Thursday, 3 June 2010

The Nomadic Origin of Felt

By Ane Løser
Translated by Eddie Roued-Cunliffe

Humans are not known to have traveled alone through history but have instead been accompanied by loyal animal friends standing by our side. In exchange for protection and cover they have given us warmth and sustenance. The sheep is one of these comrades who has not just given us meat, milk and cheese, but also a fur that is useful in a variety of ways. The qualities of wool itself must wait to be covered another time as it would make for a long and interesting article in itself. However, one must admit that few materials have as many abilities as wool. It is simply a fantastic material. So the sheep deserve a thank you for this.

This article will on the other hand focus on one of the oldest processes known to humans. Felting: the process of using water, heat and movement to create a tightly felted weave. We do not know where felt originated but the process is old, probably older than spinning and is likely to have originated in a time where humans were still dressed in skin.

One of the many legends about how felt came about comes from the story of Noah's Ark from the Old Testament. Noah lined the ark with wool before the flood to avoid the animals being hurt during the voyage across the seas. After the dove brought back the olive branch and all the animals were safely on solid ground again, Noah went back into the ark. In there he saw that the animals had processed the wool with their claws and hooves and the humidity of their breath, and the wool had become felted pieces of fabric that Noah could use to make clothes for his family.

The oldest discoveries, Scythians and the Pazyryk grave
The oldest traces of domestic sheep goes back to 7000 BCE (9000 years ago). There may very well have been domesticated sheep before this time but we have no archaeological finds to support this. How the felting process was actually discovered noone knows either, but it is my belief that we were taught by the sheep themselves, as their backsides are often covered with the finest felt created naturally by a combination of the sheep own body heat, urine and malted wool.

The oldest texts that mention the craft of felting are from China, but there is reason to believe that felting originated as a process in the area stretching from Western China to the Southern Russian plains in connection with the Scythian culture. Felted material protects against sun and the cold and can be used for a lot of different things such as tents, clothing, saddles and covers for horses. In these regions felt was given a magic and even a religious meaning. If for example you wanted to do something good for another person or protect them against bad luck, you would place them on a white felt rug. Another example could be making dolls of felt that protected the household and livestock against evil and brought them luck.

The Scythians are one of the first known nomadic people and around year 700 BCE the Chinese called the region where they roamed, felt-land. Herodotus (Greece c. 500 CE) describes traveling caravans as felt tents on wheels. During excavations of the prince grave of Pazyryk in the Altai Mountains from the year 300 BCE, about 2500 beautiful felt pieces were discovered. Most of these had been preserved well because of the permafrost in the area. The material consisted of tents, socks, ritual dolls, head decorations for horses, felt saddles with inlaid gold leaf and much more. From this material we see that the people who created these things in the cold maintains area were real artists that knew their craft to perfection. With abilities this advanced at this time, the technique of felting must have been around for quite a while in this region. Even today both Inner and Outer Mongolian tribes use felt tents, the so-called "Ger". "Yurt" which is the word mostly used for these tents is actually just the spot on which the "Ger" was erected. Today both the wooden frame and the felt cover is likely to be factory produced.

China: Middle Ages and manufacture
When felting via the Scythians became known in China, the empire did not count it for much. As the material became better known and the quality improved it was carried into the emperors palace as large carpets with silk embroidery and was thus elevated from being an everyday object to something luxurious. Many hundred years later China was in the forefront of felt manufacturing and in 1262 CE employed 29,000 people in this sector, which is quite a few when you put it into perspective of the time. In China felting became even more luxurious, not just by adding embroidery to it but also by lining it with silk which strengthened the material and gave an even more beautiful result.

Felt and freedom in the Antique
In my part of the world, Europe, felt was first mentioned in literature in Homer's Illiad (which is thought to have been written around 600 BCE). Here Odysseus wears a helmet of skin covered with felt. Later in the Roman empire felt became a sign of freedom. If a Roman slave was freed he was shaved and given a special felted cap, a pilleum libertatis, that showed his new status. Pilleum means felt cap and libertatis means freedom, so the cap was simply a felted freedom cap.

The oldest known image of the felting process comes from the town of Pompeii, settled in the 7th century BCE and covered in ashes from the volcano Vesuvius in 79 CE. In this great trade center c. 15-20,000 people were engaged in the textile industry, which covered felters, weavers and fullers. Fullers are also thought to have had great influence in the town's political life.

Discoveries from Northern Europe
Northern Europe does not have many discoveries of felt objects in archaeology because of soil conditions which degrade wool quite easily. But there are some. From Hordaland in Norway we have the oldest find, two felt fragments from the 6th century CE wrapped around a couple of burned bones in a bronze urn. The most noticeable discovery is a felt mask found in one of the ships from Haithabu's harbour (Slesvig, Germany). This mask was kept so well-preserved because before it went down with the ship it had been prepared with tar. This half-mask is brown (dyed with walnut), has pointed ears and looks most of all like a bull with a hole for the nose and two holes 6 cm apart for the eyes. The distance between the eyes fit the proportions of a human which can indicate that the mask was worn by a human, maybe as a part of a ritual.

From these latest centuries not much felt has survived either. Sweden, where there has been no archaeological discovery of felt yet, has on the other hand an unbroken, very living tradition of felting (mostly in the northern regions) which we do not find further south. Even so, in Denmark a special discovery from the 19th century shows that felt is used and at that for one of the most important things in a Samsø fisherman's life. The discovery from Samsø (a Danish island) consists of a felted bag for filtering the fisherman's snaps.

Damgaard, A. 1994. Filt, Kunst, Teknik, Historie. Hovedland. (ISBN: 9788777391859)

Ågren, K. 1977. Tovning: om at lave filt af uld til sokker, vanter, huer og mange andre ting. Thaning og Appel. (ISBN: 9788741360829

Østergaard, E. 2003. Som syet til Jorden. Århus Universitetsforlag: Århus (ISBN: 9788772889344)

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