It's the question I get asked over and over: where can I get wool for my appliqué ?
Many people ask me about finding quality supplies for their hand-stitching projects. To help answer those questions, I am starting this blog series, In Search of Supplies. Today I’m covering the search for wool to use in your next applique project, with a focus on new wool. (Look for a post about vintage wool in the future.) In the meantime, I want to take you through the main kinds of wool that I use in my work, what to look for, and where to find it.
There are two kinds of dyed wool you can find, hand-dyed and mill-dyed. Mill-dyed just means that the factory dyes the fabric after it is woven. The dye coloring is typically a flat solid. This kind of wool can also come in plaids, stripes and other textures, and is usually sold by the bolt. I usually buy this to dye, over-dye, or use as backgrounds or backing for pieces. It can be helpful to wash and dry wool that comes off the bolt to lightly felt it, which will keep it from fraying.
You can see an example of mill-dyed wool on the left, and hand-dyed on the right.
Hand-dyed wool is usually a plain milled wool dyed or over-dyed (a dyed wool that is dyed again). This is typically dyed in small batches, giving it a more uneven coloring. Hand-dyed wool is preferred for appliqué because of its coloring, which adds depth to the piece. Hand-dyed is usually sold in smaller pieces than mill-dyed, and can be used as-is. I dye and over-dye my own wool for most of my appliqué pieces.
Not all hand-dyed wool is as dramatic as the blue wool pictured above. Some hand-dyed wool has more subtle variations, like this dusty red piece.
Color and Pattern
You can use patterns in your wool appliqué, but I tend to use them sparingly and mostly as backgrounds or backing, and sometimes as an accent piece. Plain colors are the staple of appliqué, but don’t be afraid to use the mottled pieces of your hand-dyed wool, as it adds depth to your work.
Weight and Texture
Look for a wool that doesn’t fray at the edges. If it is a mill-dyed piece, there’s a possibility that felting (see below) will help keep it from fraying as long as the weave is not too loose. If the piece frays too much, felting may not work. Hand-dyed wool has usually been felted already, so if it is still fraying, your stitches will not be able to stop those threads from unraveling with time.
Try not to use wool that is thin and tends to fray. This weight of wool will not stitch well, and even the blanket stitch cannot hide the fraying.
I asked for a few tips from Betsy and Erica Reed of Heavens to Betsy on felting your wool. They shared that "felt and wool are not the same thing, but you can felt wool. Felted wool is any wool fabric that has been thickened and is more dense than a normal wash. You do this by washing in hot water, then go to cold water and with agitation. It can take a varying degree of the above to get a wool to felt up. Felting wool can change not just the feel and thickness but also the color and pattern look to it. You can, for example, take one piece of wool and regular wash half of it and felt the other half. If you have a plaid or wool with a pattern to it, they will look different but still be complementary to each other. This can create the look of movement in your piece."
Some wool is too thin (see also the section on fraying, as this tends to occur in thinner wools) and some is too thick for appliqué. Thicker wool tends to be extremely dense as well, so while it might hold up to appliqué, your fingers may not!
While thick, dense wool might cut well, it is very difficult to sew by hand. You can see in the example that the wool is so dense that, when hand-dyed, the color was unable to penetrate the center of the wool.
Once you know what you are looking for, then the search begins! I hear from a lot of people that they have trouble finding wool in their area. So below I have gathered a few places, both online and brick-and-mortar stores. This is not a comprehensive list--there are many people out there who sell wool. We listed just a few places to get you started. Feel free to share the places you like to shop for wool in the comments below!
Phyllis Jackson runs an online store called Winterberry Cabin selling hand-dyed wool. When I asked for tips on buying online, she shared some great ideas. "I always suggest to my customers to be cautious when buying textured woolens (patterned) for small motifs as they tend to felt up looser than solids. Regarding color, monitors can certainly be different and the true color may be a bit different [than you expect]... Hand-dyed wool is never the same from batch to batch due to the nature of the fiber. Also, be cautious about picking out the shades and be aware of how they will look placed against the background piece and each other. Some “fade out” due to the similarity in color value though [contrasting] thread use can make them pop out... And always buy more than you think you need."
Ready to stock up? Check out these online sources. Click the name to go to each website.
*Denotes online sellers who also have a brick and mortar location.
If you want to see your wool in person, try these brick and mortar locations.
Want to know about how to store and care for your wool? Read up in my first book, Wool Appliqué Folk Art, available here.