Profile: Karen Engelbretson and a Primer on Felting

October 24, 2008


These little birds are dry needle felted wool. Wool roving, to be exact, which is a state of wool between the sheep and a sweater (sheep > fleece > roving > yarn > sweater). They were made by Karen Engelbretson, a Twin Cities based graphic designer with varied interests in art and crafts. She makes cool stuff. I love it when people do that. Recently she has been needle felting. Her delightful needle felted creations will be available for sale at St Paul's Grand Hand Gallery handcrafted holidays event, beginning in November. Priced at $18-$20, I expect them to "just fly out of there" so I wanted to give you a heads up. (Karen is so busy building beautiful websites for clients she hasn't had time to update her own. If you want to contact Karen write to her at:

I asked Karen to say something about her process and she also provided a short primer on types of felting. Read Karen's words on felting:

Two years ago I moved out of St Paul where I'd lived all my life to sort of a country place, just east of the metro—close enough to easily go to the city, but where the stars are a little brighter, there are more kinds of birds and animals, longer views and bigger sky.  I no longer have to work in the basement where I could see just feet and the occasional curious cat in the window well. Now I can watch the deer eat the hostas!

Birds visit here in flocks: this week it's juncos. Soon the landscape will be literally covered by migrating robins. Chickadees and vireos sit in the bushes near the house, so close I can count their feathers. Sometimes Stella (our beagle/doxie) tracks the remains of an unfortunate victim: recently the wings of a blue jay, still connected by bone and sinew. One day a misled downy woodpecker broke its neck attacking its reflection in the window. I called Roz, she ventured out here and spent the afternoon with it, memorializing its details in her journal.

So, I'm inspired by the birds and wool and needle-felting and have been making these little creations.

Let me clarify some terms here.

is just that, stabbing sharp, barbed needles into dry wool roving to connect the fibers and form a shape.

Wet felting mats wool fiber together by agitation, changing the pH with soap, and changing the temperature. The process involves adding water and soap to dry wool roving that has been loosely shaped and placed on a bumpy surface. It's then agitated by hand and then wadded up into a ball and thrown at some hard surface a hundred times, unwadded, rinsed, soaped, agitated and thrown a hundred times again and maybe even again until the fibers have joined and formed a lovely pebbly surface. Soapy, wet and fun. The addition of other fibers like ribbons and yarn with varying shrink ratios can build even more texture to the piece.

Fulling is the process whereby yarn is knitted into a shape much larger than the intended finished product and then machine washed with hot water and soap to come out shrunk. This is not felting, it's fulling, and what happened when you accidentally washed your wool sweater with your jeans. Intentionally it is an easy way to increase the density of wool to appear and feel like a solid, stitchless fabric.

WkjePortraitLeft: Karen Engelbretson (photo by Travis Anderson)

I've experimented with all the various felting techniques, but I keep coming back to needle-felting and its malleability.

To needle felt you need wool roving which is the washed fleece, "carded" by a system of wire rollers to straighten the fibers and remove any remaining debris. The fibers are fuzzy with cuticle that when agitated will begin to stick together. In dry needle felting, a long, extremely sharp and barbed needle is stabbed repeatedly into the roving to connect the fibers, build density and thus create a shape. Felting needles come in a variety of sizes with the narrowest size used for finishing and details.

There is a lot of nuance to the hand-felting process. How you initially gather up the fibers and the depth and energy of your stabbing will determine the density, weight, and finish of the object. A thick piece of foam beneath your work allows you to stab away at the wool without perforating your fingers but once my bird takes form I hold it in one hand while gently sculpting with the finest needle to get the shape and detail I want. The wool is soft and luxurious and as the density builds and the bird takes form it seems to come alive in my hand. Then I have to work quickly, because soon I begin to feel bad about poking it with a sharp needle. I leave the eyes for last.

(All photos of the felt creations are by the artist Karen Engelbretson.)

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  1. Reply

    these are little beauties, and they remind me of a post about felting that i just saw this week from another twin cities artist:

    • Roz
    • October 24, 2008

    Aimee, I’m glad you enjoyed Karen’s work. Thanks for posting the felted rocks link. Those are very cool (I love rocks). I’ve seen people wet felt rocks, little objects of all sorts, and also bars of soap—the last so you can take them in the bath/shower and use them as a self soaping “cloth.” Felters are always coming up with fun things!

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