From thousands of breeds of sheep to the delicate process of manipulating their wool, the story of felt and felters is more complex than you might expect.
Do you know how many different breeds of sheep exist? No? Neither did members of Adelaide Handspinners and Weavers Guild when asked this question during a talk about heritage and rare sheep, given by Luba Chambers. Guesses began around 35, and crept up towards 200, before Luba revealed the astonishing fact that globally there are over 1400 breeds. Only a few are used for large-scale commercial farming; a third exist in such low numbers that they are classified as rare or endangered; others have already been lost.
One of the most unusual is the endangered North Ronaldsay sheep. This wild breed is named after their island home, the most northerly of Scotland’s Orkney Islands. In 1832, the Laird built a stone wall around the island to preserve the grassland for his domesticated sheep, leaving the wild sheep with only 271 acres of coastal land on which to live. Their digestive systems adapted to the limited supply of grass, allowing them to live on a diet of seaweed. Numbering fewer than 3000, they are now valued for their wool and succulent meat.
Efforts to ensure the survival of rare breeds are being made by organisations such as the Rare Breeds Trust of Australia, Heritage Sheep Australia, the Australian Rare Breed Sheep Project, the UK’s Rare Breeds Survival Trust, and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. These organisations emphasise the importance of maintaining a broad genetic pool and promote the qualities of different breeds which include meat quality, wool, parasite and disease resistance and climate adaptation.
Luba and her husband Jon, co-owners of Handcrafted Gifts in Salisbury, contribute to this process by sourcing fibres from different sheep breeds and selling to hand spinners, weavers, knitters and felters. The wools vary in colour, texture and length, and suit different purposes. Large-scale commercial wool producers require consistency in quality and colour, using white fleeces only. Breeds such as Australian Merino and English Dorset are amongst the finest of wools and soft against the skin making them popular for clothing manufacturing. But many handcrafters embrace the diversity of natural colours from different breeds — from white, through an array of brown hues, to black.
Felters love merino, which is soft and easy to felt, but also use wools from other breeds to create decorative effects. Felt is an ancient form of non-woven textile made from animal wool. The application of water, heat, and friction cause the fibres to bind together, creating a dense, warm and durable fabric.
Decoration on felt can be produced by laying out designs in fibres of different colours, by cutting and applying partially-felted fibres (pre-felts) to a pre-felt backing, or by embellishing felt fabric with embroidery. Merino of 16 to 24 microns in diameter felts quickly and easily and is the most commonly-used wool amongst felters. Other wools, such as Corriedale, felt more slowly, shrink less, and can be used in combination with merino to create textured surfaces. The naturally curly locks of Wensleydale and Teeswater sheep may be used for attractive details or fringed edges.
Felt has a long history. Wherever there were sheep — particularly in Asia and Scandinavia — felt was used for clothing, footwear, bags, saddles, rugs, and, in some regions of Asia, nomadic groups made traditional felt tents, called yurts or gers. The earliest known examples of felt were found preserved in frozen Scythian tombs in the Pazyryk Valley in Southern Siberia, dated to 650 B.C.; however, wall paintings in Turkey dated to between 6500 to 3000 B.C. depict what are believed to be images of felt appliquè.
Despite this genealogy, felt has seen some exciting innovations over the past 20 years.
In the 1990s, felters in Australia and Scandinavia began felting wool fibres onto fine, open-weave cotton or silk fabric to make light-weight scarves and garments, a technique known as nuno-felting. As the wool fibres felt and shrink, they distort the fabric creating beautifully-textured surfaces.
Some felt artist are also experimenting with incorporating other types of animal hair and plant fibres. Ekaterina (Katia) Mokeyeva, a Russian-born American felt artist, is internationally-recognised for her innovative use of animal and plant fibres which she uses in combination with fine merino wool and silk from Uzbekistan to create beautiful felt garments with highly-textured surfaces.
In March, she taught two felting workshops in the Adelaide Hills, organised by Evocative Art and Heritage, sharing her knowledge and skills with an enthusiastic group of local felters. Using merino wool tops, silk fabric, and plant fibres, she showed participants how to create textural effects and surface patterns that look almost three-dimensional. Seeing her work, one can appreciate how the qualities of different wools and fibres and the masterly skill of an artist such as Katia blend together to create felt garments of rare quality.