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A History of Felt in Hat Making
Felt is the oldest form of fabric known to humankind. It predates spun fabrics because it is not made from thread. Felt is produced by pressing, moistening and condensing natural fibres of animal fur or wool. The fine fibres are stimulated by the moisture and friction, tangling and fusing together to create a solid sheet of fabric.
The Stuff of Legend: Who Discovered Felt?
Many cultures have legends about the origins of felt-making. It is said that Noah's Ark was lined with fleece, and the combination of urine and the trampling animals left behind a felted wool carpet.
In Sumerian legend, the secret of felt-making was discovered by the warrior Urnamman.
An early Roman Catholic story credits the invention of felt to Saint Clement, who packed his sandals with wool to protect himself from blisters. Upon removing his shoes, he discovered that the pressing and sweating of his feet had transformed the wool into socks.
Han Dynasty felt hat
circa 200 BC
Felt Use in Ancient Cultures
The earliest evidence of felt making was found in Turkey: wall paintings incorporating felt applique, dating back as far as 6500 BC.
One of the most impressive early examples of felt is a collection of richly decorated felt caps found in Denmark dating to the Bronze Age (about 3500 BC). Their elaborate trimmings suggest that these caps must have formed part of ceremonial dress for important members of society. They may also have served as a kind of battle helmet, their thickness providing protection against cuts and blows.
Remarkable examples of felt work have been unearthed in Asia. The Scythians of Iran made saddle blankets emblazoned with animal iconography in 500 BC. The Huns of Mongolia made intricately patterned blankets and carpets in 200 AD. Nomadic tribes of Asia often used felt for making tents.
Felt in Hat-Making
Felt is often used as a protective material, because of its excellent ability to absorb impact. Although felt can be very hard or very soft, it is always quite porous, absorbent and flexible. The earliest felt hats were created as a kind of armour, like those discovered in Denmark.
However, felt has shown itself to be tremendously diverse, and today it is still probably the most popular material used in hat-making. Stiff felt is used to create formal men's hats such as the bowler, the top hat and the capotain. Soft felt is preferred for more casual styles like the trilby, the flat cap and the cloche hat.
The Mad Hatter
From the 17th to the early 20th century, felt was often made via a process called 'carrotting'. This involved soaking animal skins in a solution of mercury to separate the fur from the pelt, after which the fibres were matted and shaped into felt sheets. Many hatmakers of the time were prone to tremors, hallucinations and psychosis, leading to the famous saying 'mad as a hatter'.
|Lewis Carroll's 'Mad Hatter': an illustration
from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
These unfortunate tradesmen were inhaling toxic vapours from the mercury, which accumulated in their bodies over time, causing mercury poisoning and eventual brain damage. Needless to say, carrotting is an obsolete practice in today's millinery industry!
Felt is now widely used as a medium for expression in textile art and design, where it has significance as an ecological textile.
True felt is made from animal fur: sheep's or goat's wool, beaver, rabbit or hare pelts. It can also be made from synthetic fibres, but these are inferior because artificial fibres do not lock together tightly or absorb coloured dyes well.
Read about the properties and possibilities of felt in hat making
Read more about felt in history and culture: