World of felt

For many peoples, especially for nomads, felt was pivotal material during man’s life. People were born and died on felt. They put on felt clothes, covered horses with felt blankets (caparision). According to the traditional beliefs felt could protect people from evil spirits and enemies as well as from intense heat and cold. 

Usually for making felt people used sheep fur. The main rule of the felt making is based on scale structure of the wool fiber. Due to its cuticula structure fibers could meshed together affected by hot water or stream. As a wild sheep did not have such cuticula the fist felts could not appear before a wild sheep turned to a domestic animal. Therefore, the history of felt making started not earlier than 5-6BC. It was at the same time when dogs and horses were tamed, these animals also helped people to herd sheep. From that very time felt making became one of the major occupations in an economic activity of many peoples.   

Felt is the most ancient type of unweaving fabric. Method of producing felts is rather simple. Wool is placed layer by layer, one of the layers contains ornamental details and other is a background.  Then the wool was water with soap hot water. For this purpose soap was chopped and dissolved in water. Then the wool pushed down without disturbing the wool layers.

This process was called the first felt making step (valka) and was the most important. After all the wool was rolled and fixed with a cord. It should not be very tight, because all the layers had to be saturated with hot soapy water. As it was previously said for the first time wool was watering with hot water, but at the end of the process – with cold water.   

The first felts were made of wool of a natural color. In due course wool dyed with the use of natural dyes. Colors should go with each other and be resistant to the weather effects and washing so much attention was played to the dyeing process. Different plants were used as natural dyes. To get the dye of exact quality and color plants were gathered at a certain time and in the exact place.    

Using natural pigments craftsmen succeeded in getting rich color range. To afford green color the used hazel, mulberry and nettle leaves. To get a brown color nut shell was boiled, the gray pigment made from the ripe beans. Pink color was produced from common poppy flowers and a purple from plum tree branches, yellow – from the onionskin. Later it became possible to get a new variety of colors, for example, using sequential dye or pigment mixing. Juice of sauerkraut, oak ash, rusted nails and cupric sulfate were used to fix the pigment.   

Usually, felts were of rectangular shape and of different thickness. Web-felts were used as head covers, thick felts were used for making body armor, shoes, yurt covers. There are several ways for decorating and ornamenting felts: applications (felt, fabric, leather), felt insets (mosaic) with different decorative stitches, decorating with seed-beads and shells, felt painting, etc. some of these methods are still exist. 

The peoples of Central adopted the Iran tradition of making felts with using the roll-in ornament. Such kind of carpets is still produced in Central Asia and called koshmas (felt carpets). The most favorite colors that were used in carpets: white, red, and black. Stylized ram horns were basic ornament for the felts. Woolen details of the ornament were laid on a mat which rolled up and then it was possible to start making the koshma.  The Pazirik technique, the name came from the famous felt curtain which was found in one of the Pazirik Mounds, could be described as a fine and bright appliqué work.

Even now many peoples use to decorate felt things extensively with felt on felt appliqué. Along with such a tradition of decorating the Buryiats, for example, still make monochrome felts covered with the decorative small stitches of sinew threads.

Women usually made small felt things, but men’s work was to produce large items. For example, a yurt section, which was prepared for felting, was rolled on a pole and then sewed in a leather case. After that the pole roped to a saddled horse stirrups, which carried the pole along the field till the felt section was ready.  

The Slavs did not make felts. But they were familiarized with the so-called semi-felts. These felts were half woven and half rolled. The most common use of such a cloth was overcoats making.    

Also, felts were used for making headdresses. Peoples of Volga and the Ural region made different types of sheep wool felt hats. Male hats were made on a hat block. In some district, for example Orshansky district, manufacturing male hats became some kind of handicraft industry. 

Another interesting story about felt is how valenkis felt shoes had appeared. It is dated back to the mid-19th century, when felt shoes were solely festive footwear and were a costly bargain for every family.   While the craft had been developed, the ritual purpose of the valenkis had changed. In one regions felt shoes became casual or for work, in other – intended to be only for festivals. In the late 20th century felt shoes from fashionable and luxury, firstly became footwear for everyday life and then for children and the aged. However, sometimes in a severe frost, people in the villages still wear valenkis instead of fashionable leather shoes.   

In is known that in the Northern Caucasus and in Dagestan felt boots were widely spread. The most interesting were women’s felt Laks (peoples of the Northern Caucasus) bridal boots. These boots were decorated with the decorative border seam and appliqué with the gold embroidery.    

In Caucasus almost all the methods of making and decorating of the felts and felt goods are still preserved. One of them is mosaic. Two felts of different colors, put one upon the other. The pattern of the future felt cut through both pieces. Then craftsman changed and inserted the cut patterns, so that the felt became bicolor. In conclusion the cut patterns were sewed to the felt. The other way of decorating felts is appliqué work. In this case cut-out pattern of different colors sewed on the felt. Also, it is possible to decorate the felt with the roll-in technique, when wool is laid out during the process of felt making.      

Till now craftsmen are continuing folk traditions and create felts not only to comply functional demands, but the magnificent examples of the modern applied art.