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A felting machine is a piece of equipment used to fuse fibers from one fabric into another, base cloth. The many needles it uses speed up the extremely time-consuming process of felting by hand. The appliance is usually comparable in size to a standard sewing machine.
The machines use five, seven, or 12 barbed felting needles to mesh the fibers of one fabric into another so they become one, by repeatedly puncturing the fabrics until they become woven together. Regular sewing machine needles will not work in a felting machine. The barbs on the needles hook the top fibers and pull them down to the bottom layer of the fabric. Turning the fabric over and repeating the process makes for a uniform look on each side.
This replicates the technique and results of hand-felting, but because it can use multiple needles at once, a machine can take half as much time as felting manually, and is much easier. Hand-felting can be troublesome for crafters and artists with arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome, and a machine can help them continue to enjoy the craft itself. Patterns can be purchased for some of the more advanced machines, but most felting machines require the user to create designs and move the fabric appropriately to achieve them. The process may be done with fabric that is either wet or dry, and each technique makes different results.
The most common fabric used for felting is wool. Other natural fibers, such as silk, are also popular because they meld together easily. Yarn or wool roving may also be used. Typical felting projects include quilts, scarves, purses, and toys. Felting is also a very popular fiber arts technique.
Attachments can also be purchased that convert a regular sewing machine into one that can felt fabrics. This is a much cheaper alternative to buying a felting machine, which usually start at least $100 US Dollars (USD) and can be priced in the thousands of dollars for more deluxe models. Using a sewing machine attachment instead of a felting machine is not recommended for large projects or mass quantities of felting, however.
Felting can also be achieved with most natural, animal fibers simply by putting it in a normal washing machine on a hot-wash and cold-rinse setting. This technique is much less precise than using a needled felting machine or hand-felting. Additionally, the piece being felted typically shrinks in the washing machine, so the size of the pre-felted piece should be enlarged accordingly.
@starrynight - Your wool allergy is unfortunate, but as the article said you can indeed machine felt other fibers.
If you do decide to try felting at home, I recommend shopping around for needle felting supplies. I think the best thing for you would be a sewing machine attachment. They can be a bit pricy, but they're much less expensive and smaller than a commercial felting machine! Also, I think a sewing machine attachment is plenty effective for felting as a hobby.
Now, if you decide you want to felt fabric for commercial use, you will probably want to invest in commercial machinery!
I knit by hand all the time, and I've heard of the process of hand-felting to make wool felt fabric. Unfortunately, I've never been able to partake in this technique because I'm allergic to wool!
That hasn't stopped me from looking at patterns though, and the article is correct: hand knitting patterns that call for felting always direct the knitter to make the project larger than they want the finished product to be. Felting a knitted project in washing machine does shrink the project in a fairly imprecise way.
I'm very interested to hear that you can do machine felting with other fibers besides wool. I think I may look into this a bit more.