History

The International Feltmakers Association was formed to foster worldwide interest in felt, to promote members’ work and keep members in contact with one another for exchange of knowledge and ideas.

Mary Burkett OBE
Mary Burkett OBE

It came into being as a result of an exhibition in 1979, Art of the Felt Maker organised by the late Mary Burkett OBE at Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal, which showed felts from many countries, from the Middle East, Asia, Scandinavia and a little contemporary work. The show toured the country – artists, craftsmen, students and colleges were amazed and delighted.

A book produced to accompany the exhibition (see below) includes chapters on the technical analysis of felting, the history of felt, motifs, decoration and clothing. There are also sections on the creation of felt in countries such as Iran, Turkey, the USSR, Africa, India and Scandinavia.

Such was the interest in the exhibition and in felting that the Association was formed in 1984 with Mary Burkett as its president.

Members’ interests range from the historical and anthropological aspects of felt to the art and craft of felt as a medium. The Association aims to increase the general involvement in feltmaking through a network of regional groups, our quarterly journal “Felt Matters”, exhibitions, lectures and workshops.

Members also travel far and wide to learn traditional and new methods and to present feltmaking in schools and colleges. There is communication and interaction between feltmakers from all over the world.

History & Ethnography of Feltmaking

The First Felt – fiction and fact – the discovery of felt is often related in legend form.

  • St Clement, the patron Saint of Hatters and St. Christopher, the patron Saint of travellers, are among those credited with the discovery of felt. Fleeing persecution and footsore, they and other early Christians tucked the sheep’s fleece they found caught on the bushes into their sandals to cushion their feet. At a later stage in their journeys they found the loose fleece had transformed itself into felt shoes.
  • “The origins of felt in Persia are ascribed to Solomon’s son who was a shepherd. He was sure that his sheep’s wool could be made into waterproof mats without the aid of a loom, but try as he might he could not make the fibres stick together, and stamped about on the fleece crying large tears of frustration. And behold! He had discovered felt.” The Art of the Feltmaker, M.E. Burkett.
  • A favourite with school children is the legend of the felt carpet produced in Noah’s Ark. Sheep, goats, camels and other animals herded together in the Ark shed their fleece and during the voyage trampled it underfoot. When the animals had left the Ark Noah was amazed to find the floor carpeted in felt.

That the felt produced in these legends was the first felt is undoubtedly untrue. There is archaeological evidence to prove the existence of felt long before Christian times. However, the stories do contain an element of fact. All the legends refer to the three things necessary to produce felt – fleece, moisture and agitation.

‘For several thousand years felt, a textile made from sheep’s fleece, played a central role in the lives of inhabitants in Central Asia, Mongolia and parts of the Middle East. Indeed, until about 150 years ago, for nomadic peoples in this region felt was virtually indispensable. Wool, the raw material, was readily available, the technology was portable and the fabric itself provided the highest level of insulation for clothing, floor coverings and even for tent walls. From around 2500 years ago early nomadic peoples lined their tombs with felt, laid their dead on it, made decorations form it, wore felt clothes and dressed their horses in masks made form it.

Across the centuries, felt has been used for shoes, flooring, hats, sieves, armour, coats, tent covers, bas and bedding, not only by nomadic people but also by numerous sedentary populations in this region. Indeed, few societies in the past were entirely without felt: even in Europe and America, felt hats were widely worn form the fifteenth to the twentieth century. Yet while a great deal has been written about many forms of cloth and their uses, felt has been little studied by contemporary scholar and, perhaps reflecting this, examples tend to be found in ethnographic rather than fin art museums’.

Extract of Stephanie Bunn, “Nomadic Felt” (The British Museum 2010)

Suggested reading

Members wishing to gain a more scientific insight into early felt could start by reading the following books:

Nomadic Felts, artistic traditions in world cultures, Stephanie Bunn (The British Museum 2010)

The Art of the Feltmaker, M E Burkett (M.E.Burkett, 1979)

Much historical information is contained within the catalogue of the exhibition of the same name.

The Mummies of Ürümchi, Elizabeth Wayland Barber (Pan Books, 2000)

Felt-clad mummies dating from 1,800 BC found in NW China

Frozen Tombs of Siberia – The Pazyryk Burials of Iron-Age Horsemen, Sergei I. Rudenko (Dent, 1970)

Very elaborate felt artefacts discovered in burial mounds in the Altai mountains (southern Siberia and central Asia) dating from around 500 AD

Die Kultur der Hsiung-Nu und die Hügelgräber von Noin Ula, Sergei I. Rudenko (Bonn: Habelt, 1969)

(written as Xiongnu in English) Felt artefacts discovered in burial mounds in northern Mongolia dating from around 200BC

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