In the past, felt was a common material used for many purposes. Believe or not, but there were various types of this staff!
I touched the history today. Thanks to Dr Małgorzata Grupa from the Institute of Archaeology at Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń I could personally examine the original pieces of different types of felt, coming from the area of Gdansk from 14th till 17th century.
I will NOT write about my feelings when I touched original artifacts produced by REAL FELTMAKERS AND HATTERS over 500 years ago! No, I will not, because nobody understand … There is nothing to write, when adult woman is drooling at compressed, shapeless pieces of hair … Hopeless… But: here is the deal.
There are many publications devoted to the production and history of felt. You can find there a lot of information about different types of this material: more or less dense, thin or thick. Each type of felt was used in different purpose.
Prof. Irena Turnau wrote in detail about diversity of felt. She pointed to findings from Denmark, Sweden and Germany: 3mm thick (from 7th-8th century), 8 pieces of felt (11th-12th century) with thickness ranged from 0,5cm to 1,4 cm. They were used in different ways: thicker (but not too dense) to seal boats and ships or as a carpets, blankets or saddle-cloth as well. Thiner and dense pieces could be part of headgear.
There is a systematic knowledge about different types of felt in Mrs. Grupa’s book “Wool Textile commoners and commoners Gdansk (XIV-XVII century) and their maintenance”. She mentioned 7 kinds of them. At our meeting, I had the pleasure to pick 5 of them (3 images are from her book, the other I took personally). So here it is:
- Thin, loose felt: used to stuff long noses in 15th century shoes, belts, upper part of sleeves in leather jackets or as a inside warmer in high boots. It was poorly felted fiber usually, easy to shape in desired form.
2. Thick felt (to 0.5 cm): used i.a. for manufacture of outerwear and shoe insoles. One of the many practical features of the felt is that after cutting the edges did not fray. Felt, if suitably compact, can be cut easily into fancy shapes easily. Relatively simple technology of feltmaking (which does not mean fast!) and insulating properties of felt was certainly used for the production of clothing (coats, hoods, collars, gloves etc.). It is worth mentioning that this type of garments was not produced “seamlessly” as today. Felt was made in large sheets, which were subsequently cut and sutured in desired pattern. Look at incredible felt coat and hood from 16th century in Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nurnberg, Germany!
3. Loose felt (more then 0,5 cm thick): used as gaskets or washers. I think they look like tow today.
4. Softer type, used for the production of rugs, blankets also shoe insoles. The thick felts also recalled prof. Turnau reminding produced in the Balkans in 19th century blankets or “mattresses” almost 8 cm thick. Thick dense felt was also used in the manufacture of footwear (Pilśnianki). Some thick felts, in particular for industrial use were made of wool waste (e.g. hair), which is clearly visible in the next image.
5-6. Shaggy or hairy felt (2-10mm thick). It was used for making headwear garment, where the desired effect was “fur”. It is very interesting type of felt. You can read about shaggy felt here
7. Felt for hats. I knew hat requires a very dense material. Felt must be very compact to fulfill its protective function (against cold / heat and rain). It will exhibit insulating properties and – equally important – be able to maintain its shape.
I made hats 4-5 mm thick. They implemented features described above. I thought there were thin. Well … When I picked up original pieces, I bow down deeply before artistry of craftsmen from Gdansk. The thickness of the felt does not exceed 2-3 mm! Someone might ask: One or two millimeters difference ?! That’s right: 2-3 mm felt requires greater precision at every stage of processing (e.g spread out wool, felting, fulling or smoothing). There is no margin for mistake here.
Hand felted samples from Gdańsk, dense and smooth, were much better than machine-produced felts used for making hats today. Now I have to back to workshop to improve quality of my felt…
1. Grupa Małgorzata, „Wool Textile commoners and commoners Gdansk (XIV-XVII century) and their maintenance”, Wydawnictwo Naukowe UMK, 2012
2. Turnau Irena, “Hand felting in Europe and Asia from the Middle Ages to the 20th Century”, PAN 1997