Hand felting is a skilled craft. While some handmade felt is thick and heavy for particular purposes (a rug square, a heavy coat), other felt is as light as a feather and soft to touch (a light weight nuno scarf).
Whatever type of felt you make, the rolling process is the most tedious, time consuming, and often painful part of felt making. Rolling felt can wear you out in more ways than one. Many people stop “felting” when they get older as they can no longer cope with the aches and pains to their arms and backs. Many people don't even begin to felt after a first workshop and the discovery of the tedium of the rolling process.
Coarse wool is easiest to felt (but can be scratchy). The finer your wool the smaller the 'barbs' on the fibres, which create the felting and the more difficult it is to felt. Alpaca and cashmere have fewer smaller barbs and are more difficult to felt; silk strands have no barbs and are very hard to felt. If you are using a carrier fabric (nuno felting), the tighter the fabric weave the more difficult it is to penetrate the fabric with the wool or other fibres.
I tell you this because my partner, Joni, uses the most difficult materials - superfine merino, silk slivers and silk sari carrier material. Consequently, good felt is only achieved with many, many rolls.
A single superfine merino wool and silk carrier scarf can be rolled back and forth for 7,000-10,000 times to make good quality felt. Some complex exhibition pieces require up to 50,000 rolls!
Regardless of the type of felt you make, more rolls is always better than fewer. But more rolls mean more work.
Joni loves to felt but a few years back the process was becoming less satisfying when she was struck with sciatica. So I took on the task of designing a rolling machine that didn't interfere with her skills as a fibre artist, but removed the tedium, pain and labour of rolling.
Designing a new rolling machine
It wasn’t easy. Joni said it couldn’t be done. So I watched her work and the process she used. I thought about what was happening to the fabric and the fibres and did some research on wool and existing rolling machines and methods.
I noticed that a full roll in the morning, where she would get almost a complete rotation of the roller, became a partial roll as she tired and only a fraction of a rotation. I noticed too that felting wasn’t about pressure and force but about agitation and friction among the fibres. I also learnt that faster felting wasn’t necessarily good felting – especially for nuno felt where you need the fibres to migrate through the carrier fabric before they begin to felt together.
I worked through several designs trying to replicate her process. Joni was vocal with every slight hiccup or any design that moved the process away from the hand-felting action, the back and forth rhythm, which on testing produced better results than the simple continuous rolling, which is used by other machines.
Joni proved a hard task master, at times, even refusing to test my machines simply because they looked overly industrial and out of place in her studio.
An Early Prototype
Finally, I cracked the code. A design that replicated hand rolled felt; was safe to use and not industrial; didn’t rely on pressure screws to hold the felt roll in place.
It had the authenticity of hand rolling but never got tired and made every roll the same length as the last one. It gave Joni ultimate flexibility over key criteria like the number of rolls she would do before re-inspecting her work, the speed of rolling and the length of a roll (number or revolutions of the roller).
And it had a few “science” tricks built in. Through testing and the application of some scientific principles, I’d worked out the best operating angles and the optimum sizes of my roller nodules. I personally designed and wrote the original software code for the motor control panel and tested several motors looking for optimum speed and torque combinations.
After extensive design work a fully operational prototype was born in my workshop. It completed 350,000 rolls over six weeks - 350,000 rolls that Joni didn’t have to do, which by the way would have taken her 150 hours standing at the rolling bench. 150 hours free to design, plan or simply rest.
The Gentle Roller felt rolling machine was almost ready for the world.
Not made in a garage workshop
All I needed was a factory built prototype to prove my design worked consistently and could be made repetitively with each machine identical to the last one.
After six months searching for the right manufacturing partners, and a few small design improvements, the first manufactured Gentle Roller felt rolling machine prototype was assembled.
First Overseas Made Prototype
We proved it out making several garments and the Carpet Challenge (below).
After that I worked it hard. In between making sample pieces, I've had it on continuous testing. To date (Dec 2017) the motor has oscillated over 8,000,000 cycles (yes, 8 million!), and the rollers have completed over 4,500,000 complete revolutions - mostly under heavy loading conditions.
I am so confident in the construction and durability of the Gentle Roller felt rolling machine that I am backing it with a three year warranty against faulty material or workmanship for all components designed and manufactured exclusively for the roller (excludes motor, PCB board and PCB display covered by manufacturers warranty).
CURRENT STATUS OF DEVELOPMENT
After some design tweaks for aesthetics and technical changes to improve the ease of manufacture, a small number of modified machines were assembled and tested. And here it is - the Gentle Roller felt rolling machine.
It works perfectly.
Below is the first (2018) production model of
The Gentle Roller wet felt rolling machine
The Gentle Roller felt rolling machine (with felt)
1100mm Gentle Roller with Fulling Drum
Computerized Control Panel
Soft to touch, self skinned, poly-urethane 'Wave' Roller Details
Hex Drive Detail
Locking Slider Detail