Shree Felts
Shree Felts

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Felt History

     Wool felt is the earliest known form of textile fabric and played an important part in the life of early man. Throughout central Asia, where some of the oldest felts have been found, Turk man nomads made their tents, clothes and floor coverings from the material and it consequently became a significant part of many religious rituals. Brides were seated on white felt during marriage ceremonies and animals were sacrificed on it. It was also believed to have magical properties - Mongolian horsemen would hang felt figures inside their tents to bring good luck and to ward off evil spirits and a felt mattress would protect the sleeper from dangerous snakes and scorpions. Felt making was also illustrated as a technical process in Roman times in the mural paintings of the Fuller's House in Pompeii.

Legendary origins of felt have been handed down in each felt making country but the true origin of felt is unknown. One amusing legend tells of St.Clement "Patron Saint of Hatters" who was being pursued by his enemies. As he ran his feet became increasingly hot and painful, but he managed to give his pursuers the slip and stopped to gather some sheep's wool which he saw entangled in the bushes. He wrapped the wool around his feet and placing his feet back into his sandals proceeded speedily on his way. When he finally arrived at his destination he removed his sandals and found that the wool had felted due to the heat and perspiration from his feet.

Archaeologists have unearthed fragments of felt dating back to the Bronze Age. The most exciting examples were discovered earlier this century when stone burial chambers in the Altai Mountains of Siberia were opened. These burial chambers were of chieftains of ancient nomadic tribes who populated this area between the 7th - 2nd centuries BC. The methods which had been used to construct the tombs and the severe climate of the High Altai had caused a layer of frozen ground to form under the large cairns which covered the graves. The Altai tombs have achieved world wide fame because, being completely frozen, they preserved items made of organic materials.

which under normal conditions would have been destroyed by the passage of time, Amongst the finds were items of fur and leather, felt and textile, as well as wood carvings, all of which retained their original form and color.

The ancient inhabitants of the Altai produced fine leather which was used for appliqué work, they used several different stitches in decorative work and felt was made from both coarse and fine sheep's wool in different densities, qualities and thicknesses for items of everyday use but also for art. Their art was decorative, ornate and colorful - taking vegetable, animal and geometrical designs as their inspiration.

Some 30 different types of felt items were found - these included felt rugs, tomb covers, socks and cushions - most are heavily patterned. The largest piece measured 4.5 x 6.5 meters - this is now known as the Pazyryk felt and is housed in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

A brief historical and cultural perspective can clearly enlighten us as to the current state of the art and the very limited tradition of felt making in Israel today. Biblical and archeological sources provide evidence that wool and linen fibers were the major fibers found in ancient Israel, and only as "woven works". There are numerous references in the bible to flocks and to wool and its properties, but none to felt or felting. The first reference of the word felt in post-biblical sources occurs around the 2nd-3rd century A.D., with regards to the prohibition in Jewish religious custom, of mingling wool and linen, indicating that the techniques of felting were already known in the area in those times. It is likely that this knowledge came from Mesopotamia as well as from the Roman conquerors of the area, who used felt for protection of the body under the shields and helmets of the warriors. Later, in the 12th-13th century, the crusaders brought with them professional felt makers for the same purpose. It is also interesting to note that the Hebrew for the word felt, "leved", originates from Arabic, "labad", which means "pressed and glued together".

The first experiments of felt making as an art in Israel were introduced in the late 1970's and early 1980's, in parallel to hand-made paper, which developed extensively, unlike felt making. These were made by Israeli artists who had gained experience abroad, mostly in the USA and Europe, and recently in Japan. Over the years, there have been only few works in felt exhibited in local fiber art exhibitions and only very few artists have chosen to specialize in felt making and make a living from this profession.

At least part of the explanation for this may be based on the relatively mild climate of this area, which doesn't justify the traditional use of felt making. In the more extreme conditions faced by the nomads in the desert, the black goat-wool woven tents provide more than sufficient protection. The wool from sheep grown for milk and meat in the north of Israel is of insufficient quality for felting and is in fact wasted, whereas in the deserts of the south, it is still used for weaving by the Beduin women