Needle felting is an ancient craft, and it requires only wool roving and a few barbed "felting needles." I make these little bears and other figures for baby gifts. The process is very simple, but very time consuming. The needles are sharp, so go slowly until you "learn" where your fingers are. I find that slow, deep pokes are more effective than rapid, shallow pokes.
Step 1: Tools and Materials
Wool Roving -- For this bear you'll need about an ounce of natural wool roving with a fairly tight crimp. I think this wool may be Corriedale, but I bought it so long ago I can't remember. You want clean wool roving with few or no black hairs mixed in. Wool roving is available on line, or it can be purchased from most knitting stores.
Felting Needles -- I have a variety of needle tools that I've bought or made. You can get buy just holding a single needle in your fingers, but the three-needle holder makes it go a lot quicker. If you're buying one, make sure and buy extra needles, as they do break occasionally. For this project I prefer the fine needles.
Pipe Cleaners -- You can use any old pipe cleaners, but I prefer the ones that have plastic bristles because they really hold onto the wool. They can be ticklish to twist together, as the bristles are pretty sharp.
Bristle Pad -- You can use a piece of foam rubber as a backing for pushing the needles through the wool when making small parts like ears. I'm showing a bristle pad that I bought, but some of the later pictures show a chunk of packing foam. That stuff works fine, but if you're doing a lot of felting, little particles of the foam can break off and get stuck in the wool.
Step 2: Make the Bear's Frame
The frame is just three pipe cleaners twisted together. It doesn't look like much, but this is really the most important step. This is where you set the proportions for the head, body, and limbs. The shape can be adjusted a bit, but getting the proportions right is much easier if you start with a realistic frame.
Step 3: Cover the Pipe Cleaners With Wool
Before you start wrapping the roving on the pipe cleaners, take a few minutes to work on the roving. You want the roving to be teased out into a fairly wide strip of uniform thickness. This is also a good time to pick out any little bits of plant matter, black hairs, and knots of wool. Cleaning isn't that important at this stage, but for the outer layers you will want to pay attention so you don't get pieces of dark stuff under the wool.
Take the strip of roving and divide it in half so that the strip you'll be wrapping is about the same width as the section of pipe cleaner that you're covering. Wrap a couple of turns of wool around the middle section and start pinning the wool to the underlying layers, being careful not to break a needle on the pipe cleaners. Keep wrapping and compacting the wool until the body is about an inch thick and fairly firm, like squeezing a damp sponge.
Repeat the wrapping process for each leg, the head and the tail. Take care to "bond" the wool sections together by poking the needles at an angle from each side of the seams between the sections. At this stage, the bear doesn't look like much, and this "core"could be made into any number of different figures. In the next steps we'll add more layers of wool, so don't compact the first layer too far. The thing to watch for is that each limb feels about the same firmness and is roughly the same size as it's matching limb. The head isn't too important at this stage, make it a little bulkier than the arms, and put a bend where the head joins the neck. Avoid making it too long, as the neck has a tendency to come out long when you finish compacting the body and arms.
Step 4: Over-build the Bear
The first picture here shows how the roving should be prepared. For the "core" part, we wrapped the wool around the figure; for this layer, we'll add the wool going the other direction. Tear off a piece of wool roving long enough to stretch across the bear's rump, and down each of the legs. Repeat this, tearing off and stacking a total of three pieces of roving for the rump. Position the stack of wool tightly against the bear's tail, and tack it down in the middle, then continue pinning it to the core, working away from the middle and down the legs. Repeat this with another three layers of roving, this time attached below the bear's tail. Smooth the wool down toward the paws and use the needle tool to meld the layers together and anchor the ends of the wool fibers around the feet. Use the needle tool to "rake" the wool gently so that the layers attached above the tail blend smoothly into layers attached below the tail.
Repeat this process, making a tripple-stack of roving to go across the shoulders and down the arms. Work the shoulder piece into the core layer and wrap the ends of the roving around the ends of the paws.
Continue covering all of the core with triple layers of roving by putting a short section on the bear's tummy, and another piece around the head. This puffy marshmallow bear is much bigger than the pipe cleaner frame, and it's going to take a long time to work it down to something approximating a bear. Take a break, you're about half done.
Step 5: Rough-in Form, Pad Rump, and Add Ears
Now that you have a "blank" form, begin working down the bulk of the wool and start defining features. Turn up the ends of the paws, and work the face into a muzzle shape. As you start compacting the wool, you can get a feel for any areas that need more wool. In this example, I decided to bulk up the bear's bottom with another stack of roving. This time I pushed the needle tool through the middle of the stack of roving and pushed the whole stack down over the bear's tail. More punching and pinning to push and pull the bear into shape.
At this stage, don't do too much needle work around the back of the head. We want to leave that loose for now, so that the ears will have a better bond to the head.
For the ears, I pull off a couple of pieces of full thickness roving, it's more like a big round yarn, than the strips that we've been working with. I'm using two pieces, about three-inches long, for each ear. Stack the two pieces of roving, and make a twist in the middle, folding the roving over at the middle of the twist. This is where the bristle-pad or chunk of foam comes in. Hold the twisted roving down on the pad, and start pinning it at the fold, and working it into a round "ear" shape. Make one side concave, and the other convex. Keep working the ear down to make it smaller, but avoid pinning any of the folded end parts together. Once you get two ears of reasonably similar size, spread the un-felted ends out and comb the wool out a bit so it will blend into the head and neck. Position the two ears on the upper sides of the head and pin them in place with a few pokes. Smooth down the wool ends and anchor the ears, moving them about a bit as needed. Just make them as close as possible to the same position on each side; you can move them around a tiny bit more as you continue felting the bear.
Step 6: Compact the Wool to Finish the Bear, and Attach the Eyes
Now that all the bear's parts are in place, you can start working the wool down to make the features more defined and sized proportionally. Work little by little, don't focus too much on one area, move around keeping the arms, legs, ears the same size.
Work around the muzzle, giving it some personality, and start forming the area for the eyes. As you start to compress holes in the wool for the eyes, you can get a feel for where the eyes should be. Punch these areas in to make pits that you will fill with little balls of dark wool. The balls of dark wool for the eyes are made by just rolling the wool around in your fingers. Make two balls the same size. Note, the balls are way bigger than the eyes will be. Most of the dark wool gets pushed in to anchor the eyes. Use a single needle for "shrinking" the eyes into the eye-sockets you made earlier.
While you're finishing the bear, stop occasionally to "rough-up" the figure. Wiggle the arms and legs and squeeze the wool, and mush it around like a kid playing with it. As the surface layer becomes bonded, you'll find that the bear holds its shape better. Angle the felting needles to tuck and push the wool toward the ends of the paws. Turn the ends up and try to get the ends of the paws fairly firm. Add more wool if you need to, to make the paws hold their shape. You may find it easier to shape the paws by working them on the bristle pad or foam block.
You can add a nose if you like, but it's difficult to get a separate ball of wool to attach permanently to the end of the nose. This one is for a baby gift, and I didn't want the the baby to be able to pull the nose off.
This bear will be very firm and dense, not like a plush toy. It's pretty durable, but I have never put one through a wash. I do believe they would survive a washing machine, but I would not put one in the drier. Hand washing would probably be best, and then just blot the bear dry and re-shape it, if necessary.
If you are just making ornamental figures for display, you don't need to use as much wool and you can complete the figure with a lot less effort. I have made a variety of light-weight figures as tree ornaments, but if a cat gets a hold of one of those figures, it will last about three seconds.