The trees are bare and the winter snow is falling, and as beautiful as it is, maybe, like me, there is a little piece of you still holding onto summer, or anxiously looking ahead to the first digging you can do in your spring garden. Celebrate both seasons by creating a felted wool farm playmat for your children this winter. This is a wonderful family project, and can placate the longing for spring while celebrating all that winter has to offer.
Recycled/thrifted wool sweaters in earth tones
Light weight fusible apparel interfacing
Wonder-Under® paperbacked adhesive web (note: this brand works best for adhering to the wool)
Muslin (or other backing material such as flannel, an old bed sheet)
Thread to match backing color
(Optional) Needle felting supplies: Foam needle felting pad, felting needle, wool roving
This playmat is made from felted wool sweaters – a wonderful product, but in limited supply except during the winter. So, head out to your local thrift stores, or dig far back into your closet, and stock up now, while you can. When looking for wool sweaters to felt, choose ones that are at least 80% animal fiber (wool, alpaca, cashmere). Make sure you check the care tags to confirm that the sweaters are not machine-washable.
To felt the sweaters, wash them with soap in a long, hot washing machine cycle. The soap, hot water, and agitation of the washing machine cause the sweaters to felt. After a trip through the dryer, your felted sweaters should have significantly shrunk, and the individual knitting stitches should no longer be visible. Some sweaters need to be put through a wash and dry cycle a second time, but most should felt just fine after one cycle. If this is your first time making wool felt, you will be pleasantly surprised about how easy it is, and how nice the finished product is. Wool felt from sweaters is very soft, thick, and the perfect material for making playmats.
After you have felted your sweaters, cut off the arms, and cut the shoulder and side seams to create flat, workable pieces of felt. Now comes the fun part – designing your playmat.
You’ll want a large flat surface that you can iron on. I use different size tables depending on what size playmat I’m making. I cover my table in cotton quilt batting (2-3 layers). The quilt batting protects my work surface and acts like a flannel board, so when I lay down my pieces of felt, they are held in place. A layer of towels will also work well.
Start cutting out the playmat pieces – a green meadow, brown garden, yellow fields, winding river, rocky road, and whatever else you dream up. If you are a little apprehensive about cutting into the felt, draw a plan first. Otherwise – just go for it. You’ll want to cut and lay your pieces right side down. For most felt, the right and wrong sides are exactly the same, but do pay attention to seams—you’ll want to make sure they are facing up.
Start by cutting a large piece that will fit along one of the edges. Lay your next felt color underneath your first piece and cut along the edge of the first, so that the second piece will abut it smoothly. Continue until you have made your playmat the desired size. You can make it geometric or organic-shaped.
When you have finished laying down all the pieces, iron on the lightweight apparel interfacing to the wrong side of the wool (the side that is up). This will hold all your pieces together so that you can zigzag the seams with invisible thread. Make sure you place the interfacing with the fusible side down. Follow the instructions on your interfacing – for mine, I iron it down by pressing for 5-7 seconds, lifting and overlapping the iron until I have covered the entire surface of the work.
Now, the playmat is one solid piece.
Carefully zigzag along all seams with invisible thread, making sure your zigzag stitch catches the felt on each side as you sew. Invisible thread can be slightly tricky to use. Only use it in your upper thread; use regular cotton thread in your bobbin. You may also have to adjust your tension. Practice on some scrap fabric before sewing your playmat.
When you have sewn the top together, you can move on to needle-felting the details. This step is optional – your playmat will still be just as lovely if you don’t needle-felt it, but this is an easy way to begin learning how to needle-felt. It is really fun for children to help out during this step by adding small details to customize their playmat, and it is something fun to do together over a long stretch of snowy days. Place a small piece of foam underneath the playmat as you work, lay your pieces of wool roving on top, and needle felt directly through the playmat.
On the playmat in this tutorial, I sculpted wool rocks by rolling small balls of gray roving and needle punching them directly onto the playmat. I needle felted thin pieces of roving in white and different shades of blue to add movement and texture to the river.
Choose details that will make your playmat come to life. Be sure to plant a colorful garden, and maybe a field of wildflowers.
You can also customize your playmat by cutting out pieces from scraps of felt and sewing these on with matching (or invisible) thread. To make a rock path, I lowered my feed dogs so that I could more easily guide the playmat in circles to sew around the rocks.
After you have finished needle-felting and adding details onto the front of your playmat, it is time to sew the back on. This is the step where you will use the Wonder-Under paper-backed fusing. The fusing will securely attach the front to the back and give your playmat a nice stability so it withstands years of play. (An alternative to this step would be to quilt the two layers together.)
Iron on the paper-backed fusing paper-side up to the wrong side of the playmat front so that there is a quarter inch seam allowance along all edges. Press and move a hot, dry iron every 5-8 seconds until you have ironed the entire surface. Carefully peel off the paper backing.
Pin the playmat front and back together, right sides together. Sew around the edges, leaving a quarter inch seam allowance and an opening 10-12” to turn. This step is like making a giant pillowcase. Turn your playmat right side out.
For this next step, you will be ironing the back of the playmat to the front to fuse the two sides together. Layer lots of towels on your work surface, as this step requires water. Lay your playmat pillowcase with the back side up. Lay down a damp press cloth on top of it. With your iron at a wool setting, press firmly for 15 seconds until the press cloth is dry. Repeat, lifting and overlapping iron until all fabric is fused. Remove the press cloth and iron fabric to eliminate any excess water.
Sew the opening closed with invisible thread, or whipstitch it shut, and your playmat is done. Now it is time to play!
Your children will stay toasty warm all winter as they play on top their new wool play mat. The one I made for this tutorial is a good size for coffee table play, but I also like to make large ones for floor play. They are great to lay on the floor in front of the fireplace, and with a few accessories (some wooden farm animals, sticks and stones, pine needles, a wooden tractor & farmer…) your children will quickly bring their new farm to life, and if you’re like me, those longings for barefoot weather and spring gardening will be quieted just a little longer.
Please use this tutorial and the products you make from it for personal use only. If you would like to buy a playmat like this, please visit Jennie’s shop Wild Marigold. She would love to make a custom playmat just for you.
Jennie Hanzlik sells her handmade toys at her shop, Wild Marigold. She loves to make custom wool playmats so all the farm-less, forest-less, pasture-less, sea-less and city-less creatures of the world have a soft and lovely place to call their own. It makes her happy to use recycled and eco-friendly materials to create inspiring toys for children. If you need help with your playmat, please email her at wildmarigoldtoys @ gmail.com.
Rhythm of the Home is an online magazine for families that focuses on creating with children, nature explorations, seasonal celebrations, conscious parenting, and mindfulness in all that we do.