Work in Progress Report: a preview of my virtual IceDragon entry.
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Elska and Greni

As all I did last summer was work the weekends and entertain the kid during the week, I had to come up with ways to keep us all entertained. We gardened (sooo many tomatoes and marigolds…), we fermented (home-made soda rocks!), we played with clay (baked crusty bread, fired mugs to drink our soda…). Normally, we’d be kept busy going to events. But not so in the Year of the Plague. Instead, I decided to focus on something I never had, or made, time for that would entertain us all, and introduced mounted equestrian games. Whacking dummy heads with foam swords and catching rings with a converted pool-table lance sure did interest the kid, and had the ponies thinking too. At the end of summer we were all adapting to virtual get-togethers, and both my kid and I participated in a video-submission-only Equestrian Games challenge.

Which made me realize, we humans had great outfits, but our ponies were sorely lacking in appropriate attire. My persona is Viking, a time when heraldry and colorful horse barding were not yet quite a thing (like, at all). I could somewhat envision a style of bridle I could make for him to give him a more historic look, but making a saddle? For the sake of both of us I decided not to meddle with that (saddles do have to fit, hence the mundane existence of the job of saddle fitter). Then my interest in felt and my Icelandic Horse’s heritage joined. Low and behold, the old Icelanders had a padded-seat riding contraption with stirrups which was completely made from felt – no saddle fitting required. And even better, for ‘carpet’-like felted sheets like this pad the wool did not even need to be roving!

Traditional Icelandic felt saddles; possible for Viking era, plausible for SCA period, proven for 17th century and in active use until the 19th century.

I’ve always been fascinated with felting fabric, like the thick sheet felt used in shoes. A good friend of mine makes beautiful leather turn shoes and has poked me a few times already to make some sheet felt to use as insoles. But I did not feel confident in being able to do a good job. And I especially could not quite wrap my head around the amount of roving needed.

Finding enough affordable roving proved challenging. Then I realized I did not have to use roving, as long as the wool was clean and fluffy it worked fine. Luckily, I had watched fellow Dominionite Eadgytha clean wool many times over the years, and last summer I attempted my first suinting experiments. And guided by a several videos showcasing Mongolian felting techniques used to make felt carpets and felt yurt walls, my son and I set out to experiment with the different suggestions. I will share with you the highlights of what worked, what did not, and what I intend to try differently next time.

What did we do:

Collecting the wool.
With a project like this in mind I had collected not-so-good quality fleeces over a couple of years. I started with about 5 fleeces of various colors, making one large tub of variegated fluffed wool, but worried this would not be enough for this specific project. Luckily, Eadgytha has a Stash and she gave me two more large garbage bags of fleeces to play with!

Simon hard at work whacking the wool. According to him, this needs to happen several times, at least!

Processing the wool.
The Mongolian videos instructed to use fluffed wool for the outsides, with the nicest first to create the face of the fabric. The raw fleece is fluffed by laying it out on a tarp and beating it with sticks. This opens the fibers as well as helping it release dirt and hay etc. It was surprising how effective this beating method is, and how much dirt was beaten out of the wool! We were also picking up bits of hay and fluffs of wool for days afterwards.

The wetted pre-felt, ready to be rolled up.

Traditionally, Mongolian felt is made on top of an already made ‘mother’ felt, which is then rolled up as a whole. Since I was doing this indoors, I chose to use plastic shower curtains. The fluffed wool was grabbed by the handful in one hand, pushed in place and pulled out of the handful to create a somewhat scale-like overlapping collection of wool tufts. The center of the felt ‘sandwich’ could be clean but untreated raw wool, fluffed, topped with another layer of fluffed wool. The better the tufts are interlaced top to bottom, the better the layers of wool will be felted together. The wool would be wetted with hot water while the different layers were constructed, enough to make it damp but not so much it was dropping wet.

Felt shrinks. I was going for a felted pad of about 30 inches wide by 80 inches long and eyeballed a starting dimension of 40 inches by 115 inches, as the Mongolian videos seemed to suggest more shrinkage lengthwise than in width. This seems to be plausible for their method, but not when using a machine, we learned later.

Agitating the wool.
Historically, the baby sheet felt is tightly rolled up with its mother felt around a large wooden post. The outside is protected with hides, duck cloth or tarp, and tightly wound with rope. Two collars are slid around the wooden beam ends, attached to another long rope, and hitched to horses or camels to be dragged around over the grasslands for about two hours, often at high speed!

This obviously was not going to happen with us, as there was still a foot of snow on the ground, and a lack of camels, so we used our own feet. While watching TV, the kid and I would move the felt-roll back and forth and at one point figured out we could use the binding rope to pull it back after rolling it away. We kicked it, kneaded it, sat on it, walked all over it, anything to simulate rolling over the plains at speed while being dragged by galloping ponies. Although this might still happen in the future 🙂

What we parents have to come up with to keep the kids entertained…

Repack, and agitate.
Each time the wrapping loosened, we’d repack. Followed by more rolling, lots of YouTube, another re-pack, and even more rolling. We rolled it on and off for about 3-4 hours over I think 4 days: my legs felt as if we’d hiked a mountain! We added hot soapy water as needed: the soap is not essential, but the alkaline environment will speed up the felting process. As we worked in our living room, in front of the stove, the felt was nice and toasty much of the time, and the wet wool felted as well as suinted.

Agitation and rinsing.
Because the wool had suinted, indicated by earthy beige liquid leaking out, it could be rinsed indoors without dumping too much oil into our septic. In the process of suinting, minerals from sheep sweat and the oily lanolin in the wool dissolve in the hot water and bacterially ferment to make a crude soap, which then suspends remainder oils and dirt without leaving an oily residue. At this point I moved the felt roll into our bathtub, removed the shower curtains, sprayed it with hot water and with my bare feet walked all over it. When flattened sufficiently, I’d reposition the roll. When the roll became warm through and through, I changed the water to cold, trampled it, etcetera. I did this until the rinse water was mostly clear (and my feet very, very clean).

I squished as much liquid out as I could and move it in front of the hot stove. Evaporation while lying flat was not going very fast, even in front of the stove, so I draped the felt over a chair for gravity to offer a helping hand. At the end of the day, the felt was mostly damp, not wet.

And then I second-guessed myself…
I felt (pun intended) the sheet felt (left) could use a bit more tightening after trimming off the thinned edges, so I ran it through the dryer on hot (see right). While this is generally very effective, and part of my dryer balls felting process, in this case it was too much. I need to remember, when using the dryer on a new project, to check every 10 minutes or so to make sure the effect is what is wanted. While before, the sheet felt mostly shrank in length and not so much in width (as expected from scrutinizing the Mongolian videos), in the dryer the felt shrank mostly in width, and quite significantly too. It made an amazing fuzzy, springy pillow-type felt which while awesome to sit on, but as a saddle I worried might be a bit tight for my knees.

Turning the felt into a felt-saddle
I sewed leather patches to the felt, two at each corner, so it can be folded and securely tied into the pad-saddle shape (see the illustrations in the beginning: the sheet is folded twice, unlike a modern Western saddle pad). Unlike most saddles, the pad-saddle girth is a one-piece which wraps around the ponies belly like a belt and includes attachments for stirrups.

Greni making faces for cookies, while showing off his new felt-saddle.

I’ve ridden on the felt-saddle a handful of times by now and found it to feel quite different from my modern felted pad. The barepack pad rides close-contact and I should not need stirrups to balance. The quite comfortable but thicker felt-saddle is not close-contact at all and actually feels a bit perilous to balance on: here, stirrups are not at all a luxury!

What is next?
I commissioned the rectangular ring and the stirrups from fellow Dominionite John Michael Thorpe to recreate my recreation of the combination girth & stirrup “belt.” For now, I’ve used a modern girth to try out the seat of this pillow-y pad-saddle. And I have to admit, it sure feels comfortable!

Simon and Elska á Fjárfelli, of the Dominion of Myrkfaelinn

Sources for the felted pad-saddle:

  • Reiðtygi á Íslandi í aldaraðir (2002) by Þórður Tómasson í Skógum, [Reykjavík] Mál og Mynd.
  • Gömul reiðver website

Sources for the felting process: