle to form the nose and angle the shape towards a blunted point, adding more roving as you need and poking aggressively to flatten the sides.

IMG_6538Finish forming the head and neck, which on sheep I found requires a ring of additional roving around the back of the head and through the neck, which is thick but distinct.

IMG_6539  Add gray to the front of the head.

IMG_6541Separately felt small circles the size for ears in grey wool, leaving one edge unfelted. Attach to the end to head at the two top corners and secure by poking with the needle.

Then flatten a handful of roving, aligning the fibers, and wrap the legs, poking through and around the pipe cleaner and trying to avoid the wire. Add grey to the end when you are satisfied that the leg is thick enough. Repeat for each leg.

IMG_6546 IMG_6548Needle in two small balls of black roving for eyes, poking with the needle in the same spot over and over to keep them medium-sized. You may also want to add, as I did, some additional small amount of gray felt to make a ridge above the eyes to make them appear deeper-set.

Then add small tufts of white to the inside of the ears if you like, putting the sheep on its side and the ear against the block. You may need to add a small amount of gray to the back to thicken the ears if the white shows through.

Then, add a tail. Sheep actually have a natural tail that is long with a stringy end like a horse, but these are often docked on farms so a triangle is also fine.

Last, evaluate and wrap and fill in extra roving to really fill out the body and create more bulk. For the top coat of wool, leave some parts less felted in order to create a fluffy look.

IMG_6581Baa. Baa. Voila!

Other Crafting and Upcycling Ideas for Greener, More Sustainable Living:

A Green Thanksgiving with Sorrel Soup

Green options at Thanksgiving are always a bit less exciting than the orange and brown delectables. I do love brussels sprouts, roasted, or braised in white wine and topped with gorgonzola, but they are not for everyone. And the green salad we always dutifully prep up is usually intact at the end of the meal, faring poorly against the competition.

So why not kick off the meal with a lovely green soup? While sorrel is typically thought of in the spring, when it’s tender and new, autumn sorrel retains a wonderful lemony flavor, and can still be found in the farmer’s markets, at least where we live in Maryland.

This easy soup is adapted from the mistress of gardens, Alice Waters, and her Chez Panisse cookbook. It can be prepared ahead, and finished at the last minute with a quick reheating and immersion (stick) blender. It has great flavor, and would make a remarkable — and elegant — way to open the feast. It goes without saying that this soup would also be wonderful chilled in the high heat of summer.

You will want some really lovely fresh cream, so if you can obtain the grassfed, organic kind from a farm share or market, that’s the way to go.

Ingredients:

1 Tbl (organic, grassfed) butter

1 medium (organic) boiling potato or several smaller ones, diced

1 cup (organic) chicken stock or vegetable stock (do not use plain water, as there will be insufficient flavor, and if using vegetable stock, you may want more cream and salt)

1 medium (organic) yellow onion, diced

1 1/2 large bunches (organic or near-organic) sorrel (about 1.5 lbs.) (I have added sorrel to punch up the flavor a bit)

1 (organic) carrot or 7 small ones, diced

1 1/2 cup (grassfed, organic) cream (I also added a lot more cream than Ms. Waters — up to a pint is just fine with me)

3 sprigs (organic) thyme, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

2 1/3 cup water

2 Tbls crumbled (happy pig) bacon, for garnish (optional)

Directions:

Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the thyme, diced potato, onion, and carrot.

Pour in 1/3 cup of the water, cover, and stew gently for 15 minutes, with the lid ajar. Add the rest of the water (2 cups), salt and pepper, and stock, and bring to a simmer. Stew this for another 15 minutes, until the potatoes are soft and easily mashed.

Meanwhile, chop sorrel leaves into thin strips. When the potatoes are finished, add the sorrel, and return soup to a simmer, then turn off and let it stand for 5 minutes. (You can reserve some finely chopped sorrel for garnish. And if you are serving this later, you can let this sit in the fridge or on the back of the stove until ready to serve.)

Purée the soup in a blender (glass is best) or use an immersion blender in the pot, then stir in the cream. Taste (and add more cream). Garnish with bacon and/or chopped sorrel. Serve and enjoy!

IMG_5803

Talk with the Animals

Since I’ve been dishing out the advice to get out to farms and see how things stack up, I thought we’d spend the weekend actually walking the walk, squawking the squawk, and talking the… well, you get it.

So on Saturday, we went to a cool place called, literally, “Old Maryland Farm,” which is part of Watkins Regional Park, to celebrate the illustrious “Wool & Fiber Day.” This entailed watching a bleating sheep get shorn, peacocks, and a hayride. Maya was very impressed with the chickens — notice how well she obeys the sign!

For those in the DC-Maryland metro area, this is a worthy destination for families. Once the summer starts, there’s a carousel and mini-golf, as well as animals to see and a nice play area, all in the great outdoors. Campsites are also available.

But this location is more petting zoo than working farm, of course. So on Sunday, we traveled to outside of Frederick, Maryland, to a “Farm Day” for a dairy farm that does local CSA deliveries and produces mouth-watering ice cream, South Mountain Creamery.

It was a fun day, though the crowds were intense. A bluegrass band kept things lively, and there was the option to shake your way to a small, fresh amount of butter in a vial. The baby animals in the calves’ barn were the highlights for Maya.

In visiting the farm, I was struck by how natural it was to see cows on grass, of course, but I also noticed my total lack of competence to judge farm conditions in any detail. It looked like a humane and sensible operation, but in terms of whether such a visit would allow me to “vouch” for a farm’s food or products, I simply don’t know enough to judge such things. So much for my sage advice.

Still, it was lovely to see the enthusiasm for the celebration among loyal CSA customers and neighbors alike, and the condition of the animals was, by any measure, a far cry from the industrial farming systems that have garnered so many awful headlines of late. And of course, nothing beats real baby animals for a toddler (or a mom!).

What do you notice when you visit a farm? Are there indicators that would help a casual visitor to distinguish better and best operations?