Log inSign Up

What is Felt Fabric: Properties, How its Made and Where

by Boris Hodakel  • October 30, 2020 • 8 min read

Fabric name Felt
Fabric composition Wool, animal fur, acrylic, acrylonitrile, or rayon
Fabric breathability Medium
Moisture-wicking abilities High
Heat retention abilities High
Stretchability (give) Medium
Prone to pilling/bubbling High
Country where fabric was first produced Turkey or the Altai Mountains
Biggest exporting/producing country today Australia or China
Recommended washing temperatures Depends on the fabric used
Commonly used in Hats, insulating garment lining, boot liners, arts and crafts, pillows, bags, details on other garments

What is felt fabric?

Felt is a type of matted fabric that consists of textile fibers condensed and pressed together. Traditionally made with wool or another type of animal fur, it’s now possible to make felt with acrylic and other forms of synthetic fibers.

Wool felt is highly flame retardant, and it extinguishes itself. This textile also has sound-dampening properties, and it is highly moisture-wicking and absorbent. Felt holds the distinction of being one of the only fabrics made without weaving or knitting.

Using heat, water, and pressure, felt manufacturers permanently interlock natural or synthetic fibers to create matted felt fabric. It’s then possible to cut or shape felt to produce apparel items as varied as hats and boot liners.

History of felt

Felt is believed to be the world’s oldest fabric. The earliest archaeological evidence of felt dates back to 6500 BC, making this fabric older than any knitted or woven textile.

Various cultures have competing myths regarding the origins of felt. In the Western tradition, for instance, the invention of felt is attributed to either Saint Clement or Saint James, both of whom are said to have placed natural fibers in their sandals to prevent blisters only to have these fibers turn into felt due to heat, pressure, and sweat.

According to Sumerian legend, felt was discovered by the warrior hero Urnamman. The felt origin stories of other cultures might not be as colorful, but felt-making has played an integral role in the societies of the Eurasian continent for millennia.

The mountain people of Tibet, for instance, ancestrally used felt due to its insulative properties. Even today, the holy men of Tibet, including the Dalai Lama, wear traditional felt hats.

Early cultures in India used felt for blankets and saddles, and the people of ancient Iran and Turkey commonly made felt floor mats. One of the most important uses of felt in the ancient world, however, was in the construction of circular Mongol houses called yurts, which remain the primary forms of dwellings on the Eurasian Steppe to this day.

While the oldest preserved samples of felt were found in Turkey, historical evidence seemingly identifies the Altai Mountains as the region where felt was first made into sophisticated products. Inhabitants of this region continue to make felt for yurts and tourist items as part of an unbroken tradition that stretches back thousands of years.

The beaver hat trade

Starting in the 16th century, the economy of the area that now comprises southern Canada and the Great Lakes region in the United States was largely supported by the beaver felt hat trade. Between 1550 and 1850, hats made with beaver fur felt were among the most popular exports from the New World, and the beaver pelt trade alone made it possible for the British and French to establish rudimentary colonies throughout what is now the inland American-Canadian border region.

Commonly called beaverkins, hatmakers produced beaver fur felt hats in a variety of distinct shapes including the immediately recognizable tophat. The beaver felt industry nearly drove North American beavers to extinction, and it was only a sudden change in style preferences that allowed their survival.

Felt fabric today

While some hatmakers still make beaver felt hats to this day, most accessory manufacturers have switched to more ethical fibers like wool. Felt is still a popular hat material, but this fabric’s uses have expanded into other types of accessories as well as homewares and crafting materials.

With the invention of acrylic fabric in the early 20th century, the international felt industry believed that it had found a cheaper alternative to natural fibers. While natural felt is renowned for its flame retardant qualities, however, acrylic is highly combustible, and other synthetic fibers used to make felt, such as rayon, aren’t much better.

As a result, high-quality felt remains made with natural fibers like wool, and consumers generally associate acrylic or rayon felt with lower-tier products. Felt never truly regained the popularity it lost in the West when beaver hats went out of style, but plenty of cultures around the world continue to use felt for ancestral purposes entirely unfazed by the aftereffects of this ultimately temporary style craze.

How is felt fabric made?

The felt production process varies slightly depending on whether it contains wool, acrylic, or another textile fiber. In the case of wool, raw fibers are derived from the coats of wool-bearing animals, and in the case of acrylic, fibers are made by dissolving a polymer in various artificial chemicals and spinning the resulting substance.

Once textile manufacturers have acquired the desired fibers, they combine them into a mass using a cylindrical device studded with steel nails. Next, a carding machine cards these fibers into a loose web with standardized spaces between fibers.

A machine known as a cross-lapper or a vlamir then combines multiple webs together to make a roll, and four of these rolls are layered on top of each other to make a batt. To harden these batts of felted material, felt manufacturers expose the batts to heat and moisture, and then the final shrinking process is accomplished with a combination of heat, pressure, and moisture.

Most felt manufacturers use sulfuric acid during the final stages of the felt production process, and they neutralize this acid with soda ash and warm water once the matt has reached its ideal size. Finally, an industrial machine uses rollers to smooth out any irregularities in the finished felt fabric.

Felt manufacturers are now free to dye, cut, or form the felt to complete consumer products. They may also choose to sell unaltered felt in bulk sheets.

How is felt fabric used?

Today, textile manufacturers primarily use felt to produce hats and other insulative substances such as boot linings. Thicker and harder than woven or knitted wool, felt provides an excellent barrier against cold temperatures, and this woolen material is not scratchy against the skin.

Outside the realm of apparel, felt manufacturers sometimes use this substance to make decorative pillows, handbags, and other homewares or accessories that benefit from felt’s softness and additional useful properties without needing to be significantly flexible. As most children and parents know, felt is also a popular crafting material, and you can use your imagination to make practically anything with felt. Most felt designed for crafting, however, is acrylic, which is less comfortable against the skin and more harmful to the environment than woolen felt.

Where is felt fabric produced?

Despite a recent depletion of sheep livestock levels across the continent, Australia remains the world’s largest exporter of wool products, followed closely by China. Therefore, the majority of woolen felt was manufactured in Australia, though in some cases, Australian sheep farmers ship their raw wool to China for finishing. The world’s largest producer of synthetic textile products, on the other hand, is China, so the majority of acrylic and rayon felt is Chinese.

How much does felt fabric cost?

Genuine wool felt is reasonably expensive, but it is usually around the same price as other wool textiles. Felt made with acrylic or other synthetic fibers is less expensive, but it does not have the same beneficial attributes as wool felt.

What different types of felt fabric are there?

Over the centuries, textile artisans have developed quite a few different types of woolen or fur felt. More recently, fabric manufacturers have deviated from the norm and started making felt with materials other than natural animal fibers. Make sure you’re familiar with all the different types of felt available on the market:

1. Wool felt

Still one of the most common types of felt, textile artisans made felt using wool from sheep or other wool-bearing animals for the majority of this fabric’s history. In addition to being aesthetically pleasing, wool felt shares the beneficial attributes of its base fiber, including absorbency, fire resistance, and impressive insulative properties.

2. Fur felt

To this day, some textile manufacturers use beaver pelts to make felt hats and other accessories. While not as in vogue in the era of animal rights, fur felt is useful due to its impressive durability and high malleability. It’s also possible to make fur felt with types of fur other than beaver, but in every case, fur felt production involves the killing of fur-bearing animals.

3. Acrylic felt

Acrylic felt has become increasingly popular over the last century. Cheaper to produce than wool, acrylic felt offers some of the same benefits as conventional felt. Unlike wool or fur felt, however, acrylic felt is highly flammable, and it is uncomfortable when worn against the skin.

4. Rayon felt

Commonly used in industrial and medical applications, rayon felt shares the hydrophilic properties of wool felt. One of the major benefits of rayon felt is the ability to shape this textile into various insulative products, but like all synthetic textile fibers, rayon is a non-biodegradable pollutant.

5. Pressed felt

Pressed felt is the most common type of felt, and it is also the oldest. Produced by combining textile fibers into a mat using water, heat, and pressure, this type of felt is usually sold in sheets and shaped into various consumer, industrial, and medical items.

6. Needled felt

Artisans use specialized needles to make needled felt figurines and other three-dimensional products. This type of felt is not insulative or used for industrial purposes, and instead, most needled felt products are decorative in nature.

7. Woven felt

Woven felt is a type of felt fabric that textile manufacturers produce by applying heat, water, and pressure to pre-woven fabrics. The result is a matted, highly insulative fabric that can be much thinner than pressed felt.

How does felt fabric impact the environment?

Wool and fur felt are among the world’s most biodegradable substances. The only potential environmental issues associated with these types of felt regard land use and proper animal stewardship. In the modern era, harvesting animals for fur is considered to be cruel and barbaric, and in some cases, wool production can involve animal cruelty and cause pollution or soil erosion.

Natural fibers are, however, invariably better for the environment than synthetic textiles. Both acrylic and rayon production involve the use of toxic, caustic chemicals that can harm textile workers. Only rarely do textile manufacturers dispose of these chemicals properly, and in most cases, they pollute surrounding ecosystems.

Acrylic and rayon felt are not washed as commonly as other synthetic textiles, but these synthetic felt fabrics can still contribute to microfiber pollution while in use. As non-biodegradable fabrics, acrylic and rayon felt fill up landfills or contribute to plastic pollution when discarded.

Felt fabric certifications available

Wool felt fabrics may be eligible for Woolmark certification, which is a certifying agency that ensures wool products were produced using safe, sustainable, and cruelty-free processes. Certain fur felt fabrics produced in the European Union may be eligible for WelFur certification, which ensures that fur products were produced responsibly.

Many types of sustainable fabric may be eligible for Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or OEKO TEX certification. These organizations certify natural fabrics that were produced using organic, sustainable processes, and they even certify certain types of recycled synthetic textiles. Recycled synthetic textiles may also be eligible for Global Recycle Standard (GRS) certification, and synthetic textiles of all types may be eligible for International Organization for Standardization (ISO) certification.

Share

About the author:

Boris Hodakel is the founder and CEO of Sewport - an online marketplace connecting brands and manufacturers, former founder of various clothing manufacturing services. He is passionate about e-commerce, marketing and production digitisation. Connect with Boris on LinkedIn.