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Felt is a textile that is produced by matting, condensing and pressing fibres together. Felt can be made of natural fibres such as wool or synthetic fibres such as acrylic. There are many different types of felts for industrial, technical, designer and craft applications. While some types of felt are very soft, some are tough enough to form construction materials. Felt can vary in terms of fibre content, colour, size, thickness, density and more factors depending on the use of the felt.
Many cultures have legends as to the origins of feltmaking. Sumerian legend claims that the secret of feltmaking was discovered by Urnamman of Lagash. The story of Saint Clement and Saint Christopher relates that while fleeing from persecution, the men packed their sandals with wool to prevent blisters. At the end of their journey, the movement and sweat had turned the wool into felt socks.
Feltmaking is still practised by nomadic peoples (Altaic people:Mongols;Turkic people) in Central Asia, where rugs, tents and clothing are regularly made. Some of these are traditional items, such as the classic yurt (Gers), while others are designed for the tourist market, such as decorated slippers. In the Western world, felt is widely used as a medium for expression in textile art as well as design, where it has significance as an ecological textile.
Wet felting is one of several methods which can produce felt from wool and other animal fibres. Warm soapy water is applied to layers of animal hairs placed at 90 degree angles to one another. Repeated agitation and compression causes the fibres to hook together into a single piece of fabric. After the wet felting process is complete, the felted material may be finished by fulling.
Only certain types of fibre can be felted successfully. Most types of fleece, such as those taken from the alpaca or the Merino sheep, can be put through the wet felting process. These types of fibre are covered in tiny scales, similar to the scales found on a strand of human hair. Wetting and soaping the fleece causes the scales to open, while agitating them causes them to latch onto each other, creating felt. Plant fibres and synthetic fibres will not felt.
Needle felting is a popular fibre arts craft that creates felt without the use of water. Special needles that are used in industrial felting machines are used by the artist as a sculpting tool. While erroneously referred to as "barbed" needles, they in fact have notches along the shaft of the needle that grab the top layer of fibres and tangle them with the inner layers of fibres as the needle enters the wool. Since these notches face down towards the tip of the needle, they do not pull the fibres out as the needle exits the wool. Once tangled and compressed using the needle, the felt can be strong and used for creating jewellery or sculpture. Finer details can be achieved with this method using a hand-held tool with either a single needle or a small group of needles (2-5), so it is popular technique for producing 2D and 3D felted work.
From the mid-17th to the mid-20th centuries, a process called "carroting" was used in the manufacture of good quality felt for making men's hats. Beaver, rabbit or hare skins were treated with a dilute solution of the mercury compound mercuric nitrate. The skins were dried in an oven where the thin fur at the sides turned orange, the colour of carrots. Pelts were stretched over a bar in a cutting machine, and the skin was sliced off in thin shreds, with the fleece coming away entirely. The fur was blown onto a cone-shaped colander and then treated with hot water to consolidate it. The cone then peeled off and passed through wet rollers to cause the fur to felt. These 'hoods' were then dyed and blocked to make hats. The toxic solutions in the dye and the vapours it produced resulted in widespread cases of mercury poisoning among hatters, possibly giving rise to the expression "mad as a hatter".
Felt is used everywhere from the automotive industry, to musical instruments and home construction as felt paper. It is often used as a damper. In the automotive industry, for example, it damps the vibrations between interior panels and also stops dirt entering into some ball/cup joints. Felt is used on the underside of a car bra to protect the body.
Many musical instruments use felt. On drum cymbal stands, it protects the cymbal from cracking and ensures a clean sound. It is used to wrap bass drum and timpani mallets. Felt is used extensively in pianos; for example, piano hammers are made of wool felt around a wooden core. The density and springiness of the felt is a major part of what creates a piano's tone. As the felt becomes grooved and "packed" with use and age, the tone suffers. Felt is placed under the piano keys on accordions to control touch and key noise; it is also used on the pallets to silence notes not sounded by preventing air flow.
Felt is used for framing paintings. It is laid between the slip mount and picture as a protective measure to avoid damage from rubbing to the edge of the painting. This is commonly found as a preventive measure on paintings which have already been restored or professionally framed. It is widely used to protect paintings executed on various surfaces including canvas, wood panel and copper plate.
A felt-covered board can be used in storytelling to small children. Small felt cutouts or figures of animals, people, or other objects will adhere to a felt board, and in the process of telling the story, the storyteller also acts it out on the board with the animals or people. Puppets can also be made with felt.
German artist Josef Beuys used felt in a number of works.
During the 18th and 19th centuries gentlemen's top hats made from beaver felt were quite popular. In the early part of the 20th century, cloth felt hats, such as fedoras, trilbies and homburgs, were worn by many men in the western world.
- E.J.W. Barber. Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, with Special Reference to the Aegean. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.
- Lise Bender Jørgensen. North European Textiles until AD 1000. Aarchus: Aarchus University Press, 1992.
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