Felt

A versatile textile, felt is produced by matting and compressing fibres such as wool or synthetic materials, and has diverse applications, from traditional use in Central Asia to contemporary textile art and design in the Western world.

Properties and applications

Felt is a textile produced by matting, condensing and compressing fibres. Felt can be made from natural fibres such as wool or animal fur, or synthetic fibres such as petroleum-based acrylic or acrylonitrile or wood pulp-based rayon. Mixed fibres are also common. Natural fibre felt has special properties that allow it to be used for a variety of purposes. It is "fire-retardant and self-extinguishing; it dampens vibrations and absorbs noise; and it can hold large amounts of liquid without feeling wet ..."

From Central Asia to nomadic traditions

Felt, made from wool, is one of the oldest known textiles. The origins of felt making are often surrounded by legends. Sumerian legend claims that Urnamman of Lagash discovered the secret of felt making. A story about Saint Clement and Saint Christopher tells how they filled their sandals with wool to prevent blisters during persecution, then the movement and sweat turned the wool into felt socks. The origin of felt is probably in Central Asia, with evidence of felt production in Siberia and northern Mongolia. Siberian tombs show the wide use of felt, from clothing to jewellery and horse blankets.

From Siberia and Mongolia, felt making spread across areas inhabited by Turkic-Mongolian tribes, where sheep and camel herds were crucial to their prosperity and lifestyle. Nomads used felt for housing, insulation, flooring and household utensils. Dyes provided rich colours, and pre-felts, combined with dyed yarns, were used for decorative designs. Felt was even used for totems and amulets with protective functions, often imbued with religious and symbolic meaning.

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A timeless craft

Today, felt is still made by nomadic peoples in Central Asia, such as the Mongols and Turkish people, to make carpets, tents and clothes. In the western world, felt is widely used in textile art and contemporary art and design, where it is valued as an ecologically sound textile and construction material. Besides Central Asian traditions, Scandinavia has also contributed to felt production, especially for clothing.

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