Felt and melton are closely related – and often mistaken for each other – so they’re being addressed in a shared entry.
Felt is a non-woven fabric made from short fibers that have been brought together using a combination of heat, pressure and various chemicals to create a dense, thick fabric with a slightly fuzzy surface. Some felts are brushed – or teased – to enhance that fuzzy surface, although that’s not the case with most craft felts.
Craft felt is the cheapest felt out there. It’s made out of polyester and you can get it at any big-name fabric store for about five dollars a yard. It comes in many colors and there are even some printed felts out there. It’s quite stiff, it doesn’t drape well and has all the breathability of a plastic bag. It’s most often used for children’s costumes, soft toys and appliques.
Felt doesn’t fray, has no nap and no grain, so when you’re cutting a pattern from it – whatever it might be – you can fit the pieces on any which way and get the maximum use out of every square inch.
Because it’s not a woven fabric, felt isn’t very strong, especially craft felt. You don’t want to make a full cape out of it for anyone larger than a child, as it might fall apart under its own weight. If you want a cape made from something that looks like felt but can stand up to the task, consider melton wool – I’ll get into that in a moment.
Along with children’s costumes, felt is popular for accessories, robes, ponchos, even vests. Because of felt’s weakness, you want to stick to simple patterns that aren’t going to have a lot of stress put on the seams.
The poodle skirts of the 1950s were traditionally made of felt, and if you want to re-create one for yourself, consider going a step up from polyester felt and look into what wool felt can offer. It’s more breathable, has a nicer drape to it and isn’t as shiny as craft felt. Seriously, that stuff can reflect a surprising amount of light.
Of course, woolen felt costs a bit more than its polyester brethren. Felt that’s 20% wool and 80% rayon costs about ten dollars a yard. There’s also felt that’s 70% wool and 30% rayon, for around eighteen dollars a yard and pure wool felt starts around twenty-four dollars a yard. A large variety of colors are available in each variety but they’re all solid colors. I’ve never seen a striped or printed wool felt although I suppose there’s a first time for everything.
So, up near the top of the page, I mentioned melton wool as a sibling to felt.
Melton starts life as a woven wool fabric – plain weave or sometimes a twill weave -, but it’s given a special finish that makes the fabric shrink a LOT and it becomes indistinguishable from non-woven felt. The surface of the fabric is brushed and sheared to give it a slightly-fuzzy texture, but it doesn’t have a visible nap to it. It’s stronger than regular craft felt, thicker and heavier. It’s a popular choice for coats. Wool melton costs around twenty-five dollars a yard in my experience, but canny shopping – or a willingness to accept a wool blend – can bring the price down. The heavier the melton, the higher the price, of course.
A regular sewing foot and universal needle will suit craft felt and middle-weight felts. For melton, you’ll want a heavier needle and a rolling foot to cope with bulky seams. Cotton or polyester thread are both okay. Be prepared to clip and grade your seams to reduce bulk.
Polyester felt is machine washable and should be left to air dry. Wool felt should be sent to a dry cleaner. If you want to amuse yourself, toss a scrap in a hot wash and then in the dryer and see how much smaller it is when it comes out. It’s not quite a shrinky-dink, but it’s close.
It doesn’t press well – although you can use a warmer iron on wool felt than on its polyester counterpart. The fabric’s bulk means it doesn’t take creases well, but it rarely gets creased either. When ironing woolen felt or melton, turn off the steam, or else you will shrink it.