Felt is unlike any other fabric. Aside from being non-woven, it is formed when animal fur or sheep’s wool is exposed to heat, pressure, and moisture. Alkaline agents, such as soap, contribute to the felting process. Heat and moisture, in particular, are responsible for opening the outer scales along the fibers of the raw materials. After that, the soap enables the fibers to become entangled with each other.
Wool fibers are composed of a protein called keratin. This protein allows fibers to chemically bind with the keratin of other fibers. The permanent bond that results from this process is what makes felting irreversible.
The felting process is fairly simple and requires little equipment. Compared to other textile techniques, felting allows makers to create fabrics in less time. Nobody is certain how humans were able to realize that wool and fur have felting properties, but some ideas suggest that people in ancient times have already been intrigued by the feltmaking process. Some posit that they may have noticed matted wool on sheep. Others suggest that the wool that has been shed from wild sheep formed into a mass of fibers after being subjected to the elements.
Perhaps early humans inserted wool into their footwear, which is assumed to be made from animal hide, to keep their feet warm. After walking around with the stuffed wool, they might have realized that the material became stiff and formed into a unique type of fabric.
Aside from ancient humans from Turkey and Southern Siberia, the Romans
and Greeks are also proven to have known about felting. Roman soldiers incorporated felt into their breastplates to serve as added protection from arrows. They also used this fabric for their boots, socks, and tunics. In Scandinavia, the oldest felt found in the area dates back to the Iron Age. In Hordaland, Norway, people discovered felt sheets that are believed to be from around 500 AD. These were used as a shroud or wrapping for a body in a tomb.
At present, felt is still widely used in many places across the world, especially
in areas with extreme climates. Mongolian nomads are known to live in tents called yurts or gers, which are made from felt. Turkish citizens also use felt to create rugs, hats, and more. In South Central Asia, nomadic tribes use felt to cover their tents or as blankets and rugs. Shepherds also use felt cloaks called kepenek and hats as protection from harsh weather. Felt boots are also widely produced in Scandinavia and Russia.
Recently, a growing interest and revival in feltmaking have been apparent in Great Britain and Scandinavia. Nowadays, Americans are also showing a
great interest in contemporary feltmaking designs and techniques, showing how relevant and popular the process is even in modern days.