By Elska á Fjárfelli, of the Dominion of Myrkfaelinn
Felt, the oldest known textile used by mankind, is not woven. It needs no loom to make, nor any special equipment or ingredients. Technically, it does not even need mankind. Leave a wild sheep out frolicking in the rain and sun, and felt will inevitably happen. Early man would have seen this: matted wool hanging off the sides of sheep or shed wool stuck to branches subsequently formed by the elements into a mass of fibers. And maybe one day a clever one thought: my rawhide shoes hurt, I wonder, what would happen if I pad it with some of this soft, bouncy stuff lying about?
This is the stuff of myths and legends – quite literally. Making felt is older than spinning and weaving, and many cultures have legends about how felt making was invented. Sumerians claimed felt making was invented by their legendary traveler and warrior hero Urnamman of Lagash. Christian legends speak of Saint Clement, the patron saint of hatters, and Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, fleeing from prosecution and footsore and packing their sandals with wool. At the end of their arduous journey, the movement and sweat had turned the wool into felt socks.
A favorite with children is the story of Noah’s ark, where the animals herded together in the Ark shed their fleece and during the voyage trampled it underfoot. When the animals left the Ark, Noah was amazed to find the floor carpeted in felt! In Persia, the discovery of felt is attributed to Solomon’s son, a shepherd. Having seen matted wool up close and personal, he was sure it could be made into fabric without the aid of a loom. But try as he might, he could not make the fibers stick together, and stomped about on the fleece crying large tears of frustration. Lo and behold! He had discovered felt.
Of course, the archaeological evidence points to the existence of felt long before Christian times. Felt is considered to be the earliest man-made fabric, and was critical to the survival of many early communities. However, the legends do contain an element of fact; they all refer to the three things necessary to produce felt: fleece, moisture, and agitation.
In history, felt played a central role in the lives of inhabitants in Central Asia, Mongolia, and parts of the Middle East. These tribes made clothing, saddles, and tents from felt because it was strong and resistant to wet and snowy weather. They also buried their dead covered with felt, and some of the earliest felt remains were found in the frozen tombs of nomadic horsemen in the Siberian Tlai Mountains, dated to around 700 BC. Felt found in the frozen tomb of a nomadic tribal chief from the 5th century BC shows a highly developed technology of felt making. The earliest felt found in Scandinavia was also found covering a body in a tomb in Hordaland, Norway, and is believed to be from about 500 AD. The Roman and Greeks knew of felt as well, and Roman soldiers were equipped with felt breastplates for protection from arrows, as well as felt tunics, boots, and socks.
Because of its weather-resistant properties felt is still in use in many parts of the world, especially in areas with harsh climates. Traditionally, the yurts or tents Mongolian nomads live in are made from felt. Nomadic tribes from South Central Asia also uses felt as tent coverings, rugs, and blankets. In Scandinavia and Russia, felt boots are produced and widely used. The kepenek, a Turkish shepherd’s cloak, is thought to have been in use at least since medieval times and protects the wearer from heat in summer and from cold and wet in winter. In the province of Agri, Turkey, men still wear the traditional kullik, a conical felt cap made from lamb’s wool.
It is generally assumed all felt is made of wool. This is not necessarily the case; for instance, early hat-making felt was produced using animal fur, generally beaver fur. The fur was matted with other fibers — including wool — using heat, pressure, and moisture. Beaver felt hats were made in the late Middle Ages and were much coveted. By the end of the 14th century, hat makers in the Low Countries started mass producing them, thus driving down the price.
A process called “carroting” was invented in the middle of the 17th century by which skins were dried in an oven (over-heated fur would turn carrot-orange), stretched, and sliced off the fleece. This process used a solution of the mercury-containing compound mercuric nitrate. This toxic solution, and the vapors it produced, resulted in widespread cases of mercury poisoning among hatters. The phrase “mad as a hatter” might be more literal than generally realized!
The medieval technique of using water to felt fibers is called wet felting. Only certain types of fibers can be wet felted: most types of fleece (like sheep, alpaca, and camel), mohair (goats), angora (rabbit). or hair from rodents such as beavers and muskrats. The reason why these fibers can be felted (and others can’t) is because these fibers are covered in tiny scales. Moisture, motion, and heat within a fleece cause the scales to open while agitation causes them to latch on to each other, creating felt. Plant fibers and synthetic fibers will not do this and thus do not wet felt.
A more modern method of felting uses needles to create the felting effect without using water. The needles have notches along the shaft of the needle that catch fibers and tangle them with other fibers to create felt. Needle felting is used in industrial processes to create large sheets of felt, and in crafting to create three dimensional shapes and adornments.
When choosing felt to recreate medieval garments and accessories, it is good to realize the difference in technique of wet felting and needle felting between modern commercial felt and felt used in medieval times. Medieval felt would mostly be wool or fur based and wet felted, while modern felt is mostly made of synthetic fibers and needle felted.
Keep in mind that while felt is made from scratch, fulled fabrics are first woven and then wet felted, to create a sturdier and more weatherproof woolen fabric. Thus, a woolen fabric can be fulled, but is not a felt; and (pre-)felt is fulled to make felt. Not to be confusing or anything…
How to make your own sheet felt
Start with roving (wool prepared for spinning) of a type of wool that felts well. Not all wool felts equally. A simple but effective way to test this is to take a bit, dampen your palms, and rub both hands together with the roving in the middle. The friction, combined with moisture, will create heat and the wool roving should compact and shrink, and thus felt.
On a large piece of plastic, lay out thin layers of fibers pulled from the roving, all pointing the same way. Expect shrinkage of about 30%, so adjust your size accordingly.
When you’ve made your first layer (left to right), add another layer on top – now going the opposite direction (perpendicular, thus up and down). Having the layers of fibers cross each other helps interlock the fibers more firmly.
When you have about three to five layers, spray warm soapy water over the whole piece, concentrating more of the water in the central area then at the edges. All fibers should be dampened, but not soaked; a little water goes a long way.
With your hands gently rub the fibers together, like a relaxing back massage. Imagine pressing the water into and through the fibers. If you like, lay some tulle or netting – like the bags used for bulk onions or oranges – over the fibers to help with friction.
When the fibers start to tangle or interlock, take another piece of plastic and cover the top. Roll a pool noodle over the whole piece while flat on the table, up to 100 times. The piece can be flipped over and rolled from the opposite side as well.
Then take your noodle and wrap your fiber package around the outside of it, then wrap a towel around that. Secure it, then go sit down and watch a good TV show while continuously rolling this fiber-towel-roll randomly underneath your feet (in front of you) for about 100 times and more.
When you think it is done, unroll the piece and gently pull on a little bit to see how well it has tangled. If the fibers are overly wet it can tear easily, so be careful when removing the plastic. Check for wrinkles which can develop if the piece is not rolled firmly and smooth them out. Remove any excess water by rolling and gently pressing with the towel. Move on to the next step, or let it dry to use later, either on the table or draped over a chair or drying rack. You have just made your first piece of pre-felt.
To full or shrink pre-felt down to its final size:
- Remove the pre-felt from the plastic and gently wring it out. If it does not seem very soapy, add some more soap. Wet with hot tap water and wring out again. Rub the pre-felt between your hands until it begins to feel as if it is shrinking. Open it up and check to see how it looks and rub to shrink areas as you go.
- This is the fun part: throw the felting piece into the sink about 100 times. Do this at random, letting the piece move around so it hits the hard surface differently each time.
- Put some cold water and vinegar into the sink (the acidic vinegar neutralizes the alkaline soap). Submerge the felt and let it soak for a few minutes.
- Empty the sink, rub the pre-felt, and throw it some more to shrink it even further.
- Heat up water to the boiling point, pour into the sink, add the felted piece and let it soak for a few minutes. Add some cold water until it is just cool enough to put your hands in. Swish the felt around and press the water out.
- Drain the sink and fill again, this time with real cold water, and add the felt. Swish around until the felt is cool.
- (Repeat the previous two steps if you think it necessary)
- Gently press out the water and roll the felt in a towel to remove excess water. The felt can be further dried by ironing it, putting it in the dryer for circa half an hour, or simply by hanging it to dry. Steam can be used to set a three-dimensional shape; a stock pot steamer for felt stuffed with newspapers works while a steam iron works just as well (for more info see links below).
Home-made sheet felt has many uses: a thick mat can be used to sleep on when going a-Viking hiking, or used to make armor. A small piece can be added as insoles to thin-soled turnsole shoes. It can be used to make a rabbit-fur edged Viking hats (with or without the rabbit fur). It can be doubled over, with plastic in the middle, to felt into a bag. It can be molded over a bowl, or a ball, to make all sorts of hats. The possibilities are as endless as your imagination…
DIY pictures are from a workshop I took this summer at ROC Day, organized by the Black Sheep Handspinners Guild of Ithaca, NY. The felting information is summarized from the accompanying handout Introduction to Felting Workshop ROC Day 2018.
For more information on making hats:
– Modern felting instructions on making a felt hat from fibers.
– Tips on making medieval hat reproductions.
– Links to medieval manuscripts showing many period hats.
– How-to on making a Scythian felt hat, based on a Scythian archer pictured on a Greek vase.
For more on the history of felt:
Icelandic sheep portrait https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/541065342706742022/