Felt is said to be the oldest man-made material: its story goes back 8,000 years. It’s used in everything from carpets to garments to chalkboard erasers. Felt is basically the matted fibers of sheep, so it has all the virtues of wool — warm, waterproof, resilient, durable — but denser, more compact and much more versatile. It is extremely adaptable and can be made with little more than a pair of hands for tools.
Wool “felts” because the animal fibers have natural directional scales and kinks (like a lizard, or a pine cone) that bristle into action when water and friction is applied. The scales reach up to the source of friction at a 90 degree angle and then back again, which causes the fibers to stitch together and form felt.
In India, felt is made for the mass market by laying down wool in shallow pools of water and going over it with giant steamrollers. Watch a modern-day Mongolian tribe demonstrate the process of building a traditional home out of felt in this YouTube video. The entire process is recorded, from herding and shearing the sheep, to beating pelts of unprocessed wool with long reeds, to erecting a ger, or yurt, just like the Xanadu pleasure palace of Kublai Khan, or the mighty military bases of Ghengis Khan. Felt is moisture-wicking and insulating, because even the badasses of the Mongolian plain desired a cozy and durable dwelling.
It’s hard to say exactly who made felt first, but it was so long ago that it was on Noah’s Ark. On the ark, woolen creatures, like goats, sheep and camels, naturally shed their coats. Beasts that they are, they urinated on the floor then trampled around on the wool. Once the flood receded, Noah discovered the animals had gifted the Ark with a carpet of felt.
Another legend attributes the discovery of wool to Pope Clement I. Also known as Saint Clement, the fourth pope had blister-prone feet and stuffed wool into his shoes for extra padding. The combination of sweat and compression made felt. Enthralled by the new material, he and his monks set-up a felt-making workshop in Rome. Earlier and more concrete evidence of the making and use of felt dates to ancient fresco painting in Pompeii, where images of quactiliarii (felt makers) have been found decorating the walls of homes and shops. It is possible that these fabricators dressed marble sculptures of Venus, goddess of love and beauty, and Cybele, Earth Mother, in felt robes as an advertisement of their goods. In fact, the supple, silken drapery that we usually imagine in the ancient world are incorrect — the Romans swathed themselves in togas made of heavy wool felt.
FROM FURNITURE TO FINGERS
Despite being such an old technology, felt is still used all over the world for all sorts of things — from purely utilitarian use in car parts and musical instruments, to furniture and art. Impressively, this material — which (possibly) came from animal excrement and clomping — is now used to achieve elegant design. And therein lies the crux of felt’s virtuosity: the juxtaposition of its humble origins with its current use in high art and design, made possible by its incredible versatility and application in any number of fields, objects and aspects. In the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum’s 2009 exhibition Fashioning Felt, this extraordinary material was molded into a futuristic coat, a bench, high-concept chairs and even a palace.
Kathryn Walter of the Toronto-based FELT Studio pushes felt into heretofore unexplored territory, designing felt into stools the shape of spools, diffusing lampshades and softly undulating wall paneling. Artist Kedmi Hanan makes rings by combining soft, pliable felt with high-tech heat sinks, a metal computer part used to prevent overheating. Designer Aurelie Tu, uses felt for its historical handicraft lineage and environmental integrity. Her vases, flooring, wall pieces and lighting, are handmade in Portland, Oregon, using an interlocking system without sewing or glue.
Search through more intriguing fabrics in our Textiles Category.
Leading image: A felt yurt in Central Aisa, circa 1910.