Felt is a non-woven cloth that is produced by matting, condensing and pressing woollen fibres. While some types of felt are very soft, some are tough enough to form construction materials. Felt can be of any colour, and made into any shape or size.
Many cultures have legends as to the origins of feltmaking. Sumerian legend claims that the secret of feltmaking was discovered by Urnamman of Lagash. The story of Saint Clement and Saint Christopher relates that while fleeing from persecution, the men packed their sandals with wool to prevent blisters. At the end of their journey, the movement and sweat had turned the wool into felt socks.
Feltmaking is still practised by nomadic peoples in Central Asia and northern parts of East Asia, where rugs, tents and clothing are regularly made. Some of these are traditional items, such as the classic yurt, while others are designed for the tourist market, such as decorated slippers. In the Western world, felt is widely used as a medium for expression in textile art as well as design, where it has significance as an ecological textile.
Felt is made by a process called wet felting, where the natural wool fibre is stimulated by friction and lubricated by moisture (usually soapy water), and the fibres move at a 90 degree angle towards the friction source and then away again, in effect making little "tacking" stitches. Only 5% of the fibres are active at any one moment, but the process is continual, and so different 'sets' of fibres become activated and then deactivated in the continual process.
This "wet" process uses the inherent nature of wool and other animal hairs, because the hairs have scales on them which are directional. The hairs also have kinks in them, and this combination of scales (like the structure of a pine cone) is what reacts to the stimulation of friction and causes the phenomenon of felting. It tends to work well with woollen fibres, as their scales, when aggravated, bond together to form a cloth.
Needle felting is a popular fibre arts craft conducted without the use of water. Special barbed felting needles that are used in industrial felting machines are used by the artist as a sculpting tool. Using a single needle or a small group of needles (2-5) in a hand-held tool, these needles are used to sculpt the wool fibre. The barbs catch the scales on the fibre and push them through the layers of wool, tangling them and binding them together, much like the wet felting process. Fine details can be achieved using this technique, and it is popular for 2D and 3D felted work.
From the mid-17th to the mid-20th centuries, a process called "carroting" was used in the manufacture of good quality felt for making men's hats. Beaver, rabbit or hare skins were treated with a dilute solution of the mercury compound mercuric nitrate. The skins were dried in an oven where the thin fur at the sides went orange - carrot color. Pelts were stretched over a bar in a cutting machine and the skin sliced off in thin shreds, the fleece coming away entirely. The fur was blown onto a cone-shaped colander, treated with hot water to consolidate it, the cone peeled off and passed through wet rollers to cause the fur to felt. These 'hoods' were then dyed and blocked to make hats. This toxic solution and the vapours it produced resulted in widespread cases of mercury poisoning among hatters, giving rise to the expression "mad as a hatter." The United States Public Health Service banned the use of mercury in the felt industry in December 1941.
Knitted woollen garments which shrink in a hot machine wash can be said to have felted but, more accurately, they have been "fulled". Felting differs from fulling in the sense that fulling is done to fabric whereas felting is done to fibres that are not in fabric form. Modern fulling is an example of how the fibres bond together when combined with the movement of the washing machine, the heat of the water, and the addition of soap.
Cheaper felt is usually artificial. Artificial felt, if made using the wet method, has a minimum of 30% of wool fibres combined with other artificial fibres. This is the minimum required to hold a fabric together with the fibres alone. It would be difficult to achieve a stable fabric by hand at this ratio. All other wholly artificial felts are actually needle-felts.
An alternative way of creating felt is to have a steam roller go over the unwoven fabrics in a shallow pool of water with the cloths rotating as the steam roller goes over it. This method is widely used in small towns in India where mass manufacturing of clothing is done.
Felt is used everywhere from the automotive industry, to musical instruments and home construction. It is often used as a damper. In the automotive industry, for example, it damps the vibrations between interior panels and also stops dirt entering into some ball/cup joints. Felt is used on the underside of a car bra to protect the body.
Many musical instruments use felt. On drum cymbal stands, it protects the cymbal from cracking and ensures a clean sound. It is used to wrap bass drum and timpani mallets. Felt is used extensively in pianos; for example, piano hammers are made of wool felt around a wooden core. The density and springiness of the felt is a major part of what creates a piano's tone. As the felt becomes grooved and "packed" with use and age, the tone suffers. Felt is placed under the piano keys on accordions to control touch and key noise; it is also used on the pallets to silence notes not sounded by preventing air flow. Though the ukulele is most commonly plucked, the pick, or plectrum, is made of felt.
A felt-covered board can be used in storytelling to small children. Small felt animals, people, or other objects will adhere to a felt board, and in the process of telling the story, the storyteller also acts it out on the board with the animals or people. Puppets can also be made with felt.
While a woven (not felted) fabric is less expensive and more commonly used, felt is used on professional or tournament billiards table to cover the slate surface. German artist Josef Beuys used felt in a number of works. In the early part of the 20th century, felt hats like fedoras, trilbies, and homburgs were worn by many men in the western world.
Art and crafts. 3-D needle-felted sculptures (such as animals and humans) and 2-D needle-felted wall-hangings.
The use of the term felt can also refer to a material that does not have a rubberised/synthetic feel. This use is most common in Ireland.
Human hair has been used in the production of felt for blankets and mattresses, specifically during the Holocaust, when hair was harvested from victims of the concentration camps.
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