Why wool? is a question I see asked often, and one I mostly answer to the best of my limited-time capabilities. But I thought it would be a great idea to address it here, for the further explanation of whoever comes my way. Let’s talk a little about it, why I believe wool can be one of the best materials to stuff your dolls with, and then I can walk you through the best methods to use wool as stuffing for your dolls or toys, plus sharing online suppliers and some handy tools.
Wool has always been used to stuff waldorf-inspired dolls, although I think I read somewhere that Kathy Kruse (the dollmaker mostly associated with waldorf dolls, and which company owns the rights to the actual name “waldorf doll”) started her dollmaking empire using sawdust ( while later on they were stuffed with reindeer hair ) to stuff her first dolls. People who start to create these dolls may not understand why wool is so important, or why is the material of choice, and they start creating their dolls and stuffing them with polyester or bamboo, claiming it as a “washable” advantage to their creation. I want to explain the thoughts behind using wool from a waldorf education perspective, and then we will discuss it from the technical point of view. By the way, you can wash your wool-stuffed toys very simply, but never throw them in the washing machine for goodness' sakes.
Why is wool awesome?
First let’s look at the physical characteristics of wool. Sheep are believed to have been first domesticated some 10,000 years ago (according to the International Wool Textile Organization) so it bears to think that some of the first textiles we humans created were made with this animal fibre. Wool has some pretty wicked physical characteristics:
- It readily absorbs moisture, this is due to the the exterior of the fibres which is hydrophobic (which means it repels water) while the interior of the fibre is hygroscopic (which is just the opposite, it attracts water). This creates a fantastic dynamic duo, on one hand wool can keep you dry by wicking moisture from your body and absorbing it, while very slowly releasing it. Wool can absorb almost one third of its own weight in water. Think about it next time you want to make yourself a swimsuit out of wool yarn. Don't say I didn't warn you.
- Wool is naturally fire-retardant. This means it ignites at higher temperatures than cotton and some synthetic fibres. It also has a lower rate of flame spread and heat release, a lower heat of combustion and does not melt or drip when being burned. It just sort of extinguishes onto itself forming a char, while exhausting less toxic gasses. Don’t you just love it already? You can test this yourself (do not play with matches unsupervised please!) by burning a piece of 100% wool cloth or yarn and see the difference in speed and smoke in which it combusts compared to an acrylic yarn or polyester fabric. Ew. Just saying polyester makes me feel itchy.
- It absorbs sounds. I don’t particularly think this might come in handy when you use it as stuffing for toys, but then again, if you have wild children and you have a room full of dolls you can consider them doing you a service in sound-proofing. You can thank me later.
- Wool is considered to be hypoallergenic. And this is a tough one because a lot of people think they are allergic to wool. While I don’t deny there are some acute cases of allergy to this animal fibre, for the vast majority of people most their allergy symptoms can stem from the chemicals used in processing the fabric or yarn used on the garment or toy. For those with a true allergy to sheep’s wool, cashmere (made from goat fibres), alpaca or camel fibres can be a substitute. You obviously won’t be using cashmere or camel “batting” to stuff your dolls with so let’s move on.
- Antibacterial. Well, you can only claim some antibacterial juju properties on your wooly friends if the wool is still covered in lanolin, which is a substance in the naturally-ocurring grease covering the wool which gives it water resistant, air permeable and slightly antibacterial properties. Processed wool undergoes scouring, in order to clean it and get rid of this natural grease, so I’m afraid your knitted toque does not possess magical powers to ward you off flu season, but it is also widely known that the cloth-diapering community does indeed soak wool diaper covers in lanolin to help with stinky baby smells. Your wool-stuffed friends though, won’t be full of lanolin, which is a good thing. Just thought to mention that.
- I used to write in my doll's descriptions, with the intent of touting the awesomeness of wool, that it absorbs the smells of the home, and that these smells might bring comfort to children when away from home. But, doesn't everything absorb smells though? So, I have stopped using such technical description. Don't hit me.
Why are waldorf dolls stuffed with wool?
Since we’ve now explored how truly awesome (my word of choice today) wool really is, let me explain a little why waldorf education favours natural materials, wool amongst them. Waldorf education is an education philosophy laid out by Rudolf Steiner. He described the human child entirely as a “sense organ” meaning that children experience their world with all their senses, they are not fully incarnated in their bodies yet, this is a process. While the process of soul incarnation is happening (and this takes seven years more or less according to Steiner) children see and experience the world very differently than adults do. He urged parents and caregivers to surround small children with an environment that can connect the human to this world, through truthful representations of their surroundings. Using natural materials was deemed very important, as a way to connect children even further to this Earth, and also because he believed these to have a more calming and soothing effect on children. He believed nature spoke directly to the soul of the child, so therefore the few toys a child is to have are preferred if made simply and using natural materials.
This is why waldorf dolls are made with cotton jersey for their skin, stuffed with wool, and have natural yarns for hair or no hair at all, and are made using the bodily proportions of a human child, no overblown heads or super lanky limbs or ultra large hands, like a cartoon; we can all call to mind the “normal” idea we grew up with of a doll: a very large head on a too small body. Waldorf dolls have no expression because this allows the child to imagine it. It is said that the more detail you put in, the less the mind of the child has to work to create it, so therefore you rob him or her of the opportunity of using their imagination. So there you have it, that is the basic reasoning behind using wool as stuffing for this kind of dolls.
Now, let me reiterate. I am not an anthroposophist, I have only read a few books by Rudolf Steiner and other Waldorf education authors. I do not make waldorf dolls, my original dolls were in fact inspired by them but are now what I consider “cloth art dolls” or "art cloth dolls" or whatever way you choose to call them and they happen to be made with natural materials. I choose natural over man-made as much as possible, in order to keep my carbon foot print low, in order to use materials that come from renewable sources and are therefore more sustainable and because I feel their presence in my home and work areas is cleaner and healthier. Nothing like trying to cut and sew polyester fabrics in order to understand what I mean. Once you are used to working with linen and cotton and wool, there is no going back. This is why I recommend using wool as stuffing. Down with polyfil! Off with its head!
Wool as toy stuffing, the doll maker’s review.
While you might not adhere to the subtle reasoning behind using wool to create waldorf-inspired dolls, I do want to explain the many advantages that you will have by using a natural material like this one. On top of the biodynamic, memory retaining, moisture-wicking, naturally fire-retardant properties of the fibre, wool can be compressed very tightly and therefore create a superbly stuffed, firm toy. Initially, it is harder to stuff with wool, but as with everything else, your hands get a feel for the material and you will achieve the smoothness required on a high-quality toy. Wool can be sculpted, and felted, and this might sound like a bad thing, but as a doll maker this is a blessed quality that will enable your work to evolve just by the mastering of the material.
There are other natural materials used to stuff toys and dolls with, like excelsior (commonly referred as wood wool), sawdust, sand, cotton wool, corn fibre, even cherry pits or reindeer hair; some are deemed natural while they are not (bamboo and rayon come to mind), others are completely man-made substances like polyester or acrylic to name a few. Ew, I said polyester again. But these all lack the superior qualities of wool, as well as you won’t be able to handle them in the traditional way that a waldorf-inspired doll is supposed to be created, like rolling the wool strips or roving. Whatever you choose, I ask you that you do not choose any food substances (like wheat, rice, buckwheat, beans, etc) or materials that are not meant for toy making. It is illegal in most countries to stuff toys with food products and other substances not deemed safe as stuffing material, even when contained inside the product.
Now that I think I’ve posed the best case to use wool as your stuffing (and bore you to death I’m sure), let us discuss the three main methods in which you can use wool to create a firm and well made doll.
Methods of Stuffing
1. Tearing or Stuffing
This method is pretty common, and the one you will most likely use either as a beginner, or for small and hard to reach spots in your doll. You tear apart small bits of wool, and stuff them with a tool, nothing fancy, it can just be a sturdy (and not too pointy) long knitting needle, the handle of a wooden spoon, a hemostat or a stuffing fork (links at bottom in the resources list); you push the wool inside the fabric, and press it hard to compress it against the pattern piece you are stuffing. You continue this way until you can no longer stuff any more wool inside.
I still use this method with the hands of my dolls, and sometimes their feet as well. I don’t tear the wool into too small pieces though. I usually grab a long strip from the batting, tear it into thinner long strips, and use this very thin strips to stuff all the rounded parts of my doll.
Now, rolling the wool is my preferred method of choice, because it creates extremely firm, long rolls of wool, that look very smooth on the outside. I use rolling by hand to create the core of the doll’s head, by this I mean I wind long strips of wool to form a ball; and I also use a long tool, to roll wool into a big “sausage” and stuff the legs and arms of my dolls. It is very difficult to create very long rolls or to stuff very thin limbs, but I feel that it’s the best method for these body parts, at least for me. You do lose the ability to create natural looking curves, but over the years I have seen how the wool compresses and I like the way the dolls look over time by using this method.
You can check out the technique in all its glory over here:
I plan on adding a future blog post with more information on how to cut the wool, how to get it going and a few questions I have been asked along the way in regards to rolling wool. But in the mean time, if you would like to subscribe to the Fig and Me Youtube channel for future doll making technique videos, I will always post them here on the blog as well.
3. Needle felting
Needle-felting can be addictive and dangerous. Let’s just start with that. Instead of sculpting your doll’s facial features with needle and thread, you use a felting needle to create those peaks and valleys. It does take unbelievable amounts of time, and there are many ways to approach it. The most important thing you need to consider is that you have to felt the wool until you can no longer press it down. If you can still push with your hands and feel a “give” then you are not done, you need to keep felting. I see many dolls with “needle-felted” sculpted faces, and just from the look of the wool I can see they are not even remotely hard yet. Over time that wool is going to compress more and the doll will lose all her facial features, the skin will sag, it won’t be pretty I can tell you that. If you can see little “bumps” on the wool, then you need to keep felting. Your face needs to look so smooth you almost feel no need at all to even cover it with fabric. That’s my advice. Do as you please.
Needle-felting has gotten more popular as time goes by, especially to sculpt faces on this style of doll making. But you can also use it to create details on your dolls. You can completely needle-felt the feet, even adding toes, and then slip it inside the foot pattern and sculpt over the fabric with embroidery thread, which is commonly done with soft-sculpted dolls. You can use it to create knees, elbows, longer necks, etc. I mostly use it to create the facial features and torso of my dolls. I shape the body with needle-felting, creating buttocks and rounded bellies, a slender chest, shoulder blades, etc.
Now, if you are very convinced and excited to start experimenting with wool as stuffing, I have an extensive list of resources for you, hopefully I covered enough countries to get you going. I have obviously only used a few of the ones mentioned for Canada but the rest come highly recommended by fellow doll makers.
I tried to link to the direct product advertised for stuffing dolls, in some cases is wool batting, in others roving. Hope that no matter where you live you are able to source carded wool to create your dolls with. Carry on.
Canada Wool suppliers
- Custom Woollen Mills | located in Alberta, this is where I buy most of my wool
- Bear Dance Crafts | scroll down a bit for her Deluxe Wool Stuffing
- The Olive Sparrow | Monika sells wool grown and processed in Germany
- Birkeland Brothers | located in Abbotsford, BC
USA Wool Suppliers
- West Earl Woolen Mill | no website, but they do all business by phone. A lot of people I know use their wool.
- Reggie's dolls | Reggie is a doll maker who also sells supplies
- Eco Wool | A Child's Dream Come True
Australia | New Zealand wool suppliers
(the two largest wool producers in the world!)
- Nundle Woollen Mill | sells stuffing and roving
- Gerry's | extensive selection of teddy bear making supplies plus wool stuffing of course
- Sarah's Dolls | located in Perth, Australia but selling top quality New Zealand wool
European wool suppliers
- Little Oke | Debbie Poole, one of the doll makers behind Dolly Mo (a specialty mohair for doll making)
- Kamrin's Poppenatelier | Kamrin is the other doll maker behind Dolly Mo
- De Witte Engel
- The Olive Sparrow | Monika Aebischer - Canada
- Bear Dance Crafts | Natalie Weeks - Canada
- Purl Soho | It doesn't get any more fancy than Purl Soho! USA
- All european supplies carry extensive needle-felting tools and materials
- Stuffing tool used when rolling | Little Oke
- Stuffing forks | Dollmaker’s Journey
- Hemostats | While She Naps
And because you are all so nice and kind to have read the whole thing (really?) I am now going to give you a cookie. What? you already ate it? Bad child. No more cookies for you. No, seriously, I really hope this post allows you some clarity as to the reasoning behind using wool, which method might suit your fancy and that you are able to source the right supplies for your neck of the woods. Do you already use wool in your toy-making adventures? Kudos to you. Have you been afraid to use it? Fear no more. It takes a small learning curve to get used to it but you will never go back and I feel the benefits are great when you start working with natural materials. If you feel I left something out, please let me know in the comments so I can address it. If you have any questions let me know, I am happy to help. Now I must go and knit my heart out with my wooly yarns. I promise to stay out of too much trouble.