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A History of Felting

Felting has been a popular fabric technique dating back to pre-history. Felted handbags are experiencing an increase in popularity as people discover the benefits of this versatile fabric.

Do you know how felted handbags are made? It is a very interesting process and there are many legends surrounding the origin of felting, including the story of Saint Christopher. This particular Saint was trying to escape from persecution and, while on the run, packed his sandals with wool to protect his feet. When his flight was over, the constant movement of his feet and his sweat had generated felt.

Another great legend is that Noah lined his ark in fleece. The combination of the animal urine and trampling turned the fleece into a felted carpet.

Felting is the oldest of the textile arts and is said to have originated in Asian. The history of this unique product is long and varied. There is some historical evidence that felting was done in ancient Turkey and felting has been found in Siberia and dated to around 600 AD. Felting actually gave such rulers as Attila the Hun an advantage in their conquests because felted clothing and tents help protect him and his troops from bitter cold. Ancient Roman soldiers used felt to product their skin from the heavy armor they wore into battle.

felted tent
A Mongolian Felted Tent

Felting had a huge impact on the economy of England during the 15th century. English wool merchants were the richest in the country and this product was exported to other parts of the world and became know for it's high quality felt. Monasteries supported themselves with the raising of sheep. The wool was harvested and made into felt by the Brothers - some monasteries actually became rich as a result of this enterprise.

During the 18th century, felting was made by soaking an animal skin in a mercury compound, which separated the skin from the hair. The matted hair was felted but the use of this toxic chemical had terrible consequences for anyone using this process. There is some evidence that the term, "Mad as a Hatter" came from this period of time because of the lethal affects of mercury on men in the hat industry.

The Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland
The Mad Hatter from "Alice in Wonderland"

Felting is made by pounding and scrubbing wool, along with the use of water that acts as a lubricant. The actual fibers of the wool move back and forth with the friction, causing "barbs" to form in the fabric. Since the fibers come from animals, there are scales present which are directional, along with kinks. The constant agitation of the material causes the fibers to bond together closely.

Felting can also be done at home and has become popular in handbag design. After a handbag is knitted, the bag can be washed in a washing machine in hot water. The agitation of the machine and the addition of the water causes the fabric to shrink and bond together, forming a felted handbag.

Felted handbag
Felted Handbags

There are several other methods of making felt artificially, including the use of chemicals and barbed needles. Felting can also be done with a mixture of wool and other fabric with a minimum needed of at least 30% to actually be called a felted material.

In spite of it's long and varied history, felting is truly a wonder fabric of the 20th century and continues to be popular and widely used around the world. This fabric can be made flexible, hard and stiff, or almost transparent, depending on the individual's needs. Felting is gaining new devotees, especially in niche sports because of it's waterproof quality and versatility and will continue to gain in acceptance and use throughout the world for many years to come.