Felt may be the oldest fabric and felting the oldest textile process in existence. As felt is not a woven product and therefore does not require a loom for its production, it was made relatively easily in ancient times.
It is believed that during the Middle Ages, St. Clement, (who later became the fourth bishop of Rome) stumbled across the process of making felt completely by accident. Apparently, he filled his sandals with tow (short flax or linen fibres) in an attempt to make them more comfortable. He discovered that a type of cloth was produced by the combination of moisture from perspiration and moisture from the ground . This moisture and the pressure from his feet matted the fibres from the tow together, producing a cloth.
After this discovery, St. Clement later established groups of workers to develop the felting process. As a result, he became the patron saint for hat makers.
Prehistoric samples date from the Neolithic period (6500-6300 B.C), while other important finds come from the Bronze and Iron Ages. Earlier this century stone burial chambers in the Altai Mountains in Siberia were opened and some of the earliest felt remains were found here, believed to date to around 700 B.C.
Felt was used by the tribes because it was strong and weather resistant particularly to wet weather. It was utilised to make tents and saddles because of this. As knitting had not yet been invented, it was also particularly useful for clothing.
Soon people all over Asia and Europe used felt. Felt pads were used by Roman soldiers as armoured vests and felt was also used for tunics, socks and boots. By about 500 AD, felt blankets were made by the Vikings further North too.
Little has changed to the steps involved in felting over time. Just as St. Clement discovered, felt is still essentially produced using heat, moisture and pressure to matt and interlock the fibres.
One difference to the process is the exclusion of Mercury in the production of felt. Mercury was used until the late nineteenth in the processing of felt for hat making. However, Mercury was found to have serious effects on the hatter manifesting in tremors, hallucinations, and other psychotic symptoms. As such, this is where the term “mad hatter” or “mad as a hatter” originated.
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