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A Story of The History of Felt

As promised in the Felt Balls Lesson post, here is the story I tell when introducing felt to children for the first time. I like to give them each a piece of soft, natural wool felt to hold as I tell the story. I don't explain why felting works at this stage - that's a story for another day!

A Story of The History of Felt

Isn’t it amazing how much we, as humans, know about our world? It is also amazing, how much we still don’t know, and probably never will.

This is felt, it is a kind of woollen fabric that is not woven or knitted. Felt is made using a whole different method all of its own, and it is the oldest type of fabric known to mankind. To this day, we humans use felt for all sorts of purposes and would miss it if we didn’t have it as a resource, yet we don’t really know who discovered it.

Of course, humans are curious beings and they like to figure out answers to questions, so there are lots of stories about who first discovered felt, we just can’t be sure which ones are correct.

The stories generally involve a legendary hero or person of high religious importance, for example, the Sumerian people believed the secret of felt-making was discovered by their great warrior Urnamman of Lagash. The discoverers in the stories were all very important people, which tells us how important felt-making is to each of these cultures.

But maybe felt-making had more modest beginnings. Some people believe it was a humble shepherd who discovered felt, quite by accident. It is a shepherd’s job to look after their sheep, making sure they have enough food and water to grow strong and healthy so they produce meat. This could mean walking great distances each day to find the best grass.

Imagine a shepherd in ancient times walking around all day with his flock. His sandals would probably be made of some sort of leather, with straps holding them on. Imagine it is coming to the end of summer and the grass is getting dry, possibly even turning brown and dusty. The sheep would need to walk very far to find enough to eat and of course, the shepherd would need to walk with them.

But the leather of his sandals would be dry and the dust would work its way under the straps. This would make them rub against his feet, making them sore and blistered. If you have ever had a blister you will know how painful and annoying they are. You would not want to have to keep walking for several more hours with blistered feet, would you?

Humans are inventive, and they like to find solutions to their problems. Maybe the shepherd tried using some of the precious water from his water-skin to wash the dust from his sandals; maybe he tried to stuff some of the grass the sheep were eating under the straps. We don’t know how many experiments he tried before he found the perfect solution, but at some stage, we think, our shepherd’s eyes fell on the soft, fluffy fur on his sheep’s back and thought this might be the answer. He carefully layered some of the sheep’s wool between the skin of his feet and the leather of his sandals and went about his day of walking and herding.

We don’t know if our shepherd got any blisters that day, but we can guess what he discovered when he got home that night. When he sat down to take off his sandals, he would have found, not the handful of loose fibres that he had packed around his feet that morning, but a single piece of fabric! The shepherd probably didn’t know exactly why or how the wool had turned to felt, but he probably did know that he had made an amazing discovery and probably told lots of people about it, beginning a long tradition of felt making amongst his people.

Now, it could be that all of the stories about the discovery of felt are true; people did not have such easy methods of communication in ancient times as we do today, so perhaps felt was discovered by several different people or peoples. What we do know is that felt has been important to many cultures. Archaeologists have discovered examples of felt dating back to ancient times in several parts of the world.

The earliest evidence of felt making is wall coverings found in Turkey dating back as far as 6500 BC. Over thirty different examples of complex felt work were discovered in the Pazyryk tombs in Siberia from 300-400 BCE. Felt has been used in Central Asia for hats, horse blankets, boots, cloaks and tents since the fourth century BCE.

The Ancient Romans found that felt helped them in battle as it made light but robust armour as well as tunics, boots and socks. In fact, by the first century CE, felt making was widely practised in Western Europe and felt-makers guilds were established with great pride.

Ancient Chinese warriors also used felt for shields as well as clothing and even boats! And the Chinese Emperor was carried into the presence of his subjects sitting on a felt mat.

I wonder if any of these people, who found so many uses for this wonderful fabric, stopped to think about the how it was discovered? You might like to have a go at making felt for yourselves, and when you do, maybe you will think about the humble shepherd in our story and the gift of his discovery.

Children may wish to make vertical (back through time) or horizontal (across cultures) studies of felt, or look at the many uses of felt in their own environment. If this captures their interest, you might like to present The Many Uses of Wool lesson. Otherwise, the Making Felt Balls Lesson gives the explanation of why felting works and allows children to try it for themselves.

And of course, if children wish to pack their shoes with loose wool for the day - so much the better!

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