the feltmaking process

Oldest known felt object
5000-year-old felt saddle blanket
Feltmaking is a very ancient process. The earliest surviving felt is 5000 years old, preserved by the permafrost of Siberia and now in The Hermitage Museum. It was made by nomadic tribes, probably in the same way that modern nomads in Mongolia make felt for their yurts and clothing.

It's an ideal way to make a textile if you're on the move, as you don't need a spinning wheel or a loom. Animal fibres (usually sheep or goat) are washed, pounded flat, then rolled up in a mat which can be towed by camels across the Steppe. The rolling process makes the fibres mat together, and after several hours, you have a piece of felt. ItÕs thought that the process may have been discovered by people putting wool fleece into uncomfortable boots, and finding after a while that they had made a felt insole!

Wet felting

Rolling a batt to make felt
Rolling a batt to make felt

Modern craft feltmakers use essentially the same process (on a smaller scale!) The fibres (any protein fibres, but usually wool) are laid out in layers, each layer crossing the previous one at 90 degrees. This is called "drafting", and once you've finished, you have made a "batt". The batt is then thoroughly wetted with soapy water and rolled round a cylindrical core. I use a length of pipe insulation: soft on the hands, lightweight and cheap, and enclose the batt in thin plastic film (I use builders' groundsheet.) Then you start rolling. Depending on the quality of your wool fleece, it can take 400-1000 rolls back and forth before you have a solid piece of flat felt; quite energetic! It helps to keep unrolling and turning the batt around so that no folds or thick areas develop.

It's a physical process: the tiny scales on each hair open up during the wetting, then interlock with the scales on adjacent fibres during the rolling. It's also irreversible; once fibres have felted, they will never unravel: as you may know if youÕve ever machine washed a sweater.

You can also make wet felt in the round, by using a template and overlapping fibres around it before rolling. Then you can shape and stretch your finished felt over a mould, as for slippers or a hat.

Needle felting

Key fobs made with needle-felted balls
Key fobs made with needle-felted balls

This involves making felt by pushing fibres together with a barbed needle. The barbs carry some of the fibre into the centre of whatever you are making. This is good for complex shapes, felt sculpture or felt balls. Often the result is slightly fluffy, and it needs to be completed by a bit of wet felting. Needle felting requires less time and energy than wet felting, but there's the danger of stabbing yourself with the barbed needle. Most people do it onto a thick foam mat!