Felting needles are repurposed needles from industrial felting machines that are now used in the relatively modern craft of needle felting. They have a number of barbs around the ‘blade’ that act by catching small pinches of the fibre at a time and pushing them into each other, meshing them together. When I first read about this I couldn’t believe it worked, but it really does. Presumably withcraft is involved.
Different Types of Needles
There are a variety of different needles available to use, and it can be confusing trying to work out the difference between a star, a spiral and a triangle. Some important pointers:
- Think of needles sizes and types as being like bra sizing (no really!) Bra sizes are categorised in two ways – a 40D, for instance, means a 40-inch back with a D cup. Felting needles are the same. The name of the needle indicates its basic shape and the way the barbs are distributed around the needle (a triangle is triangle shaped, a star is four-sided and a spiral is… umm… spiral.) The number (gauge) indicates how fine the needle is.
- Gauge really does matter – the lower the number the more suited it is to coarser fibres and shaping cores; the higher the number and the better suited it is to finer fibres and detail work/ neatening. Don’t fall into the trap of sticking with a 38 for everything – different gauges really do have different strengths.
- The most important factor when it comes to needles isn’t whether it’s a star or triangle etc – it’s the gauge.
- Star and triangle needles are very very similar. Due to the greater spread of barbs on the star needle it felts faster than the triangle; however, star needles are not available in all gauges. If you can choose between a star or a triangle of the same gauge, go for the star. There’s no need to have both.
- Spiral needles are only really good for finishing up work and smoothing surfaces; to be honest, you can manage without them.
- Reverse barb needles are much harder to use than you’d think and are really not particularly essential.
Q – I’m on a limited budget and can only purchase a small selection of needles. What should I buy?
Triangle needles have three working edges, so don’t felt as fast as the stars but are still needles worth having. You will no doubt find that these are the most commonly used and easily available of all the needles, Good for all types of 3d work (depending, of course, on the gauge).
32 gauge (silver tip)
3 barbs on each side of the needle. Suited for heavy-duty starting work, especially if dealing with thick and coarse core wools. Best for basic shaping and firming. Good for limb etc attachment. Not good for details.
36 gauge (green tip)
3 barbs on each size of the needle. Heavy-duty starting work, especially suited for initial shaping and firming of core wool (coarse or less coarse). Shaping and firming. Good for limb attachment. Not good for details.
38 gauge (red tip)
3 barbs on each side. An excellent ‘all rounder’ – good for most tasks, from initial shaping and firming (although it struggles with coarser fibres and is slower to shape than a 36 triangle) to detail work and limb attachment.
40 gauge (dark blue tip)
2 barbs on each side. A thinner needle best suited for marking out finer details and sculpting fine lines, such as mouths, noses, fingers and paws, belly buttons etc.
42 gauge (gold tip)
1 barb a side. A very fine needle that is excellent for final ‘tidying up’ of a project and separating fibres that have tried to clump together. Particularly suited for fine fibres like alpaca or merino. Also very useful for carefully layering fibres on top of a wool base that might not be very solid or secure – as it is very fine it’s possible to use this needle to layer additional fibre without damaging the shape of the core piece.
The star needle is like the ‘pro’ version of the triangle needle. It has four working sides and handles very much like the triangle, but is that little bit more effective and felts faster.
38 gauge (black tip)
2 barbs a side. Possibly my favourite needle – the 38 star does everything the 38 triangle does but faster and more effectively. A brilliant all-rounder. As a side note, these are the needles I always keep in my Clover Pen tool.
40 gauge (no coloured tip)
Again, this is one step up from the 40 triangle, and is a very good needle to have on board.
The spiral needle is a bit of an oddity as the needle itself is twisted, distributing the barbs evenly across the needle surface. It is better suited to final shaping and smoothing of surfaces.
38 gauge (purple tip)
This is for general purpose shaping, akin to the star or triangle 38s, but the spread of the barbs around the twist of the needle leaves a neater finish.
40 gauge (light blue tip)
A finer spiralled needle for neatening up a final project and smoothing the surface.
Reverse Needle – (orange tip)
This is an effect needle, not to be used for standard felting. The barbs are reversed and act by pulling fibres out rather than felting them in. Used for creating a ‘fuzzy’ effect (note, they only pull out small amounts of fibre at a time – literally the width of the needle itself. It is also quite tricky to use – you will be pulling tufts from the core more often than not, unless a top colour is layered very thickly. Of course, if this is the effect you’re after then that’s fine.)
*As most felting needles from the UK seem to originate from HeidiFeathers, or perhaps many other supplies are using the same colour coding, I have included the colour key here most UK felters would be familiar with. This will vary from country to country, supplier to supplier.
Needle holders and the Addiquick
There are two types of needle holders commonly available – the standard holder, where the needles are spread out in a wide square pattern (up to 4 needles can be placed in this holder) or the pen tool (the most popular is made by Clover and holds up to three needles in closer proximity to one another). Each of these holders can take standard needles, and serve the purpose of allowing you to safely work with multiple needles at a time, thus speeding up your work.
I’m not a fan of the standard holder as I find the needles too spread out to be easily usable (although I understand this would be beneficial to flat felters). Because of the distance between the needles I often feel that I have less control and that the needles are more vulnerable to snapping. On the other hand I love the Clover pen tool, which typically retails at just under £10. There is more control and greater strength, and I have only had one needle snap in the year that I’ve been using it (and I use it a lot!) I have used other ‘pen’ tools that are similar to the Clover model but have found them to be a waste of money and not very sturdy. My Clover pen still looks brand new!)
The AddiQuick is an electronic felting tool, similar in shape to the Clover pen but only capable of holding one needle. I haven’t used this myself but I have heard largely positive things about it and hope to get one in the future.
Needle Care Tips
- Keep all needles safely locked away from children.
- Store your needles in labelled boxes so you can remember which is which – it’s very hard to tell them apart just by looking at them.
- I like to try and have at least 5 of any one needle type. If I get down to 3 I start to feel twitchy!
- Needles do get blunt over time and lose their effectiveness when they do so.
- Needles to snap/ break – usually when they’ve been used for a long time, but not always. Cheaper needles may also be more prone to breakage.
- If your needle starts to bend, discontinue use. A weakened needle will be more likely to snap.
- When needles break you may find the end of the needle flies off somewhere unseen, causing great panic (been there, done that!) A magnet can help in locating it.
- If a needle snaps off inside your creation or your mat the only course of action is, sadly, cutting away at the model/ mat until the splinter is located. Heartbreaking, but otherwise the risk is the shard working its way out on its own over time and becoming a danger.
Telling your needles apart