Wandering through the markets in Kathmandu, you can’t help but notice there’s something going on with felt in Nepal. Shoes, hats, bags, toys, you name it. Why? Well, come to find out:
Felt is the oldest man-made textile known, predating knit and woven cloth; in fact, archaeologists have found fragments of felt in Asia dating back to the Bronze Age. It is made by wetting layers of wool with soap and water and agitating the fibers so that they form a dense fabric. This can then be stretched into all sorts of items, including shoes, socks, bags, coats, and even shelters. Today, the art of felting is mainly found in the “Felt Belt,” which runs through Central Asia, and is a particular specialty of Nepal. (Global Good Partners)
When we first started talking about products and countries, I shared this anecdote with Annalisa and it stuck in her creative brain. Soon she was buying yards of felt, shopping for leather and beautiful hardware, sewing, re-sewing, etc. Fast forward a couple months—voilá, we had 3 prototypes designed and 2 tickets to Nepal.
It wasn’t until we were visiting our partners, Associated Craft Producers of Nepal that we really understood the process of making felt.
So here we go:
You start with wool: sheep, yak, alpaca. Years before Nepal became a sought-after destination for mountaineers, it was composed primarily of nomads, shepherds and farmers. In the north as the elevation increases dramatically towards the Himalayas, it gets cold. Before there were fancy North Face jackets and tents, alas, there was wool from your own animals. And that’s how it started. Now, most of the wool used for modern-day felting is imported from New Zealand. As felting has become a profitable business (not just a utilized by-product), buying wool versus shearing your own livestock has become a necessary step.
Raw wool is first dyed to create uniform color consistency. While many colors can be created, it is the actual felting process that “makes” the color. For instance, we wanted a dark heather grey, so 3 different color wools were mixed in the felting process to create our custom grey. The wool is boiled with the dye in giant vats. Because it is so fibrous, it takes to the dye quickly. Once it reaches the desired saturation, it is removed, rinsed and placed in the sun to dry.
The wool is then aerated to separate and straighten the fibers so that when it is felted it binds together better. Once it is separated, it is then carded to get out any dirt or obvious flaws. At ACP they have a machine that helps with this since they are often making a lot of felt in one color for one product.
Once that is complete, the felting may begin. Generally speaking, this is where the magic happens. Felting occurs when water and soap is mixed with the wool, then agitated so the fibers are compressed and bound to one another. In the image below, an artisan has completed that process and is tightly rolling the felt to flatten it in to one large surface.
Then, it will be rinsed to remove excess soap and hung out to dry in the sun, where it will harden in to a smooth yet pliable textile.
Once it is dry, the felt is then ready to be cut and used to make any product designed.