By Sarah Quinton

Classifications are assigned to most aspects of textile production: woven or non-woven, chemically or naturally dyed, hand or machine produced, and natural or synthetic fibres. Within these broad categories are a multitude of other, less immediately obvious divisions. As one of the oldest known forms of cloth, felt has had ample opportunity to insinuate itself into an assortment of these niches, and it straddles the boundaries of others. Felt can be characterized as a substance that is at once pure and primitive; it is a wellspring that incites complex rejoinders.

The Museum for Textiles presents exhibitions that illuminate and build on textile histories. Our contemporary programming provides opportunities for audiences to digest new networks of linkages by encouraging independent scholarship alongside the creation and presentation of recent artwork. Kathryn Walter, guest curator for FELT, builds on this framework by integrating the work of five Canadian artists: Millie Chen, Evelyn Yon Michalofski, Michelle Gay, Arthur Renwick and Kevin Weiss. A museological display of historic artifacts addresses felt as: one of humankind's first forms of cloth, felt's relationship to art history, felt as a thoroughly modern material, and felt as a genuinely Canadian container of social and political events and traditions. Walter has introduced a uniquely cooperative model that further extends the Museum's reach into aspects of contemporary culture.

Felt's Alterity

By Kenneth Hayes

Alterity: The state of being other or different; diversity, 'otherness'
- Oxford English Dictionary

It might not be an exaggeration to describe felt as an outcast from the system of textiles, or even to say that felt's alterity can, if properly understood, illuminate the limits and constitutive principles of the entire system of textiles. Felt is, after all, a fabric, but since it is not woven, it cannot be classed as a textile. Yet felt presents a more than categorical alternative to weaving and the loom. It differs from knitting, crochet, tatting and all other non-loomed textiles by abjuring the first step of making textiles - the ordering of fibres to make longer strands. Spinning seeks to transcend the specificity of fibres (whether cotton, linen, silk, wool or synthetics) by submitting them to the discipline of the line.

Silk is in some sense the exemplary natural fibre, since an entire cocoon can be unravelled in a single filament. Weaving continues this order of lines by ranking threads parallel in two directions: one stationary and vertical (the warp), and the other horizontal and mobile (the woof). Mastery is exercised in weaving by the intertwining of these two orders, a practice that is fundamentally an ordering in and of time. Felt, on the other hand, is that singular fabric that capitulates to the natural tendency of fibres to entangle. Instead of submitting dutifully to the weaver's great obligation to oppose the knot, felting hardens, worsens and exacerbates knots, multiplying them to the point of irreversibility. The starting point and means of production of felt is the one phenomenon of fibres that all textiles must work to repress.

Traditional felt is dominated by one material - sheep's wool. Wool may also be spun, but it is the only fibre that readily felts. A wool fibre is composed of a cortex, or inner core of spindle shaped cells, with a tough outer covering of minute scales oriented toward the tip. Lanolin, a natural grease released by a sebaceous gland on each follicle, prevents wool fibres from entangling on the sheep's back. When the lanolin is scoured out under heat and vigorous pressure, the epithelial scales open and wedge into one another, drawing the fibres tightly together. The cortical cells have two components that combine to cause a distinct wavy conformation as the fibre grows. This crimp is more pronounced when wool is wetted because the cortical cells shrink toward the base of the fibre. This aids in felting.

Obviously we do not see what causes wool to felt, but the results are so dramatic that we can imagine in microscopic detail the scaly filaments of wool hooked into one another. And we know that grip only tightens under the influence of heat and pressure. Once this simple fact has been grasped it is easy to imagine this mutual, relentless imbrication. Felting initiates an endgame, which approaches the limit state of “entangledness” without ever reaching it. This asymptote haunts the imagination. The unstated question is how much harder, denser, or more compact might a piece of felt be made? The felting process is not, after all, a true metamorphosis, which results in a new material; felt only becomes more itself through the inexorable working of its inner logic.

The knot by which felt is made is an ancient figure for despair at the intractability of the world; it inspires dreams of a release that can only be imagined as magical.1 In mythology, a single thread sufficed to undo the winding labyrinth, but the Gordian knot had to be severed. All woven textiles constantly threaten to unravel, and this unravelling is a compelling natural metaphor for the loss of a hard-won and carefully maintained order. This “coming undone” is irresistibly imagined as the dissolution of a self that we understand as a kind of woven tissue.2 Felt, on the other hand, does not unravel. The process of felting is irreversible; once done it cannot be reduced again to its components.

Felt has been described as a rhizomatic structure in which each fibre communicates with every other without any intermediate agent.3 Textiles are lattices or matrices in which every point is in immediate, transparent communication with every other point, so that what affects one point moves perfectly through the system - the phenomenon of running. In felt, each strand of wool communicates only with its immediate neighbours and the whole from which it cannot be extracted. The fibres cannot be distinguished by roles; felt evades the hierarchy that in textiles begins with the distinction between the noble fixed warp and the flexible, potentially discontinuous woof. In practical terms, this organization gives felt the capacity to dampen vibration, which makes it an effective gasket, sound block, or isolation barrier for mechanical equipment. It also means that felt can be punched, bored, drilled, trimmed, and carved without fraying.

To be more accurate about felt's relations with knots, it should be noted that felt's knots are not tied by some external agent but that the knot in felt forms itself, spontaneously, in a process that is only abetted by removing the natural lubricant that prevents it from happening. This lack of intention exposes an essential fact about knots; they are a kind of liminal phenomenon, on the threshold between a properly human agency with the aim to confound and a material world set to foil us. Perhaps we respond to knots with such frustration because they represent a kind of mute rebellion of things. The idea that the material acts on its own is disturbing, since it contradicts the heroic notion of human will directed against the brute material of the world. The things themselves act on their own, relegating us to the position of intermediary; it is impossible to remain indifferent to this proposition. Felt is an accident of the material world, a kind of default product that lays so little claim to ingenuity that it threatens to compromise the will's self- regard. The challenge it poses is to either benefit by submitting to the material world and its inherent material logic; to go with the flow, so to speak.

To understand this point better, it might be instructive to consider felt's deceptive resemblance to the pile fabrics; fabrics such as velvet and carpets that are also made of knots, and in which the surface of the textile is created by fibres that stand perpendicular to the plane of the warp and the weft. This surface, composed of the densely packed cut ends of fibres, attains a depth and lustre that is similar to felt in some respects. Nevertheless, felt and velvet are true antitheses. Velvet is valued for its sheen while, perceptually, felt is radical precisely for lacking any points of visual interest. The most conspicuous difference between felt and pile fabrics is that the pile fabrics always have a good face, where felt displays no such front-back differentiation. Pile fabrics are made through the controlled knotting of short yarns onto a woven ground. These yarns are a sort of supplement that aims to hide the underlying grid, which nevertheless remains evident. Pile fabrics invariably project the pervasive sense of an upright field of order, like a military parade of soldiers standing at attention.

Perhaps this point can be made by considering the difference between energy and labour. The vigorous working of felt is in every way opposite to the planning and control exercised in weaving. The skilled but deeply repetitive labour that traditionally made velvets and carpets so costly is a sign of their “unfreedom”.4 It is not surprising that through much of its history, velvet was reserved for courtly attire and subject to sumptuary laws. Similarly, the finest carpets have always been made in the workshops of imperial courts. Compared to this protracted labour, felt is made relatively quickly in a burst of energy. It is instantaneous, or very nearly so. A large felt carpet could usually be made in a day. Felt is the ultimate entropic material, absorbing large quantities of heat and mechanical energy that cannot be recovered. Yet felt offers a joyous abandon. Who is not impressed by the idea of a bundle of wool being felted by being flung up and down, trampled upon, or while tumbling along behind a Mongolian horseman? Who cannot appreciate this crude economy? Felt is not just unheroic, it is anti-heroic.

We know traditional felt is specific to sheep's wool, but so strong is wool's tendency to felt that it can be mixed with up to 80 per cent of other fibres to decrease the cost of the felt and give it various properties. In those cases the wool simply forms a matrix that entraps the other material. Other animal furs such as mohair, camel, beaver and rabbit have potential to felt, but to a much lesser degree than sheep's wool.

Synthetic industrial felts are now made by needle-punching batts of fibres that entangle and compress them. This eliminates the highly developed skill required to work with widely variable natural materials, the grading and inspection of the source material, the subtleties of fibre mixtures, and the careful control of chemical solutions, water temperatures and times of exposure. Modern technology denatures all materials and invalidates traditional knowledge; but its force can be seen operating equally in the other direction to overcome the tendency of wool to shrink and felt when it is not desirable. This is done by either removing the wool's scales (desquamation) or binding them with a permanent glaze that stops their hooking.

Etymologically, the words felt and filth are related.5 It is easy to see why: foreign materials such as a bit of dung or a burr might trigger natural felting right on the backs of animals. Raw wool can harbour mites, lice and fleas (the bearers of contagion such as anthrax and plague). Although cleaning the wool is an essential step in felt making, early felt makers used ashes, urine, vinegar and trampling animals to promote felting. Now “fuller's earth,” a clay-like material composed largely of hydrous silicate of alumina, is used to shrink and thicken fabric under controlled conditions.

Contaminating additives and impurities are one issue, but felt can inspire thoughts of filth in and of itself. The promiscuous mingling of sodden fibres alone is enough to disturb. Disturbing, too, is the pressure and friction used to process wool into felt - a chewing, grinding, pulverizing action. Felt making involves a sort of maceration-in-reverse; a process that instead of breaking down a substance, causes it to compress ever more densely.6 Of course, modern industrial felts are made with chemical agents and industrial soaps, and scoured clean after processing. Strangely enough, the words felt and filter are also related. Certainly one of felt's major industrial uses is to filter fluids, but this porosity and wicking action only underscores its prodigious capacity to absorb contaminants. The rhizomatic structure of felt even has the added technical benefit that particles lodge evenly throughout it, so it is free of the blockages that occur in woven materials.

Thickness is one of the uncanny properties of felt; stiffness is another. Most fibres must be limp to be woven and so most textiles are flexible, but felt can attain a hardness that is not unlike wood. Sometimes, resin or shellac is added to this end. Textiles, made of lines and approximate planes, are essentially thin. Gossamer and transparent materials like chiffon and gauze are in some sense the acme of weaving. Felt, on the other hand, is rarely less than one-sixteenth of an inch thick. One-half and one-inch thicknesses are common, and sheets of up to three inches are possible. In fact, there is no theoretical limit on the thickness of felt, which means that it has no privileged dimension, no top or bottom, no face - no good side. Felt is not pictorial; neither face of a felt carpet is meant to be looked upon in preference to the other, and they often have two differently patterned sides so they can be reversed. Felt achieves thickness without resorting to stuffing (kapok, down or cotton) and so it offers no dialectic of container and contained, no metaphoric pocket or envelope. Felt is isotropic; literally, the same any way you cut it. This means felt can be punched, bored, cut and slit without regard for grain. It can be said that felt has no edge - if by edge it is meant some dimension that requires protection, either by tying off the warp or applying some binding strip. Felt is the only fabric with a universal selvedge, which is why it is so often used in appliqué©.

Felt is inherently three dimensional; in fact, it might not be going too far to describe felt as a protoplastic. This is clearly visible in the felt hat, one of the most typical articles produced from felt. Through successive stages of moulding and blocking, a felt hat arrives at an often extravagant volume. The rigidity of felt and its capacity to hold a form distinguish it from all other textiles, which rely on additives such as starch to gain stiffness. In fact, felt's ductility exceeds that of most metals aside from lead, and nothing resembles working felt so much as chasing, the method of making sheet metal into three-dimensional forms by hammering over a mould.

The homogeneity of felt surfaces permits a smooth, unmarked transition from inside to outside, as occurs, for example, with the brim of a hat, or where the three folds on the crown of a Stetson play at making an inside of an outside. Other traditional felt garments, such as boots, armour and mantles have a seamless three-dimensional construction made possible by felt's plasticity. Felt garments eliminate the reduction of the human body's complex three-dimensional form to a set of two-dimensional maps, which is required of clothing manufacture with textiles. Traditional shepherd's mantles of central Asia are intriguing garments formed in the round with openings made by slitting the material as required. The thickness and stiffness of felt means the arms are often non-functional, tapering to vestigial points or even felted into a connecting loop. These mantles can be twice the width of a man's shoulders and function as portable, wearable tents.

This last example of a specific felt artifact brings up two points - felt's archaic and nomadic origins - without which an account of felt would not be complete, but which cannot be pursued in depth here. Most accounts of felt begin by stressing these points. Legendary accounts of felt's origins abound, but felt artifacts have been found by archeologists in the lowest levels of the Neolithic city of Çatal Hüyük in Turkey, meaning they are as much as 8,500 years old. Felt thus originated long, long before the invention of the loom, at a time when hides and furs were the only other coverings. Obviously, the furry surface of felt bears some resemblance to natural pelts, a quality which is pronounced in some old traditional middle-eastern garments by leaving one face more ragged. Extraordinary felt artifacts from the 7th to 2nd centuries BC have been discovered in burial chambers in the Altai Mountains in Siberia, where they were preserved by permafrost. These include wall carpets, clothing, linings for sarcophagi, socks, cushions, padded rings and animal trappings. Of these things, by far the most important is the great Pazyryk felt, which measures an astounding 4.5 x 6.5 metres.

The technique of felting is not only old, it is very stable. Even the industrialization of felt manufacturing did not change the basic procedure until needle punching was introduced in the early 20th century. Geographically and culturally, felt production has been characteristic of peoples who have lived in a 1,000 mile wide band that passes across the entire Eurasian continent. Given felt's reliance on wool, it is naturally produced by shepherds and nomads who follow grazing flocks. Despite its presence at the oldest known city, it might be said that felt is to nomadism as weaving is to the city state. Lest this formulation be drawn too conclusively, it should also be noted that most nomadic groups also manufactured knotted carpets, and the two forms are usually found together.


  1. The distinction between the figures of the knot and the labyrinth has perhaps been most clearly maintained in the Western tradition of formal gardening. Of course there the difference is underscored by the fact that one enters the labyrinth, while one merely looks at the knot; their difference is thereby revealed as one of action and contemplation.
  2. See, for example, Paul de Man's discussion of this “natural metaphor” in his analysis of irony, “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” in Blindness and Insight, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983, p.215.
  3. By Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schhrenia, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1987. pp 474-477.
  4. This term is used by Jeff Wall to describe the state he attempts to depict in many of his pictures. See for example, the sweatshop scene in Outburst (1989) and the melancholy Untangling (1994).
  5. See Deirdre Spencer, “Felt: The Fuller's Art,” in Canada Craft, Aug./Sep. 1978, pp 34-35. She explains that felt, filth and filter all derive from the Teutonic words feltoz, filtiz.
  6. On this point see Didier Gille's article “Maceration and Purification” in zone 112, New York: Urzone publishers, 1986, pp 242-247.
  7. It is strange to think that the felt hat, not long ago a nearly universal item of Western male attire, could disappear so suddenly and thoroughly that for a man to wear one now is invariably a self-conscious, distinctly anachronistic act.
  8. For the best account of these legends, see Leonardo Olschki's The Myth of Felt, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1949. For descriptions of archeological finds, see M.E. Burkett's The Art of the Felt Maker. Kendall: Abbot Hall Art Gallery, 1979. pp 7-20.

© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada