Humans have made felt since the dawn of civilization. The oldest remains of felt date back at least to 6,000 B.C. In the last couple of decades, we are witnessing the revival of the interest in felt and it is constantly growing in popularity. What is felt, exactly, and why is it becoming popular again?
Felt is a non woven fabric, traditionally made of wool or animal fur. Today, we also use other materials such as rayon, polyester, and acrylic to produce felt. However, many people consider wool felt as the only ‘true’ felt. It is probably the first textile that we made, so it has a long and interesting history.
A Little Bit of History on What Is Felt
Legend has it that the first felted carpet was created on the Noah’s Ark. In crammed Ark, sheep wool was falling down on the floor. A combination of moisture and animal trampling mimicked the process of felting and when the animals left the Ark, they left the carpet behind. Many other cultures have legends of their own about the origin and understanding of what is felt.
While we don’t know exactly where it was invented, early techniques of felting became an important part of cultures in several central Asian cultures, predominantly in Mongolia and parts of Siberia. Even today, Turkic and Mongolian nomadic tribes use felt extensively for robes, tents, horse blankets, and wall hangings. Some of them are keeping their traditions, while others actually prefer living in yurts instead of houses. A yurt is a sort of portable, circular tent with a wooden frame and felt cover. Since these nomadic tribes traveled a lot, the felt making techniques slowly spread across Asia and eventually Europe.
Through centuries, felt was used by lower classes for various clothing items. In the 15th century, Charles VII of France wore a beaver felt hat and started a new trend amongst French nobility.
During the next couple of centuries, felt hats were quite popular throughout the western world. Finally, at the end of the 20th century, it became popular for different craft and art items.
Types of Felt
Felt is made of wool or some other materials, so what makes it different from other wool fabrics? It’s the process of felting and understanding actually what is felt. It is a long and somewhat complicated procedure. I won’t bother you with details, basically, it consists of heating, moisturizing and compressing fibers. The final result is a dense, entangled fabric. It is a durable fabric, an excellent insulator, it dampens vibrations and sounds and it can retain a lot of fluid before it feels wet. It can be fine or coarse, thinner or thicker, and it comes in many different vibrant colors. Furthermore, it is naturally flame retardant. So, it’s obvious that it is useful for almost everything from arts to different industries.
We can classify felt by the way it was made. Pressed felt is traditional and the most common kind of felt. Wet felting is the name of the technique to create it. Needle felting is a modern technique where machines with many needles do the job of interlocking fibers resulting in softer and less dense felt.
Another classification is based on what kind of fibers are used ( wool, rayon, acrylic).
Wool felt can be 100% wool or it can be blended with rayon. 100% wool felt is the best kind, but it is quite expensive. It is highly regarded for its durability, texture, luxurious feel, and eco-friendly properties.
Acrylic or craft felt is a cheaper variety. Most commonly, it is made of acrylic, but there are blends of acrylic, polyester, and rayon. It is great for kids craft projects and decorative items.
Eco-friendly felt is a new type of felt. Manufacturers use polyester fibers that come from recycled plastic bottles. It has similar properties to craft felt.
Felt has pretty unique properties and texture, but it’s easy to sew. Actually, it has a couple of advantages over common sewing materials. For starters, it has no grain. Therefore, you can cut fabric easily without being careful about the direction of the cut. Another great quality of felt is that it doesn’t fray at the edges. Obviously, it makes it easy to sew. On the downside, felt is not very pliable and flexible. Because of that, it is not the best choice for some clothing items. Taking care of felt is also challenging. It is prone to shrinkage, so dry cleaning or is the safest option. Warm and hot water is a no-no.
You can sew felt both by hand and by sewing machine. When hand sewing felt, don’t use thick needles as they will leave holes in the fabric. You can use embroidery needles or regular hand sewing needles. As a rule of thumb, the smaller the needle, the better. As for the thread, it is best to use embroidery floss or strong polyester thread.
Sewing felt by machine doesn’t require any particular settings. Felt is very thick fabric even if it’s thin, so you’ll need a sharp, medium-sized needle. You can’t go wrong if you use strong polyester thread and all-purpose presser foot. Depending on your project and the type of felt, you may use some other threads or presser feet. Make sure to test it on a scrap piece of felt.
- Felt is available in a wide range of vibrant colors and thicknesses.
- Unique texture and feel.
- Wool felt is durable and wear and tear resistant. Acrylic felt is not as durable, though.
- Felt is a great insulator. It’s warm, yet lightweight fabric.
- It doesn’t fray.
- Very versatile. We use it in architecture, different industry sectors, arts, and crafts.
- 100% wool felt doesn’t pill.
- It is not pliable and flexible.
- Maintenance is delicate. It shrinks in hot or even warm water.
- Moths love it.
Felt is in a league of its own. Its unique qualities, rich history, and variety of uses make it a great fabric that deserves a chance. It’s not the best fabric for every purpose but its charm and character make it a great addition to your sewing adventures. Speaking of character, the phrase “mad as a hatter” is linked to felt or hat-making industry, to be exact. In the 17th century, a process called “carroting” was invented to improve felt quality. It included the use of mercury nitrate, which caused mercury poisoning among hatters. Over the years, they would develop a variety of mental and physical symptoms, hence the phrase “mad as a hatter”.
So, there are many reasons why you can enjoy sewing felt. If you haven’t felt it (pun intended), you should!