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The Art of… Needle Felting 

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There's something you should know about needle felting before trying it: The needles are sharp. Really sharp.

My 7-year-old daughter, Mira, learned this the hard way during a weekend crafting session in Hinesburg.

We were several minutes into a needle-felting class at Brown Dog Books & Gifts when she pricked her index finger with one of the special needles required for the craft. It was an almost imperceptible injury, but was sufficiently painful to dampen her spirits a bit.

Luckily, the task at hand — making little woolen hearts — was engaging enough that she recovered quickly.

Needle felting is a technique in which one pokes a thin, barbed needle into wool repeatedly in order to mat the fibers together and create decorative, 3-D objects. Industrial needle-felting machines, in which hundreds of these needles quickly move up and down, have been used since the 1950s to make material used in such things as automobile interiors and padding for piano keys. In the early 1980s, several fiber artists tried using individual needles to create objects out of wool, and the needle-felting craft was born.

Experienced needle felters make some pretty elaborate things — just do a Google image search and you'll find impressive woodland creatures, celebrity likenesses and even a replica of E.T. But this particular class was meant to teach both kids and adults the very basics of the craft.

When we arrived at Brown Dog, Mira and our 11-year-old neighbor, Corina, found seats at a long table in the front of the store. Each participant received a box of materials, including two different gauges of felting needles, a foam pad and a small, metal heart-shaped cookie cutter. The most eye-catching things in the kit, though, were tufts of wool in beautiful, saturated blues, maroons, reds, yellows and more, which instructor Susi Ryan gets from local farms, then cleans, cards and dyes herself.

During the hour-and-a-half-long class, Ryan walked the group of four kids and two adults through the steps to create colorful, embellished woolen hearts.

First, she instructed the aspiring crafters to take out their foam blocks and lay the cookie cutter on top. Then they picked the colors of wool they wanted and packed a handful into the cutter.

"You're going to go straight in and out like this," Ryan said, as she demonstrated jabbing the thin needle into a piece of wool. "This isn't a rush project. To get it firm you have to keep poking at it."

The class was advertised for ages 8 and up, and after seeing the repetitive nature of the craft, it became clear why this was the case. Stabbing wool over and over again with a sharp object requires pretty intense concentration. Mira's little accident happened when she lost focus for a moment. After that, we took turns stabbing at the wool to give her fingers and her brain a rest.

Throughout the felting process, a squeaky, crunching noise — the peculiar sound the needle makes when going in and out of wool — filled the space as the crafters went at it. One adult participant likened the noise to a caterpillar munching food; Mira thought it sounded like peanut shells breaking.

When everyone's fibers were sufficiently meshed together, Ryan instructed the class to flip over their hearts and repeat the process on the other side. After popping the felted hearts out of the cutters, Ryan helped some people embellish them with beads and embroidery thread.

At the end of the class, Mira had created two cute keepsakes — a large multicolored heart, and a smaller red one with a pearl bead in its center — with plenty of materials left in her kit. She brought those hearts home, along with a small puncture wound, to remind her of the experience.

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