Felt — through the ages
The earliest evidence of felt is traced back to the decorated felt objects of Neolithic people of Catal Huyuh in Anatolia dating from 4,000 BC
Felt — a legend
Felt was first invented by a French monk named St Feutre in the days of Robert the Devil. One day, he left the Abbey Aux home on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St Aubert on the island of Mont St Michel.
He wore new sandals. Because of this and despite his admirable determination, the feet of the St Feutre suffered the penance intended for his soul. From time to time on his tedious journey, as he passed flocks of sheep, St Feutre plucked handfuls of wool form their backs and placed it in his sandals.
God blessed this action and vouchsafed a miracle. On the fifteenth day, as St Feutre stood before the shrine of St Aubert, he pulled off his sandals and drew back in awe. For in the bottom of each was a new cloth, unknown before, firm of texture, soft to touch, and strong, made from sheep’s wool, trampled down by the daily steps of the pilgrim.
Today we recognise St Feutre’s miracle as felt.
Felt is one of the world’s oldest textile materials and the only fabric produced by a natural interlocking of raw fibre. Felt is the only non-knitted, non-woven, non-spun fabric; its construction depends only on the natural properties of the wool fibre and certain external stimuli. Felt, may in fact, be considered the only organic textile.
Although mechanical means of achieving friction may differ, the felting process has changed very little since antiquity. The calibre of the felt is dependent almost solely on the percentage and quality of its raw wool content. Felt manufacturing differs from the manufacturing of all other fabrics by a productive operation know as hardening. with the exception of hardening, and occasionally finishing, felting follows the general pattern of wool-textile manufacturing. Wool is one of the dirtiest fibres and , not surprisingly, the raw fibre must be thoroughly cleaned.
The wool is beaten to rid it of dirt and then carbonised (treated with acid), to break down the adhering natural grease and other vegetable waste products. The wool and any other fibres are then blended according to the desired quality of felt. Here, the uniformity of the blend is the most critical initial operation. It is achieved by hand-feeding pre weighed ales of raw fibre stock into a conventional type mixing picker. The mixed stock is then alternately run through the picker and air-dispersing chambers until the fibres are thoroughly opened and uniformly blended.
At mill, a continuous downpour of fine, light fibres falls from these chambers. The fibres, which at this point closely resemble a cumulus cloud, are then sent to the carding room. The purpose of the carding procedure is to draw the loose fibres into approximate parallelism. In a general sense, carding organises the fibres, bringing form to the emerging fabric. The mix is fed between rolls, with, hooked with closely spaced wire teeth, tun in opposite directions.
Fed through successive cards, the stock finally comes out in the form of a delicate web, so tenuous as to be almost transparent. From the finishing card, the stock is drawn off in a web supported by slatted aprons and delivered to a endless forty-two yard forming apron. Fed on to a moving canvas belt, the web is then deposited in layers until a batt of the required thickness has been laid.
The forming apron delivers batts ranging from a quarter to one inch in thickness, 36 to 80 ins in width and forty yards in length. Loosely organised in this manner, the material is ready for hardening or felting without further treatment. This differs greatly from woven goods. which require several styles of spinning and drawing into yarns and threads before being loomed.
The object of hardening which is distinctive to felt manufacturing, is to force consolidation of the entangled fibre. This is achieved through a combination of heat, mechanical action and moisture, causing the fabric to shrink and huge increase in density. Felt hardeners consist of a solid or perforated steam-fed bedplate equipped with an oscillation or vibrating top plate or rollers.
The interfacial agitation of the batt, set up by the vibrating plates, in combination with controlled conditions, causes the fibres to soften, entangle and reorient themselves in closer arrangement. As a result of hardening, roll-felt batts are reduced in thickness from a maximum of six inches to one inch and sheet felt batts from 3 feet to four inches. The material emerges with form but very little strength.
At the fulling mill, the process is continued, but under impact, rather than simple pressure. The fulling mill most commonly used is a bin-like receptacle with a curved breast. The felt is rolled against the breast and alternately struck by massive hammers. In this manner, the fabric is pounded and rolled from every side. Fulling may continue for five minutes, in the case of light weight felts, or as much a 12 hours for sheet felts.
The shrinkage in dimensions will range from 10-20A% with pad felt to as much as 75% with hard sheet felts. Finally, the felt must be cleaned, dried, sanded, pressed, cut and inspected. In felt manufacture some grades of felt are handled no less than 60 times. From the hour when a fresh bale of wool is cut open until the finished felt is ready from shipment requires a period of 7 to 10 days.