The Felt Wars: Acrylic vs Wool vs Wool blend

photo credit: Jorge Franganillo Erdoğan Düğme via photopin (license)

Felt is really hot right now.  It seems like everywhere you look, it’s being used for all kinds of things, from appliques to softies.  If you’re new to the felt world, you may not know that you have options for the type you choose to work with.  Several in fact.  I didn’t know this when I started out.  I bought what my local JoAnn’s carried–acrylic Eco-fi felt.  I used it exclusively for a really long time.

I’ve mentioned before, that I started working with felt when I made some play food for my grandchildren.  It wasn’t long after I gave it to them, that my daughter told me it wasn’t holding up so well.  It had little “pills” all over it, it was ripping and it looked really nasty.

Now, these kids take exceptionally good care of their things so I knew it didn’t end up in this condition because they weren’t taking care of it.  It was upsetting to say the least.  I’d worked really hard on these toys, only to have them look awful in a matter of months.  The worst part though, was that by then I’d gained a following and had sold quite a few pieces of play food made with acrylic felt.  Why did this happen? I had no clue, so I did what I always do when I have a question…I Googled it!  I found out that there are lots of choices when it comes to felt and I’d chosen the worst type for the kind of items I was making.  I didn’t know any better then but I do now and I want to arm you with information I didn’t have at the time.

There are 3 types of felt used most often; Acrylic, Wool Blend and 100% Wool.  Bamboo felt is getting more popular but it’s harder to find than the others. Every artist that works with felt, has their personal favorite and often it’s a hotly debated subject as to which type is best.  I don’t think there’s a hands down “best”, I think it depends on what you’re doing with it.  So how do they compare?  Read on and then make your choice based on your intended use, your ethical considerations and ultimately, your budget.

Acrylic felt:

  • Made of a cocktail of natural gas and petroleum. Often you’ll see it being called an “Eco” felt of some kind.  Technically it’s polyester but but no matter what spin you put on it, it’s still plastic. The basic difference between “regular” acrylic felt and Eco felt is that Eco felt is made using fibers created from recycled plastic bottles instead of plastic pellets. It takes about 12 PET bottles to make 1 pound of fiber which in turn makes about 2 yards (72″ X 72″) of felt.  Sounds like a good thing right?  I’m not so convinced.  It seems like it takes an awful lot of energy to collect, chop and melt down the bottles, extrude the fibers then spin and pound and coerce them into felt.  So for me, although I like that those bottles aren’t ending up in landfills, the jury is still out on the process being “Eco” friendly. You be the judge.
  • It’s inexpensive; about $6 per yard when it isn’t on sale, which it frequently is at my local craft store or about $.40 per 9″ X 12″ sheet.
  • It comes in lots of colors with largest variety found in the 9″ X 12″ sheets rather than by the yard.  A yard is normally 36″ X 60″ so you get a lot for your money.
  • It’s supposedly hypoallergenic, it’s vegan, it won’t shrink, it doesn’t fade and it’s washable–though you won’t like the results.
  • Depending where you source it, acrylic felt can be nearly indistinguishable from wool blend in appearance and feel, but that’s the “good stuff” and normally its only found online from a very few suppliers.

However…

  • Acrylic felt in general, is usually irregular in thickness, ranging from very dense to nearly see-thru in the same piece
  • It melts–you can carefully iron it on low to medium heat but DON’T make the mistake of hitting it with steam.  Yeah…don’t ask.
  • It’s scratchy, so not suitable for garment use.
  • Sewing needles make holes in it that tend to end up as tears, so seams are not sturdy and stuffing a softie made with it is a joke–it will tear apart unless the piece is really under-stuffed.
  • Since it’s made from recycled plastic, you might think it can be recycled too. Yeah…not so much.  You can try of course but if your recycling facility is like ours, all they’ll see is fabric.  Then they’ll complain because they had to fish it out of the hopper and throw it away, when the idiot who put it there should have known better then to try to recycle it in the first place! Ok…I don’t really know if that would happen but it seems logical that it might!  It will end up in the landfill either way, so you may as well save those poor people some stress.
  • Most importantly I think, is that it doesn’t wear well at all.  That makes it pretty bad choice for toys and other things children handle on a regular basis. If you’re using it for an item that isn’t handled much or at all, it’s probably ok.

Uses:  Suitable for items that won’t get a lot of use such as Christmas ornaments and home decor.  Also a great option for kids crafts.

Wool Felt:

  • It’s durable.  Toys made with it can become heirlooms–it holds up to play that well.
  • It’s said to be hypoallergenic.
  • It has naturally occurring anti-bacterial properties so it tends to resist mildew.
  • Because of the inherent qualities of wool, it’s also water and stain resistant.
  • Wool is a renewable resource.
  • It’s naturally fire resistant.

However…

  • It can cause allergic reactions in sensitive people
  • It’s expensive; the least expensive I found was $24 per 36″ X 36″ yard and the most expensive I found was $35 per 36″ X 36″ yard.  Prices vary wildly but any way you look at it, it’s still expensive.
  • At about 3mm average thickness, it can be a bit bulky when making small items.
  • It shrinks A LOT if you wash it in water, so dry cleaning is best.
  • It’s not available in as wide a range of colors as wool blend felt.
  • Being an animal product, environmental and ethical questions arise; methane emissions, land damage–sheep are HARD on the land, and the perceived cruelty to the sheep themselves.   Many people avoid wool felt based on these issues alone.

Uses: Toys, appliques, needle felting, penny rugs,

Wool Blend Felt:

  • Available in over 180 colors, depending on where you buy it.
  • It’s usually a blend of wool and rayon in varying amounts so it’s very soft to the touch.
  • It stitches up beautifully with any needle holes staying just needle holes…it’s resistant to tearing.
  • It can be ironed with high heat without damage–in my experience anyway.  I even use steam without incident but I don’t know…maybe I’ve just been lucky!
  • Being a wool blend, it’s strength and durability is similar to 100% wool felt.
  • Fire resistance is also similar to 100% wool.

However…

  • It’s fairly expensive–$10-$12 per 36″ X 36″ yard of felt, depending on your source.
  • Being a wool blend, it carries similar allergy concerns as 100% wool for sensitive people
  • It will shrink if washed in water so dry cleaning is best.
  • Because it does contain wool, it brings up the same issues as 100% wool does, concerning ethical and environmental issues.

Uses: Toys, applique, hair accessories, Quiet book pages, penny rugs, home decor

There you have it.  Wool blend felt is my fabric of choice.  I think it bridges the gap between acrylic and 100% wool very well in affordability, color selection and durability.  Each type has it’s pros and cons. It’s up to you to weigh your choices and choose what’s right for you and your application.  For me and my business, it’s well worth paying more for felt I have confidence in.