Primitive and modern outdoor skills

Felted Winter Ghillie Boots


This weekend after getting back from a lazy camping trip Jess decided she wanted to felt. I haven't felted since I was a little kid and made felt balls, so she showed me the ropes. For my first project I decided to make boot liners, that I could wear with ghillie shoes or something similar... like this: 2012-11-04_16-52-14_HDR.jpg

I made the shoes some time ago at a gathering where I learned from this guy: I wore that pair of ghillies until I wore throught the sole, then glued on the rubber sole seen in the photo.

The felt liners took about 4.5 hours all said and done to make, including setup and teardown time. You will get a touch soggy while doing it, so we worked in the back-yard and bearfoot, and I worked shirtless. It's wet, and it takes a relatively long time, but think about it, 4.5 hours of work to turn wool into thick warm boot liners given nothing but a net, a flat surface, soap, and water. That's the fastest and easiest fabric you'll ever make. Combining this with the ease of ghillie boots and a pair of serviceable winter boots that's lighter and warmer than most of what you'll find commercially feels like it's within my grasp.

In the world of doing everything yourself, felting really is like magic! This was just a first project, something I thought I could use where I didn't care how it looked. Vests, pants, hats, and mittens are all doable with these techniques. In general the process is very forgiving so give it a try.

The process

I started with a large'ish sock that didn't have to stretch all that much to fit my foot. On a guess I added about half the width of the sock all around, and traced this onto tyvek on Jess' direction. I cut out that trace, this was my pattern.

Next I took my pattern and placed it on a flat surface that could hold a little water. We used the plastic lids for our gear storage boxes. We had some wool batting bought from a very nice lady at the Buckeye Gathering who raised sheep. I took pieces off of this and layed them onto my pattern, intentionally letting it extend about 1 inch farther or so outside the pattern. I did 3 layers like this swapping directions so fibers would go both ways across the final fabric keeping it strong. The pile of wool was maybe 4 inches thick at this point.

Next I took fairly soapy water (we used Dr Brauners pure castile sope, but anything works) and poured it onto the middle of the wool, the goal is to get it slightly matted down and wet out to the edge of the pattern, while leaving the wool outside that fluffy. I also patted it just a bit with my hand to encourage it to smoosh down and dampen.

I then took the pattern out and placed it on top of the wool. Then, I pulled the wool sticking out around the edge of the pattern in over the top of the batter. I did this wrong the first time, but the right way to do it is to get that edge just damp enough that you can get the wool to bend around and largely stay there somewhat fluffy sticking towards the middle of your pattern. This bend will be part of the final fabric so you want to make sure you get a fair amount of wool here.

Next I layed on another 3 layers of wool about 4 inches thick on the other side, this time (unlike the last layup) not letting it stick out. I then damped this down as well and laying a pice of fine mesh netting over it began to pat it. We used a cut-up laundry bag.

I then patted it for a long time until it started to get a little bit of body to it, enough that I could rub instead.

I then rubbed or a long time until it got enough body to it that I could remove the netting and pat the wool directly without any fibers lifting up out of the fabric.

Then patting again until you can rub

Then rubbing until you have a fabric.

For the whole time you want to keep checking that the wool is staying pretty close to the edge of the pattern. If it wanders too far out you'll end up with what looks like a seam later because it'll felt too a wide strip together. If you pull it in too tight accidentally pulling too many wool fibers off the edge though you can end up with a thinner part of the fabric there. Making both mistakes I found it preferable to err on the slightly too far/slightly too much wool side. I suspect it would come out best with lots of wool pulled around the edge, then pulled quite tight.

In the last phase it goes through several stages, at one point I found that I could pull the fabric around a then smooth out wrinkles easily. This is the perfect time to make sure it's tight around the edges and fix up anything you don't like. You can often kindof shred the material back out and get it to rebind in (especially if you use lots of soap), allowing you to fix mistakes.

Once it's all good you flip it over and repeat on the other side.

When that was done I cut off the top of the super-massive "sock" a bit at a time until I could find the pattern inside the felt. I then carefully flipped the felt inside out, removing the pattern. On the second time I found this to be slightly easier if I squeezed some of the water out of the felt before turning it, to reduce the weight and thus the stretching that it caused. Once it was flipped I reinserted the pattern to keep the layers from felting together, and then repeated *yet again* the felting procedure of petting/rubbing on the inside, this time it's much faster though as the felt is mostly felted already from rubbing the other side.

And now I had a massive soaking wet lump of sock-shaped felt that might fit an ogre... :P. So now comes the fun part. I squeezed it out and rubbed it, as you rub it it shrinks, especially in the direction you rub it in (you'll figure it out playing with it). After rubbing it a bit I stuck it on my foot and continued rubbing (and occasionally squeezing out the heal where the water ended up). The felt slowly shrank down as it dried and was rubbed until it fit my foot just about perfectly.

I then carefully slide it off my foot, keeping the shape, and let it dry overnight.


Things I'd change

If I was doing this again I would triple or maybe even quadrouple the thickness of the wool. What I have now are somewhat warm, but at triple this thickness they could be used as packboots for things like snowshoeing given a trivial leather covering (like a ghillie) to make them robust. That means that the initial pile of wool would be about 1 foot thick before I began felting it! I'm not sure, but I might have to do that in layers. The thickness I made would be pretty good though for mittens or other clothing.

On the second boot liner I didn't use enough wool at all (I tried to get a picture to demonstrate, but it's hard to show the thickness in a photo). On the first liner I'd ended up with thick "seams" at the edges that I had to cut off, so on the second one I erred in the other direction, thus ending up with very thin seems. The combination means that some spots on the second liner are *far* too thin for these to work really well as winter boots. I still intend to test them in snow at some point, but I don't trust them like I would if they were 1/4 thick of solid dense felt.