The Story of Felting

Felting has a long and fascinating history with scores of items made from wool and other fibres felted together. From Mongols and their yurts, to the Sumerians in the Middle East and their footwear and clothing, felting dates back across time and cultures, continuing today as a wonderful medium for experimentation in shape, colour and texture.

Photo of Buddhist monk and felted yurt for history of feltmaking
Buddhist monk and felt yurt

So, where did feltmaking originate? There isn’t one definitive answer, but archaeologists have found samples of very, very old felt! There’s a wonderful Sumerian legend about the incidental discovery of feltmaking as people packed their sandals with wool to prevent blisters. In time, movement and sweat felted the wool. Whether it’s Sumerians or nomadic tribes herding their animals, this movement from incidental discovery of fibre properties to functional items makes sense.

We do know that felting existed in Central Asia and parts of Europe thousands of years ago. The nomadic tribes of Asia discovered the felting properties of fibre in the same way that coastal British Columbian native groups discovered the extensive uses of cedar and its inner bark for their survival. For these nomadic tribes of Asia, felt became an expression of artistic value and religious, ceremonial significance as well as filling important comfort and survival needs.

Chinese, Greek and Roman traders brought feltmaking back to their respective homes from their contact with the Mongol, Turkish and other nomads. The first written references for felt in China go back at least as far as the powerful Zhou dynasty of 3500 years ago where felt was commonly used for rugs, mattresses, protective armour and clothing. Felt was even used for small boats!

In Ancient Roman times, Pompeii had four shops exclusively for feltmaking of items such as gloves and hats. There were 39 shops for producing woollen items within the town of Pompeii.

Early Bronze Age felted items from Northern Germany and Denmark also date back as far as 3500 years ago. Felted caps were richly decorated and appear to have been used for ceremonial dress. Horse bridles have been found with strong felt straps made of sheep’s wool.

Photo of 2500 yr old felted swan preserved in permafrost from Hermitage Museum
2500 yr old Felt Swan preserved in Russian permafrost
Image of ancient felted saddle cover, Hermitage Museum, Russia
Felted saddle cover from
Russian kurgan, a burial crypt

Beautifully crafted felt saddles, felt saddle blankets and other felted items were almost perfectly preserved in a Northern Russian ‘Kurgan,’ a burial chamber for a nomadic tribal chief found deep under the permafrost. Felt blankets covered the walls, floor and bottom of the crypt. The amazing felt swan above shows the sophistication of their artistry 2500 years ago! The swan is made of white felt for the 30cm body while both the bill and eye are made of black

felt. The pink and yellow tail is trimmed with six red and black disks. The reddish green feet are made from felt stretched over wooden stakes. Artifacts from this archaeological site are now in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and can be viewed by following this link.

Nomadic tribes throughout Central Asia still use felt for their yurts. Their felted sheeting is strong, light and provides good protection from the weather. The nomadic herders move location a few times each year as new grazing areas are needed for their animals so the yurts need to be very portable.

Interesting, random facts about felt

  • The phrases “Mad as a Hatter” and “Hatters’ Shakes” came from felting. Until 70 years ago, a process called carroting was used in the manufacture of good quality felt for making men’s hats. Beaver and rabbit skins were treated with a dilute solution of a mercury compound as part of the process to separate the hair from the skin. The toxic mercury solution and vapours resulted in widespread cases of mercury poisoning among hatters, leading to personality changes and visible tremors in the hands and limbs.
  • Felt has many uses in the automotive industry as padding to dampen vibrations between metal panels, provide insulation, for some gaskets, shields and dust barriers, etc.
  • Many musical instruments such as drums, pianos and wind instruments use felt.
  • Needle felting as an art form really began in the 1980’s with US fibre artists sculpting playful multi-coloured jewellery spheres.