Felt fabric is in the midst of a crafting resurgence, and we're all here for it. Its use is skyrocketing once more, as is the interest many are taking in its multifaceted potential. Felt appeals to makers across the globe thanks to its inviting sensory qualities, bringing it a level beyond its textile companions. Moreover, it can be comprised of entirely biodegradabe matierials, making it an ecologically conscious living material meant for the modern age.
The Felt Appeal
As with most things in life, the appeal of felt starts with the senses. Its capacity to capture visual interest through layered texture and color combines with its rich tactile composition to make an ideal material. For baby and children's toys, this sensory stimulating material just makes sense. For personal accessories, home decor and unique art pieces, felt's ability to transcend traditional bounds satiates the eclectic's palate.
Felt unapologetically eclipses artistic bounds. It straddles the worlds of vintage and contemporary culture, fulfilling the oft-quoted ideal of the Arts and Crafts Movement. This movement was popularized by William Morris, whose concept is as follows:
Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.
The ideal material blends form and function, beauty and usefulness, artistry and durability. Felt covers every one of these bases. It has the ability to be shaped into any two- or three-dimensional configuration, proving it to be conceptually malleable amid the artist's free reign.
A Brief History of Felt Fabric
The history of felt delves deeper than that of your old-school toys and accessories. In fact, many historians believe it to be the oldest form of manufactured material or fabric.
Felt is thought to be the oldest form of ‘created’ material or fabric known to humanity. It has been found in ancient sites across Asia and Europe, the oldest being in 700-BC Siberia. The development of felt fabric has been attributed to large-scale herding (think sheep, goats and camels) by nomadic peoples of the vast regions of modern-day Central Asia. This includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tadjikistan, Tibet, Mongolia and Eastern Turkey as well as parts of India, Iran and current areas of China like Xinjiang (previously Turkistan).
As a practical material that's easily produced with little to no equipment, felt fabric predates the common (albeit laborious) practices of weaving and spinning. It's history of uses include housing insulation as well as common household items like blankets, cushions and sleeping mats. It's even used for clothing, footwear, hats, bags and any other practical application that needs simple padding, strength and durability. Requiring only basic cutting to shape and providing a range of weather protection, felt fabric has the textile know-how.
Felt is an incredibly versatile material, can be produced using simple processes and can create highly durable, sustainable, beautiful, decorative and fun items. As such, both the commercial textile world and the contemporary art world look to felt for its ability to bring innovative and artistic endeavours to life.
The Making of Felt
At its core, felt production involves layering masses of wool or hair fibers to create a solid piece of material.
One can break down felt's manufacturing processes into two primary categories: wet felting and needle felting. Either of these methods occur through both large- and small-scale manufacturing, the former utilizing machinery and the latter using a more traditional process of people power.
As the name implies, wet felting relies on the use of hot water and a setting agent (like soap). Makers place or roll fibers under pressure, whether it be between a pair of sturdy hands or a set of industrial rollers.
Through wet felting, one can dye fibers in the initial stages if they wish. Otherwise, they can retain the natural colour of the wool/hair and—once the rolling/pressing process is complete— cut to shape and bond the resulting material to other items, lay it flat, hold it in place with stitches or leave it to hold itself stationary due to its inherent weight and stiffness. With felt fabric being a tight mesh rather than a loom-crafted weave, flat felt can be cut to any shape or size without the edges unraveling.
Rather than water, needle felting uses special barbed needles that catch the different strands of material, meshing fibres together as they move in and out. Unlike flat felt, this method can create larger and wider structures, eventually creating products like 3D toys and sculptures.
In modern culture, producers often use amalgams of synthetic and organic fibers to create felt fabric. However, natural wool and hair is best suited to this process due to the microscopic formation on each strand, which naturally catch neighboring fibers and creates the desired matting effect.
Plant fibers are not suitable for this process as they don't have the same inherent structure as wool and hair. Current innovative artistry shows felt crafted from both animal and human hair, combining it with beads, decorative stitching and assorted natural materials to craft stunning abstract and narrative pieces of art.
Artisans in the Process
Historically, industrial hat manufacturing from the mid-17th century to the mid-19th century used mercury as a part of the setting process in felt fabric. Unfortunately, this exposed large numbers of artisans to the cumulative effects of toxic mercury. To individuals in the industry at the time, the results of this exposure were high levels of mental instability and psychosis, lending us the phrase “as mad as a hatter."
This mercury-ridden process is an early example of manufacturers failing to understanding the human impact of their process and failing moreso to prioritize the humanity of their workforce. It just goes to show why fair trade is so crucial in today's felt fabric production.
In general, today's process of felt fabric production is much more conscious of the impact of the environment as well as the artisans working hard to create it. At Global Groove Life, these factors are paramount.
Examples of Felt in Contemporary Art
Museums, galleries and self-styled "pop-up shops" love felt. A British woman named Lucy Sparrow opened up a bodega art installation—8 ’til Late—in NYC, filled with felt food, felt cleaning products and even felt self-help books. On the other side of the spectrum, London's Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac has recently exhibited the work of Joseph Beuys, a self-appointed "modern-day shaman" who survived WWII and expressed his experiences through the medium of felt fabric.
Both utilize felt in entirely distinct artistic ways, tackle wholly unique subjects and—as a result—provide the viewer with their very own emotional experiences.
Fair Trade: That Felt Good!
At Global Groove Life, our felt products are fair trade from start to finish.
Thanks to the global phenomenon of fair trade, every step of the manufacturing process can be made to meet standards of production which benefit all individuals involved. This includes the designers, the materials producers, the artisans creating the actual products and even the companies who market, sell and distribute the items right up to the door of the consumer.
The people involved in the processes that lead up to the consumer receiving their product are all an essential part of the journey of the felt item.
Why Worry About Where It Comes From?
For felt fabric production, knowing where the wool comes from and how the dye is produced is key. That the artisans receive fair compensation for their work means you and your family get to enjoy the fruits of a transparent system highlighting uniquely positive connections between different people across our world. At GGL, our items are truly handed from our family to yours, with the care, attention and respect we all deserve.