So what is HANDMADE FELT, anyway?
Felt turns out to be amazing stuff made from unspun wool (looks like cotton candy!) that is worked into a durable, lightweight, fairly weatherproof material by adding moisture and agitating. This non-woven fabric is made from wool which has been wetted with soapy water and then massaged, rolled, beaten, bounced or otherwise subjected to pressure and agitation. Think of wool sweaters you might have mistakenly machine washed and dried or the underarms of sweaters worn for hiking or crosscountry skiing—that’s felt. The surprise is that it can be done with unspun wool, never knitted and never woven. It can be made into flat pieces or sculpted into seamless shapes. What I show is handmade, from scratch. Pick it up; try it on. You’ll be astonished at how little it weighs and how comfy it feels.
Feltmaking is a primitive process, and felt is thought to be one of the oldest textile forms. Pieces dating back 5,000 years have been found in Central Asia. Greeks felt-lined their helmets. Roman soldiers wore felt breastplates, tunics, boots and socks.
Even today Turkish shepherds wear a hooded felt mantle called a kepenek that is a water-resistant covering to wear and to sleep in. Hungarians make an elegant version of the shepherd’s cloak, called a szur, that is lavishly appliqued, quilted and embroidered. In Turkey the whirling dervishes wear tall hats made of felt. All of these are made by handusing long established techniques.
The nomads of Mongolia and Kazakhstan live in large circular dwellings with domed roofs, made of felt lashed over a wooden lattice. The Mongolians call them gers; the Kazakhs, yurts. Lightweight and windproof, warm in winter and cool in summer,these homes are still preferred by many families no longer living the nomadic life. Yurts are furnished with handmade felt syrmak carpets.
Handmade felt is made in Sweden, Norway and Finland where warm felt socks are worn inside boots for heavy outdoor work, or made into boots with rubber glued to the soles. High-fashion versions are made for export.
Since the 1970’s a revival of interest in feltmaking has led to a burst of creative uses. Artists are pushing this ancient medium to its contemporary limits in wall hangings and fantastic sculpture, in wearable art and yurts made for storytelling.
Felt can be simple and serviceable or elegant and fashionable. A feltmaker can take advantage of the natural colors of the sheep or dye the wool before or after felting. Colors can be mixed. Colored pieces can be felted together or stitched together when finished. Felt can be quilted, embroidered, painted, printed, beaded, or combined with other fabrics or with leather. Artists love felt for its susceptibility to all kinds of shaping—for wearables, for dolls and toys, for masks, sculptures, or wall hangings. Felt can be worked into beads or buttons of all shapes.
Most felt is made with the fleece from sheep. Not all breeds of sheep produce fleece that felts. Merino, for instance, is the finest, softest, and felts the fastest. Fiber from angora goats, angora rabbits, alpacas, camels, llamas, and dogs can be felted. The craze for felted beaver hats in Europe in the 1700’s wiped out the beaver population there and stimulated the coast-to-coast exploration of North America. Silk and plant fibers don’t felt, but can be combined with felting fibers for variety in texture and look.
Felt is also made commercially. Machine-made felt is used to make many kinds of hats, the green cloth covers for gaming tables, the felts for the hammers in a piano, the covers of tennis balls, the liners for L.L. Bean boots, tips for pens, the old-style coarse hair rug pads, etc. Like the sweaters in washing machine mishaps, knitted or woven wool can be fulled to have many of the properties of felt, but will be much heavier in weight. Boiled wool, for example, used for jackets, is knitted and fulled. Loden cloth is woven and fulled.
I first heard of handmade felt at the Wadsworth Atheneum in 1994 when I attended a lecture demonstration by feltmaker Beth Beede from Northampton Massachusetts. The idea of making cloth with my own two hands has great appeal for me, and I was already a serious knitter. When I tried on an oversized floor-length felt coat and found it feather-light and wonderfully warm, I was hooked. I attended several of Beth Beede’s workshops and then began to see what I could do on my own. I found the space at 56 Arbor Street in the fall of 1996, and had my first felt coat in 1997.
Roz Spier, August, 1998
Nina Hyde, “Wool, Fabric of History,” National Geographic, Vol. 173, No. 5, May, 1988
Gunilla Paetau Sjoberg, Felt, New directions for an Ancient Craft, Translated by Patricia Spark, Interweave Press, 1996