Felt is a textile material that is produced by matting, condensing and pressing fibers together. Felt can be made of natural fibers such as wool or animal fur, or from synthetic fibers such as petroleum-based acrylic or acrylonitrile or wood pulp-based rayon. Blended fibers are also common.
Feltmaking is still practised by nomadic peoples (Altaic people: Mongols; Turkic people) in Central Asia, where rugs, tents and clothing are regularly made. Some of these are traditional items, such as the classic yurt (Gers), while others are designed for the tourist market, such as decorated slippers. In the Western world, felt is widely used as a medium for expression in both textile art and contemporary art and design, where it has significance as an ecologically responsible textile and building material.
Only certain types of fiber can be wet felted successfully. Most types of fleece, such as those taken from the alpaca or the Merino sheep, can be put through the wet felting process. One may also use mohair (goat), angora (rabbit), or hair from rodents such as beavers and muskrats. These types of fiber are covered in tiny scales, similar to the scales found on a strand of human hair. Heat, motion, and moisture of the fleece causes the scales to open, while agitating them causes them to latch onto each other, creating felt. There is an alternative theory that the fibers wind around each other during felting. Plant fibers and synthetic fibers will not wet felt.
Needles used for crafting are often very thin needles, sometimes fitted in holders that allow the user to utilize 2 or more needles at one time to sculpt wool objects and shapes. The single thin needles are used for detail and the multiple needles that are paired together are used for larger areas or to form the base of the project. At any point in time a variety of fiber colors may be added for detail and individuality, using needles to incorporate them into the project.
Felt is used for framing paintings. It is laid between the slip mount and picture as a protective measure to avoid damage from rubbing to the edge of the painting. This is commonly found as a preventive measure on paintings which have already been restored or professionally framed. It is widely used to protect paintings executed on various surfaces including canvas, wood panel and copper plate.
As part of the overall renewal of interest in textile and fiber arts, beginning in the 1970's and continuing through today, felt has experienced a strong revivial in interest. In the U.K., Mary Burkett's book and exhibition (The Art of the Feltmaker, 1979) introduced new audiences to this old craft. This led to renewed interest in the historical roots of feltmaking, including the diverse traditions of the craft, from Mongolia to Japan, and North Africa to Europe. Artistic innovator's in this early period included Beth Beede, Inge Bauer, Polly Stirling, and Joan Livingstone.
Fashioning Felt, an international exhibition held at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York City (March 6-September 7, 2009), was an important moment in the recognition of both the artistic and practical elements of modern felt. It provided new audiences with the opportunity to learn about the historical and contemporary techniques for the production of felt and information on the use of felt in art and industry.
Today, felters continue to push the boundaries of the material and its incorporation in new works that respond to developments in art and the sciences. Eva Sanchez Comacho is an artist integrating the medium of felt with the emerging field of eco dyeing to produce striking works sustainably dyed with discarded metal, leaves, and many other natural materials.