With the temperatures dropping many people are preparing to pack up their straw hats and make the switch to wearing felts. But what is felt anyway? Felt is considered the oldest known textile. It dates back millennia and is widely used because it’s the strongest, lightest, and most water resistant natural fabric.
Every manufacturer guards their exact processes for making felt, but in general it’s made by wetting sheep’s wool or other wool or fur, stirring and pounding the fibers so that they tangle together, then stretching and drying the fabric. In the middle ages, the job of agitating the wool to create tangles was called tucking, fulling, or walking. Someone who performed that job was known as a tucker, fuller, or walker, leading to those common surnames.
The phrase “mad as a hatter” likely comes from making felt. Up until the 20th century, felt makers would treat beaver fur with a toxic mercury compound. This led to a lot of illnesses among people who worked closely with beaver felts. The practice was abandoned long ago when safer methods were developed to reach the same quality of felt.