Home > Craft Topics > Craft Introductions > Felt Making
Felt was probably an accidental discovery made certainly hundreds and possibly thousands of years ago. People used wool to lie their shoes for warmth and found, when they took them off after a hard days walking, that the fur had turned into felt insoles. According to legend the first person to do this was St Clement. He is still the patron saint of felters and in the middle ages they held celebrations on St Clements day.
Over the years more convenient methods of felting developed. It became an industry in its own right, principally serving the hat trade and using mostly rabbit and beaver fur. Different methods were used to treat the felt including, in the 19th century, impregnating it with mercury. As a result many hat makers were poisoned and the expression 'mad as a hatter' came into being.
Since the second world war the popularity of hats has diminished and the chief uses of felt today are in industry. As it does not fray, felt can be made into many wonderful clothing and accessory items.
Over the last few years young felters have explored new areas, making bright, artistic hangings, Christmas decorations, jewellery and clothes out of felt.
Felt may be made with a design worked into it or, to get more delicate effects, it can be printed or painted. The absorbency of the material can be exploited to achieve soft lines or deliberate graffiti effects. Felt can be made in any thickness, depending on the length of the fibres used. Fine, light felt is velvety soft, while at its thinnest it may be lacy and almost translucent.
More simply, felt is often used to make safe cuddly toys for small children and it is an ideal material for the home craftsperson to use. Finger puppets are among the most enduring felt novelties. While some modern art felters may dislike the associations between felt and toys, others exploit them successfully to add a touch of humour to the hats or decorations they produce.
The best basic material for felt making felt on a small scale is sheep's wool, because it does not need complex chemical treatment to make it matt together. Under a microscope a bit of fleece looks like an elongated pine cone and it is these little 'prickles' in the structure of the wool that lock together when it turns into felt. Some types of animal hair, mohair for example, are too smooth in structure to be suitable.
The only other equipment needed is dye and a dye bath if you are going to colour the wool yourself; a drum carder, comprising two wheels with pins for combing the wool; a flat surface to work on and something flexible to roll the felt in. One professional felter uses a bamboo mat and there is plenty of scope for improvising. Finally an iron and damp cloth are used for the pressing that adds the finishing touch.
Wool can be bought ready washed and cleaned. The length of the fibre will affect the coarseness of the felt so most craft makers prefer a shorter fibre which gives a lighter effect. Wool varies from batch to batch and year to year as the health of the sheep and even the amount of rainfall will affect the fleece. One of the pleasures of the craft is learning to understand and identify the different qualities of each batch of wool and being able to predict how they will respond to the felting process.
Fleece can be bought either plain or coloured. Most professionals prefer to dye their own fleeces with acid dyes to make sure they have exactly the right colour to work with. After dyeing, the wool has to be carded to unmatt the fibres again. Dyeing however, is a skilled craft in itself and many pleasing effects can be obtained with pre-dyed wool.
The actual felting process involves laying down layers of fibres. They run in alternate directions, the first from top to bottom the next from side to side and so on. This is the point at which any design that is to be worked into the fabric itself is created.
Patches of contrasting colour are put in position. An experienced maker will build areas of specially intense colour into the fabric, much as a painter does, by laying one colour on another. A shocking pink under red makes the red glow brilliantly in the finished felt.
The maker decides on the thickness according to how the felt is going to be used. Three layers make a strong enough texture for most small pieces
Boiling soapy water is used to start the matting process and then the whole sheet is rolled up like a Swiss roll and moved back and forth until the felting is complete. It has exactly the same effect as washing a wool jumper in water that is too hot - the fibres gradually lock together and harden.
There is technically no limit to the size of a sheet of felt, but the rolling process is long and laborious and the wool doubles in weight when it is wet, so most professional makers keep to less than two metres square.
After a while the maker can tell by the feel of the wool that it has formed a solid sheet. The soap is washed off and then it is a question of lengthy pressing and steaming to help the felt lie flat and give it a sheen.
Although there is no need to neaten edges of a piece of felt, they can be cut straight and sometimes oversewn to add to the finished effect.
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