Introduction: Felted Wool Booties
There's nothing quite like slipping your feet into felted wool booties. As you break them in, they form to your feet, almost hugging your feet in a cozy way; it's enough to make you fall asleep. In fact, it is said that Peter The Great considered wearing his wool boots (valenki) to be the best cure for a hangover.
This is pretty much an all day project, so eat a good breakfast and get an early start. Also, you will be on your feet working the wool for several hours, so you may need to take breaks. If you do take breaks, make a note of where you were when you left off, so you don't get confused.
There are many steps to the wet felting process:
First you will make a pattern for your booties.
Second, you will lay out the wool, layer by layer, and wet-felt the wool with soapy water and lots of hand working. (this is the time consuming and labor intensive part).
Next you will begin "fulling the wool" by hand working and rolling the booties to start the shrinking process them (this part is even more labor intensive).
Then you'll do the first stage machine shrinking in a short wash cycle.
Before you do the final machine shrinking, you will need to make styrofoam inserts the shape of your feet.
In the last step, you will separate the booties and sew the styrofoam forms in place for the final shrinking. You will see that I had to redo this step due to inadequate hand working.
The booties are essentially done, but I'm adding leather soles to the bottoms of these. This step is optional, but will make your booties last much longer. You'll invest a lot of money and time in making these, why not make them last.
Wool roving (12 to 16-ounces total)
Two large pieces of bubble wrap (about two by three feet). These only need to be large enough to cover your pattern, and you can tape smaller pieces together. (I found some really sturdy bubble-style swimming pool insulation in a recycle bin. It's like bubblewrap-zilla)
One large piece of netting (tulle).
A plastic jug full of soapy water. I just use dish soap and warm water, (if it's not soapy enough, you will know because the wool won't felt).
A large piece of thin foam packing material for the pattern, or "resist." I'm using closed cell flexible foam packing material (about an eighth of an inch thick). You can also use a piece of bubble wrap or even cardboard for the resist.
A dough docker with plastic wheels (this is optional, but very helpful -- it seems like the price has gone up significantly; look around for a better price).
Two small mesh laundry bags for shrinking the slippers in the washer.
A pair of sissors and a marker to make the pattern.
Some "T" pins or large safety pins to hold the forms in place.
A long needle and some really strong thread, for securing the forms.
Twist ties for closing the mesh bags (the double-wire ones from coffee bags are best).
If you want to attach soles, you will need leather, a hole punch (you could get by with an awl), and needle and thread (a curved needle works best for this).
Note: many people use a "matchstick blind" to roll the felt piece as part of the felting process. I have used them in the past, but did not use one for these booties. I kind of regret not using the blind to roll these, as I didn't get them shrunk quite as much as I intended to. Just be sure not to roll them too much in one direction; unshrinking is not a thing.
Some flat (rigid) styrofoam insulation about an 1 3/4-inch thick, large enough to make forms the size of your feet. There are other ways to make a foot "last," if you don't have styrofoam. Some people wrap a sock in duct tape and stuff it full of plastic bags or something.
A utility knife for cutting and shaping the styrofoam and a microplane grater (optional) for shaping the forms.
Some duct tape to put around the styrofoam foot-forms.
Your hands will thank you if you rub in some lanolin after working the wool all day.
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Step 1: Making the Pattern
For the pattern, you will first draw an outline of your foot on a piece of paper or cardboard, and cut that out. This will be your guide for the main pattern, and for the styrofoam inserts you will make later.
Place your foot drawing on a folded piece of foam packing material (you can also use bubble wrap) to make the "resist" form that you will build the booties around. Draw your pattern around this foot drawing, leaving about 1 1/2-inch margin around all sides, and extending the pattern up to the folded edge. You will unfold this for the full pattern. You don't need to make the uppers as long or as wide as I've made them here. This was kind of an experiment to see if I could make the uppers wide enough to get my feet inside without having to cut a slit in the front. I still had to split these down the front, and I don't like how baggy the uppers came out.
It may seem odd to be making the booties flat, but actually works just fine.
Step 2: Measuring the Wool
You can find wool roving at any good yarn/knitting store, or you can buy it online. I used a pound of wool roving for this pair of booties, but you can make a pair using half that amount. I strongly recommend using about 12-ounces of wool as the optimum for an adult-size pair of booties, particularly for your first build. This method uses four ounces of wool to do one complete layer on both sides of the booties form, so all your measured wool will be in multiples of four. For these, I'm doing four full layers, two of white wool, and two of colored wool (16-ounces total). You can get by just fine with only one layer of colored wool. Sometimes the underlying layers can show through, so make sure you have complete coverage with your color layer. You also save about an hour of work by only doing three layers.
I'm mixing white and colored wool because white wool costs much less than the colored wool. I've also found that colored wool can be more difficult to felt, probably due to the extra processing. You just have to work a little harder on the colored wool. Be aware that wool roving is a raw material, and it can have bits of chaff, here and there. It's much easier to see any bits of chaff in the white wool, and you will want to remove them as you're laying out the wool.
It's a mistake to think that more wool is always better. If the wool is too thick, I think it interferes with the bootie's ability to form to the shape of your foot. They will still be plenty warm, but the tension of all the shrunk wool tends to make the bootie into a tube, rather than forming to the shape of your foot.
You can either use a scale or measure out the wool roving to make an even number of pieces. I break the roving up into one-ounce strips. If you buy twelve ounces of wool, just divide it into twelve pieces the same length.
When I'm laying out the wool, I drape the roving over my shoulder, to keep it from draging on the floor.
Step 3: Wet Felting Fun
Choose a good sturdy table (at a comfortable working height) for your work area; one that you can get soapy water on. Arrange the pieces of wool roving in groups of four so you know which pieces you will use on each layer.
You're going to use about two ounces of wool per side for each layer. If you've divided your wool in one-ounce strips, lay out all the wool from one strip going one direction (covering one full side of the form), and lay out all the wool from the next strip in the other direction. This will make it easier to pace yourself and get an even layer of wool in each direction.
Lay one of your two large pieces of bubble wrap on a sturdy table, and center your pattern on the bubble wrap. Sprinkle some soap solution on the pattern to help the wool stay in place, and begin pulling off short pieces of roving, a few inches long, and laying them on the pattern, going in one direction and overlapping each piece with the next piece by about half.
Note: as discussed earlier, it is important to look closely at each tuft of wool, as you pull it off, to make sure there are no "stickers" or bits of chaff in the wool. One tiny sticker can make your slippers really uncomfortable. You may be able to dig them out later, but it's worth the effort to pick them out as you lay-out the wool, particularly for the inner layers.
Avoid the urge to lay out the wool perpendicular to the edge, going around the pattern. This will result in uneven shrinkage. Just lay the wool in rows with each piece overlapping it's neighbor by a bit, and each row overlapping the row behind by about half. I like to start at the heel end and work toward the toe, until I use up one length (an ounce) of rovingn, all in one direction. Lay out the next strip of roving going the opposite direction, paying particular attention to getting a good thick layer on the soles. The roving should extend an inch or two beyond the edges of the pattern, so you can wrap it around to the other side.
Once you get the two ounces of roving layered on the pattern, cover the wool with the piece of netting, and squirt soapy water all over the pile of wool. You want to saturate the wool, so don't scrimp on the soap solution. Spread your hands and press down vertically on the wool, wiggling your hands in tiny circles to get the wool to stay down, lift your hands and press down in a different spot. Keep pressing the wool and wiggling your hands until you have all the wool saturated and it stays down. Keep massaging the wool, moving your fingers in tiny circles, lifting and pressing, making tiny circles. Work the wool down till it seems like it is holding together and feeling firm. At this point, you can start rolling the wool with the dough docker. You can get by without this, but I feel like it saves a lot of hand work. Run the dough docker back and forth in all directions, being careful not to let the netting pull up at the edgs when you change directions. Any spots that don't stay down need more soap. After a few minutes of rolling, things should start to come together. The wool will feel more compact and dense.
If you don't have a dough docker, just use your hands to keep working the wool till it's felted. I have arthritis in my wrists, so I use this kitchen tool make me feel like I'm adequately working the wool. Some people use washboards, foot massagers (I show this in a later step), and even power tools (I don't know how they keep from electrocuting themselves) to aid in the felting process.
Lift off the netting, and place the second piece of bubble wrap (bubble side down) on top of the pattern. Roll the edges of both pieces of bubble wrap far enough so you can grip the bubble wrap and the edge of the pattern. Lift and flop the two pieces away from you, so the pattern is laying face up with the wool underneath. Remove the bubble wrap from that side and gently lift the edges of the wool so they can be folded over the pattern. Use soapy water to hold the folded edge to the pattern. Smooth down the folded edge, dry your hands and start laying out the next two strips of roving on the second side. Use the same amount of wool and lay it out the same way, going in two directions. Cover the loose wool with netting, drench it with soapy water, and begin hand working the wool again.
This process of adding layers and getting them bonded to the underlying layers is the most important, and most tedious, part of the process. It takes a lot of work, and if you're not paying attention it's easy to get mixed up. It would be a good idea to keep notes as you go, so you don't get confused about how many layers you have put on each side. One thing to pay particular attention to is the part where you fold the wool from the bottom side to the upper side. As you work that folded edge into the underlying wool (on later layers), you may mistakenly feel that your're done with that side, and accidentally turn the pattern over before adding the next layer of roving. This is an easy mistake to make when you're tired so keep your focus.
Keep adding layers to each side, making sure that each layer is bonded to the underlying wool before flipping to the next side. After working down three full layers of wool on both sides of the booties, you'll get a feel for how the wool is felting. You'll also understand why I feel that three layers is plenty.
The goal is to get the same amount of wood evenly distributed on each side of the booties. Don't stress about this too much, I have messed up and gotten an extra layer on one side. The booties weren't as pretty, but they still kept my feet warm and lasted for several winters.
Step 4: Felting the Wool
When you have all the wool layers together, you can either roll your booties by wrapping them in netting and rolling them up in a matchstick blind, or work them by hand to start shrinking (fulling) the wool. The hand working is harder, but I find it easier to keep the track of what the wool is doing. With the rolling, sometimes a layer starts to separate, and it can be difficult, if not impossible, to get the layers to bond, once you've finished rolling. A combination of hand working the wool to start, and then rolling the wool could be the best way to complete this step.
To "roll" the booties, wrap the booties in netting, and roll them up in either a matchstick bliind or a large chunk of bubble wrap (tie the roll in several places if you're using bubblewrap). Take the rolled up booties and place them on the floor, and putting some weight into it, and roll it back and forth on the floor (not a wood floor). After a fair bit of rolling (say forty times back and forth) unroll the blind and flip the booties over to roll the other side. Repeat this with the booties rolled in different positions and on different sides. The rolling will shrink the booties in the direction they are rolled. Be careful that you aren't shrinking them too much in one direction. Compare the pattern to your foot drawing.
If you're working the booties by hand just keep wiggling and jiggling, pushing and pulling, slapping and flapping them. Use the dough docker here and there (pay attention to the edges) to get the wool to start feeling dense. Keep working the wool for as long as you can stand it (20-30 minutes), comparing occasionally to your foot pattern. They should start getting bulky, and feeling pretty firm. You may be able to tell that the flat form inside is bunching up here and there as the booties start to shrink. When they feel pretty firm, with no areas that seem loose or too squishy, you're ready for the next step.
After the hand-fulling or rolling, place the booties in the mesh laundry bags. I used some little clips (safety pins or twist ties would work) to hold the bags firmly around the felt. Do not leave the netting wrapped around the booties, it could be impossible to remove later. You could also use rubber bands or string to keep the bags from falling off. Run the booties through a short wash cycle (15 minutes or so).
Remove the booties from the bags and beam with pride at your progress; your booties are almost finished.
Step 5: Make Styrofoam Forms of Your Feet
Now that your booties are taking shape, you will want to make some inserts to keep the booties from shrinking down too small during the final shrink/wash stage.
Use the foot drawing that you started with and cut out two pieces of styrofoam, one for the right foot, and flipping the drawing over to make a form for your left foot. Trim off some of the styrofoam on the top side to make toes, and trim more from the underside to make an instep. If you have one, you can use a microplane grater to smooth the forms. Stretch strips of duct tape around the edges of the forms (sorry I didn't show this step) to make them easier to push into, and pull out of, the booties.
Step 6: Separate the Two Booties for the Final Shrinking
After the short wash cycle, your booties should be taking shape. You will have to measure or guess at where to cut the booties apart. They will go through one more shrinking stage, so the separating cut doesn't need to be perfect.
Push the foot-forms down into the booties, and work them around so the forms are in the position you'll have your feet. If you have some "T" pins use them (if not, use safety pins) to keep the forms in place while you are sewing them in place. Use a long needle and really strong thread (strong enough to pull on and tie knots in). Thread the needle, and push the point of the needle through the thread, about an inch from the end, pull the thread all the way down the needle, and back on itself. If you aren't sure, look up how to do saddle stitching, the needle is attached the same way. Tie a loop at the other end of the thead, and push the needle up through the sole of the bootie, about at the ball of the foot-form, between the wool and the form. Bring the needle and thread over the form and back down through the sole of the bootie. Put the needle through the loop at the other end of the thread and pull it good and tight, making an overhand knot around the loop to hold the foot-form in place. Do the same thing at the arch, and again near the heel.
The bootie is flat, and you are going to make the bottom edge into the sole of your bootie. The idea here is you want to anchor the foot-form securely to the bottom of the bootie. The form will tend to slip around sideways so you want to stitch it down tight in three places. Use any extra thread to loosely stitch back and forth across the ankle area to help the upper keep its shape. Tie off the thread and do the same thing on the other bootie.
Put the booties back in the mesh laundry bags, secure the bags with twist ties, or what have you, and run the booties through a regular hot wash cycle (with the forms inside). I'm using a front-loader washing machine, which makes it impossible to stop the cycle to check on the shrinking process. Because of this, I'm doing the shrinking in short washes. If you use a top loading washing machine, you can just pull them out to check them, and throw them back in if they aren't shrunk enough, you can also check to see if the forms are coming loose. With our front-loader, I don't have control over the wash cycle, and I've had a few disasters. Just remember, you can usually shrink them a little more, but if they shrink too much, they'll wind up being a gift for somebody else.
I didn't really like how this pair of booties came out of the full wash cycle, so instead of putting them in the dryer, I re-stitched the forms inside and subjected them to another round of hand-working, and ran them through another wash cycle.
When you complete the second machine shrinking (third for me), the booties should be finished. They are ready to wear, and will eventually form to the shape of your feet. BE CAREFUL NOT TO SLIP ON SMOOTH FLOORS.
Step 7: Living in Your Felt Booties
Here's a picture of the last pair of booties I made. These used 12-ounces of wool, and a smaller template. I like the way these came out better, as the uppers are smaller and hug my ankles better. It may seem scary to cut the front of your booties, but it will make it much easier to slide them on. Even though I'm not as happy with the current pair as I could be, I'll post a picture after I've worn them for a while.
If your booties didn't come out the way you expected, don't loose hope. If you flubbed by getting too many layers on one side, or if the forms slipped and the slippers look wonky, don't get discouraged, just wear them. They may not be comfortable at first, but if you can wear them, eventually they will come to agreement with your feet. You will be surprised how much better they look and feel after you've worn them for a while.
About the worst problem you can have is if your booties shrink too much and are tight on your feet. If you can get your feet into them, try wearing them and see if they start to loosten up. Felt is very forgiving, and even if they never look wonderful, they will likely be the warmest slippers you've ever worn.
Over time, your booties will develop little wads of matted wool inside. They will be more comfortable if you feel around inside occasionally and remove any felt-bunnies.
Your feet sweat, and eventually your slippers will begin to feel grimy inside. When you need to wash them, wait for some hot weather. Put a couple of inches of warm water in a bathtub, and pour some laundry detergent into your booties. Slip your feet into them and stomp and splash in the tub until the booties are clean. Rinse well, and place in a warm sunny place to dry. You can speed the drying process by putting the wet booties in a bag on a rope and swinging them around to "spin dry" them.
You can also wash them by replacing the foam foot forms and washing them in a machine. If you do, be sure to sew them securely in place. I've had one form come loose in the wash and wound up with two different sized slippers.
Step 8: Optional - Adding Leather Soles.
One thing you should know about these booties is that they are really, really slippery on wood or smooth floors. You can brush on some liquid rubber to give them traction, or you can just be careful until they develop a layer of "wear" (grime) on the bottom. Be very careful not to slip.
A better option is to either make or buy leather soles to stitch to the bottom of your booties. For this pair, I'm making some flat leather soles cut from an old pair of hay bucking chaps, any leather would work. I punched holes around the edges, and used a curved needle to sew them to the booties. If you don't have a multi-hole punch, you can use an awl.
Put your bootie on top of the leather, and draw a line around the sole. You want to make the sole come up a bit on the heel, as that's where the stitching seems to wear most. Cut the soles out of the leather, and draw a line about a quarter-inch from the edge around the perimeter of each sole. Punch holes about a quarter-inch apart, all the way around each sole.
To stitch them to the booties. Use "T" pins or safety pins to anchor the soles in place where you want them. I start near the instep, and work my way around the toe and then back around the heel. For both the toe and the heel, keep the sole pulled tight toward the toe (or the heel) as you stitch the sole to the bootie. This will help avoid getting any puckers. Don't worry if the leather is flat and the booties are rounded, the leather will form to the booties as you wear them. I will probably remove, and resew, these when it's time to wash the booties.
Wet felting is a lot of work, but it can be very rewarding. If you make these booties, I hope they provide many winters of warm comfort. I do not profess to be an expert on wet felting. I've made quite a few pairs of booties and other slippers, but I'm hoping that the community can provide tips and advice to improve this instructable, and my future wet felting projects.
Second Prize in the
Warm and Fuzzy Challenge