This month writer and stylist Rachel O’Brien headed to the Fluff-a-torium in Dorking and learns how to make felt slippers with felt guru Gillian Harris, aka gilliangladrag (listed in our directory here).
“The shoe repairer did look at me a little bit quizzically” says master Fluff-a-tier Gillian Harris, as she describes the time she took a pair of felted slippers to the shoe menders to be soled. Clearly not everyone is as well versed in the joys of felt as wool guru Gillian Harris (aka Gilliangladrag).
How to make felt slippers
Gillian has turned felt-making into an art form and her creations have graced the pages of many a magazine, while her felt-making kits are sold in John Lewis and Liberty, and her books have been translated into several languages and are sold around the world.
As a keen knitter myself, I’m used to working with wool but I had never tried making felt before, so this wet-felting workshop was to be a voyage of discovery for me. Not one to turn down a challenge I made my way to (corking) Dorking, home to Gilliangladrag’s Fluff-a-torium where I would be learning to make a pair of hand felted slippers.
The fluff a torium
A short walk from Dorking West train station, the Fluff-a-torium was easy to spot with its bright and quirky facade festooned with felted bunting.
With shelves, stands and cabinets filled with balls of wool, ribbons, buttons and all manner of felt items, the interior was just as inviting as the exterior and I immediately felt abuzz with creative energy.
The felting workshop was to be held upstairs in Gillian’s studio and myself and the three other students eagerly eyed the collection of Gillian’s handmade slippers spread across the table, keen to get started.
After breaking the ice with a cup of tea and a chat, Gillian gave us a step-by-step demonstration and described the various styles that we could cut our finished slippers into – such as mules, booties or ballet pumps – and the options for soling them.
How to make wool felt
Handmade felt is made from sheep’s wool called wool tops or roving (sometimes also referred to as wool fleece) which has been cleaned and combed. To make felt, the wool fleece must first be rubbed with soap and water so that the fibres begin to join.
The material is then ‘fulled’ – a process which shrinks and hardens the wool to make it thicker. By the end of the day we would all leave the Fluff-a-torium with a pair of shoe lasts covered in wool fleece to full in our washing machines, then shape and decorate at home.
To make our slippers we first needed to cover the polystyrene shoe lasts with three layers of wool fleece. Spoilt for choice, I finally settled upon lilac for the first layer, fawn for the second and a dark purple for the outer.
Covering the shoe lasts
Laying one of my shoe lasts on its side, I started teasing out strands of lilac wool fleece and laying it on top. With a piece of polyester netting covering the last, I sprayed it with soapy water and rubbed until the wool was firmly in place.
I continued the layering process until the last was completely covered and resembled a ‘bearskin’ as Gillian described it. We repeated this for the other shoe last and for our second layer, before taking a much needed break for lunch.
After lunch we added our third and final layer of wool fleece. As we would be applying our designs on top of this, we only rubbed the wool fleece gently this time.
Once our designs were in place we would then rub firmly for around 10 to 20 minutes. This is to ensure the fleece and any decorative felt we had added was secure.
Watching Gillian, who had been working on a pair of felted slippers throughout the day, effortlessly create a simple floral motif around her wool topped shoe lasts, I opted for a similar design.
Using oddments of wool fleece in complementing colours I created five or six roses around each last and then applied soapy water and rubbed until they were in place.
Throughout the day the atmosphere was very relaxed. Gillian also demonstrated how to make needle-felted roses to decorate the slippers so that we could make them ourselves at home if we wanted.
Rubbing with soapy water
Back home, I continued to apply soapy water and rub my shoe lasts until the wool fleece was firm. Apprehensive, I put both lasts into the washing machine along with a pair of old jeans to add friction.
With the slippers rattling around I was quite worried about how they would turn out. However I followed Gillian’s guidelines and kept them in for a second wash and spin to toughen them even more. With the wool now fulled, I carefully cut out the slipper shape and removed the polystyrene moulds. Now it’s time to allow the slippers to dry out.
Decorations to try
Gillian showed us how easy it is to make felted wool roses and flowers to decorate our slippers if we wanted to. I decided to keep mine simple, but if you feel like adding a felt rose, it’s really easy. Just cut a length of felt in your chosen colour and then wind around, starting with a tight wind at the beginning and then loosening out the outer ‘petals’ as you go. Hold the base tightly as you go and secure with a few stitches underneath. Then simply stitch on to your finished slippers.
The finished result
The result is a beautiful pair of cosy lilac slippers with pretty rosebuds. They are perfect for warming my toes in front of the fire this Christmas.
This one day course is ideal for anyone wanting to try their hand at something a little bit different. The making process is quite unusual and the finished product is truly unique.
Alongside felted slipper workshops you can also learn how to make felted bags, jewellery, hats and pictures. All I have left to do now is have my slippers soled. I think I’ll brave my local shoe menders… I wonder how he will react?
Ideas to try next…
Now I’ve had a go at making my first pair of felt slippers, I’m looking for inspiration and ideas for my next pair…! What do you think of these ideas I’ve found? I reckon they are all do-able following the same basic technique with a few moderations here and there – which would be part of the creative fun.
I love the combination of rich brown and soft blush pink roses here. The slippers follow the same technique as the pair I’ve already made, though I’d cut away a little more around the top this time. I fancy having a go at making the rosettes of pink felted wood roses by RitaJFelt too…
Also love her grey and red version don’t you?
Also really like her polka dot design – suspect I could try making these the same way I added the flowers to the pair I made…
This birds on the wire design is really beautiful, but beyond my skills right now. I am thinking about joining one of Emma Herian’s felting workshops (Emma is listed in our directory here) so I could take on more ambitious projects like this…
This simple, undecorated pair made by BureBure Slippers are just as beautiful in their way – partly because of their bright red colour
This amazingly detailed slippers by KoTriangle are a touch over the top for me as they are (and beyond my capabilities), but I do like the idea of adding a poppy to bright red slippers lined in a contrasting colour.
Back to simple grey wool slipper with a rose flower decoration and lined in the same beautiful soft red/coral pink colour by ShpilkaFelt on etsy.
And I do really love the clog shape of these by WoolenClogs on etsy…. I’m on the hunt for a clog-shaped shoe last now.
And the restrained, understated style of this pair by AgnesFelt on etsy really appeal to me.
Other MAKE ideas you might like to try
Easy step by steps with fibre artist Emma Herian – perfect for trying your hand at this wonderfully creative craft, even if you’re a complete beginner.
Join foraged and sustainable plant dye expert Flora Arbuthnott in the workshop for easy step by steps to using organic indigo dye and creating shibori patterns.
The simplest of DIY projects – how to sew a simple and pretty skirt in minutes with easy step by steps and ideas for skirts to try…
Get all the info you need to connect with gilliangladrag from the listing >>
Feeling inspired? Take a look at the Creative Workshops category in our Directory, where you’ll find a variety of inspiring courses, from art and crafts to fashion and beauty, interiors, cooking and flower & gardening.
Rachel O’Brien is a freelance writer and stylist. All images courtesy of Rachel O’Brien.
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