Friday, March 23, 2007

The Ancient Craft of Feltmaking

Felt is the oldest form of fabric known to humankind, predating weaving and knitting. According to Wikipedia felt is a non-woven cloth that is produced by matting, condensing and pressing fibers to form the structure of the fabric. Some types of felt are very soft, but some are tough enough to form construction materials.

Scholars believe feltmaking probably originated with nomadic peoples in Central Asia and spread from there west toward Hungary, then north through Europe and into Scandinavia. The best fossil evidence indicates that wild sheep evolved between 10 and 20 million years ago in the mountains of Central Asia. These sheep had hairy outer coats and softer, woolly undercoats, which molted every spring. Their coats were black, brown, gray, or reddish, depending on what color best camouflaged them in a particular environment. Sheep were first domesticated around 12,000 years ago, and it could not have taken long for herders to discover wool’s felting properties. But even before then, primitive people may have found that the wool wild sheep had molted could be felted, spun and woven.

The oldest evidence for the use of felt is in Turkey, and dates from the Neolithic period, around 8,000 years ago. There are also examples of well-preserved ancient felt from China and Siberia. In northwest China, 3,000-year-old Caucasian mummies wearing felt hats and boots have been found. In the first decades of the 20th century, on a high plateau in the Altai Mountains in Siberia, archeologists found graves from a group of nomadic people called the Pazyryk that contained a wealth of felt articles incorporating sophisticated animal motifs in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes.

Historically, feltmaking diminished in importance as societies became more industrialized, and as manufactured alternatives to felt became available. Even in recent history the craft was lost in parts of Mongolia as the population moved from the steppes and plains, which supported their nomadic lifestyle, into towns and cities. Felt clothing may have gone out of style in the Middle Ages because woven cloth seemed more comfortable and fashionable. However, one felt article that never went out of style is the felt hat, which has always been very much in fashion in industrialized societies.

Feltmaking in North America has enjoyed a renaissance in the mid-1980s with many more craftspeople and fiber artists discovering this ancient craft.

In 2003, artist Susan Kenna was introduced to needlefelting by her friend, Sue Young, a potter in the Adirondacks. She immediately fell in love with this ancient craft, eventually turning it into a business.

"Fall for It" - Susan Kenna

"To make a necklace, I begin with a small tuft of wool and felt it on a foam pad with a wooden handled needle," she explains. "I poke the felt until a bead is formed. To make the bead dense takes about 15-20 minutes, depending on the size of the bead. When the bead is finished, a design is then felted into the bead with more wool. Each bead is individually made and then designed.

"My necklaces have as many as 11 beads, but I also make necklaces with a single wool bead. Sterling silver or leather is used to string the necklaces. I make earrings to match my necklaces. Purses and handbags are done the same way except with large amounts of wool layered 4/5 times to make the piece sturdy. Large felting punches are used for larger items. After the piece is finished, I then needlefelt a design into the purse/handbag.

(c) 2006 - Ruth Mitchell - all rights reserved

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