A soft surface to felt upon is as important as choosing the right wool and felting needles. If you've been searching for the right one but are a bit confused by the options, read on and I will run through your options. Hopefully this will place you in a better position so you can make a more informed choice about what will work best for you and whatever project you are working on.
Why do I need a felting surface to work upon?
The main purpose of a felting mat is to catch the tips of your needles as they pass through your wool and protect them so they don't break. It also protects your work surface too from being pin pricked by the needles.
I've tried different things over the years from cushions (I used one from the sofa for a bit of impromptu felting whilst watching TV!) to a proper felting brush tool, rice sacks, foam and felt. So let's start with the free and cheapest things you could use, but I wouldn't recommend them!
Up first we have Polystyrene (the white padding that electronics come packaged in) this is the stuff that breaks into a million pieces if you snap it, which then statically magnetises towards you and all the surfaces around you (yet runs in the opposite direction to the hoover!). It doesn't make a good felting surface at all as it just breaks up instantly and gets mixed in with your wool. Avoid, avoid, avoid!!!
household sponge high density foam
Car sponges and dish sponges look like a tempting cheap option but they don't make a suitable felting surface as they also break up very quickly and the bits get stuck in your work. Yet again, avoid, avoid, avoid!
High density foam.
This is probably the most popular choice as they are inexpensive and you buy them in different sizes. The advantage of the high density foam pads is that they are nice and flat which is great if you are making a flat piece of work like a 2d picture. The wool fibres don't felt into it so readily so this reduces stray fibres being felted into your current work. Because they are cheap, when they start to get worn down you can simply throw them away. And herein is the issue for me, they are not recyclable and end up in landfill. For this reason I personally don't use them myself or in my workshops and felting kits. You can extend the life of them by placing a sheet of felt on top or even using a compressed felt mat on top of the foam. The latter would greatly increase the longevity of the foam pad.
brush mat hessian rice sack
Brush mats are handy little mats that are portable and quite small. If you are making a small piece of work, they are really good. Not so good for larger pieces as your work has to balance on top of the mat surface. Wool fibres do stick to it and you must clean it after each use. As you can see in the photo, I didn't! This mat was brought when I first started needle felting and I used it lots over several months. Eventually the wool fibres compacted so hard that I wasn't able to use the brush mat anymore! I've since learned that putting a piece of felt over the top will extend the life of the brush mat, as will regularly removing the trapped fibres. Another bonus is that you can felt your work quite deeply as the brush mat bristles accomodate the length of the needle. Handy for ensuring you really work at reaching the centre of the fibres in your project.
Hessian rice sack
Hessian rice sacks are my go to work horses. You can buy them here or make one yourself. Hessian rice sacks are great because you can make them to whatever size you want. If you are making something spherical, you can make a dip in the rice sack and put your felted ball in it so it doesn't roll away. They last a long time as long as you don't concentrate all your felting efforts into one area of the mat which will cause it to weaken and rupture over time. The biggest bonus for me is that it is 100% recyclable. The rice can simply be re used into another rice sack and the hessian can line plant pots, rot down in the garden compost or even hung up for the birds to use for nesting material (along with scraps of wool) in the springtime. The only downside is eventually the hessian does break down and start to felt into your work, but it takes a while for this to happen. They aren't very good for large 2D pieces of work as they are not uniformly flat and taper off at the edges, but that's never been an issue for me making 2D work.
Compressed felt mat
These are made from industrial processed wool/wool mix. The one I have is made up of two parts. A firmer bottom sheet is a wool mix at 10mm thick and the top piece is 100% wool at 10mm thick. This mat is by far my most favourite to date (sorry hessian sack!)
It's light weight, portable, easy to store, feels nice to lean on whilst working, is big enough for larger 2D work and 3D work (you can buy them in different sizes) and is easy to clean (remove left over fibres).
I have noticed the top piece warps ever so slightly every now and then so I gently pull it back into a rectange shape and then it's good to go. I have also found you can't drive the needle deeply into your work as the felt mat resists the tip of your needle, so I switch over to the hessian sack for really working the core of a shape. But apart from that, I think this has become my new favourite felting surface for small and flatter work.
So, to summarise..
Different felting surfaces have their own strong points and weaknesses depending on what your project is and what you want from the felting surface you have chosen. Ultimately my preference goes with anything that doesn't get stuck in my work and is recyclable when it wears it out, so the hessian rice sack and compressed felt mat are my personal choices.
The hessian sack wins for it's low cost and recyclability and the compressed felt wins because it's light, versatile and well just ...nice to work on!
Let me know in the comments what YOUR favourite felting surface is and why!
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Who am I?
I’m Elaine, and I started The Woolly Rabbit to help, inspire and encourage others to learn the relaxing and rewarding skill of needle felting.
Starting with needle felting workshops in 2018, I began to design needle felting kits and quickly grew an online shop selling felting wool, needles and other needle felting bits and bobs,
There are helpful videos and free tutorials available on my YouTube channel and a blog that answers commonly asked questions. I hope you enjoy following the video tutorials and maybe even join me in a workshop someday. In the meantime, enjoy your felting, enjoy the process, experiment and try not to stab your fingers!