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Feltmaking in North America and The International Connections
A Short Overview
by Patricia Spark copyright 1994, 2005
(Parts of this article first appeared in the Surface Design Journal, Winter 1994)
In general, feltmaking in North America is of relatively new origin. There is no known evidence that the original peoples of this continent ever made felt prior to European/Scandinavian contact. It is known that the Spaniards introduced felt hat making into Central and South America. This technology is still used today in those areas, but it was not until the French and English explorations of North America began to take place that feltmaking become important here. In fact, it is because of felt that much of North America was explored! The fur traders were our first major inland explorers. They were looking for beaver pelts, which were then sent back to Europe so the soft undercoat of fur could be used to make felt for hats. While farmers and ranchers followed the fur traders, the early trading posts and military forts were established to help promote the trade of these pelts. Settlements grew around these trading posts, making it possible for the families who were to follow a short time later to find some "civilization" in the wilderness. Many of the major cities in Western North America were established as this kind of settlement. Most North Americans are not even aware of the debt they owe to feltmaking! While they are aware of the roll of the fur trader in our history, they do not make the connection between beaver pelts and beaver felt hats!
When the British and French colonies were established on the East Coast of North America, felt hat making must have been one of the trades Europeans brought with them but I have found little written about felting in this time period. In the case of the British colonies, this could be because the colonists were not supposed to establish businesses of this type. They were, in fact, supposed to produce raw products for England. The English manufacturers would in turn send finished items back to the colonies. While weaving factories, potteries, etc. did exist, they often did so surreptitiously, so that the British government would not find out about them. One of the early acts of independence was to have the entire graduating class of Harvard appear in handspun, handwoven garments for their ceremony, instead of using imported English fabric for them! It is not surprising then, that after the American Revolution in 1776, most of the felt factories seem to appear out of no where in the early 1800's in the new USA. Felt hats were being made in several places and in 1820, an American, J.R. Williams invented the first mechanical means of producing felt. Until very recently, mechanically produced felt hats and flat felts were not uncommon. However, today, with the advent of synthetic felts and needle punching machines, very few wool felt producers are left. In addition, there are only a small number of manufacturers making the fur or wool hoods that hat makers use in their craft.
In the late 1960's and early 1970's, fiber artists began to discover the joys of feltmaking. This was a time of fiber exploration in all areas. Because most people were not too concerned with what had gone before and were busy making up their own techniques, it did not matter that we had no sustained folk art tradition of feltmaking in North America. (It is possible that there were some Scandinavians or people from the Middle East who had made felt in their youth, before immigrating to this continent, but they were not making themselves known to the fiber artists. So their wonderful, traditional methods of feltmaking were largely unknown to the people making art from the medium.)
The fiber experimenters began making felt by abusing the wool; i.e. doing to wool fiber what you had been taught never to do to a wool garment. Things like plunging it into boiling water and then into icy cold water. Or stomping it with their feet between these plungings. Some people threw the fleece batts into their washing machines, which resulted in a tangled mass of felted streamers. People spent a lot of time exploring the technical properties of the material so they could try to learn to gain some control of the medium. It seemed like the 70's decade was for some contemporary feltmakers, a search for technical control. While for others it was the search for a controlled way of working with the happy accidents they were creating out of fleece, soap and water. Very few people at this time were researching the cultures in which feltmaking was still a living craft, so they had no traditional basis for their explorations.
Many people tried their hand at making felt in the 70's and early 80's, but they could not gain the measure of control they needed to be able to express themselves in this medium. Because of this, many people left the medium to go into papermaking or some other area. (Unlike feltmaking, papermaking was one traditional craft about which one could find a lot of technical information in this time period. Instead of worrying about the technical aspects of forming a sheet of paper, artists could concentrate on the aesthetic aspects of the medium.) The result of the lack of technical control and the subsequent exodus of artists away from feltmaking, was that a lot of artists doing felt works in the 70's did not have a chance to develop to a mature point with their work.
In the middle 70's and early 80's, some events occurred which added a technical boost to feltmaking. In 1974, textile historian Veronica Gervers, wrote two articles on feltmaking. She wrote about feltmaking in Anatolia for the C.I.E.T.A. Journal and The Textile Museum Bulletin. Then in 1975, many people saw an exhibit in New York's Metropolitan Museum, showing treasures from the Hermitage Museum, including ancient Scythian felt pieces from the Pazaryk Tombs. This exhibit toured around the US and many more people became interested in feltmaking. In 1976, Katarina Agren wrote the Swedish book, Tovning, which highlighted the feltmaking traditions of Scandinavia and through our large Swedish population, this book became know in the USA. In 1979, Mary Burkett's book, The Art of the Feltmaker became available to North American feltmakers. This book gave us a very good overview of traditional feltmaking around the world. Later, in 1980, Beverly Gordon published her book, Feltmaking, which emphasized a contemporary approach to the medium. In 1980, The American Craft Museum (now know as the Museum of Art and Design) had the first exhibition of contemporary felt to be held at a major museum in the USA. Called "Felt" this exhibit had the work of 11 Americans whose work was breaking new ground in the feltmaking field.
Because of these events, some of the people who began feltmaking at this time started with a more technical/historical background. They did not have to rely on solo explorations in their studio to gain some expertise. They have continued to work with felt and now, after more than twenty five years of working with the medium, they have matured with it.
While contemporary feltmakers began to find out about the felting traditions of other cultures, it became politically very difficult for them to travel directly to these cultures. Because of the wars in Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, the Middle-Eastern and Central Asian felting centers were quite dangerous. To get around this, Hungarian felt artists, Istvan Vidak and Mari Nagy decided to organize international meetings where traditional felters from Soviet Block countries and contemporary, Western felters could come together. From 1983-1988 they arranged five international felting events, including the first International Felt Conference. These events brought together anthropologists, textile historians, and feltmakers. They were a wonderful way to exchange information and they helped to establish a truly international community of contemporary feltmakers.
Because of the Art of the Feltmakers exhibition mounted by Mary Burkett (and the catalog which accompanied it), British fiber artists became excited by the medium and joined together to form The Feltmakers Association in 1985. This organization and their newsletter (called Echoes then, Felt Matters now), sparked such interest in the international community that they became the International Feltmakers Association. Urged on by the revival of Scandinavian feltmaking begun by fiber researchers like Katarina Agren, Danish feltmakers began their own organization, Grima. In 1990, Grima organized another International Felt Conference and many countries from around the world have followed their example. In North America, these include the West Coast Felting Extravaganza in 1997 (organized by Kathe Todd-Hooker and Pat Spark), the Michigan Fiber Fest International Felt Conference in 1999 (organized by Suzanne Pufpaff) and several meetings entitled Felter's Flings, in the late 1990's and early 2000's (organized by Sharon Costello).
The 1990's also brought many changes to the field of feltmaking in North America. These changes were brought about by new directions in communication and technology. In 1992, Pat Spark organized North American feltmakers into a loose network. The North American Felters' Network has over 300 members from all parts of Canada and the US. The organization is tied together with a tri-annual newsletter. While no felting conferences have been organized by this group, a Felter's Forum was held just prior to Convergence '94, the biennial conference of Handweaver's Guild of America, in Minneapolis, on July 7, 1994. Two more of these meetings were held at Convergences '96 and '02.
Then in 1996, Ms. Spark started the Felt List on the internet. This enabled feltmakers from all around the world to speak to and learn from one another via this communication tool. The Felt List has been very influential in helping the medium of feltmaking grow from one being done by an isolated few to a large number active feltmakers.
Also, after 1990, it became much easier to travel to the feltmaking areas of the former Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain countries. This greatly opened up the exchange of ideas and felting methods between people around the world.
Some of the biggest changes in feltmaking in North America have been because of new equipment and materials. Many companies are making home felting machines, so that people can ease their body of the tremendous physical effort that hand feltmaking causes. The felting needle and various felting needle machines and equipment were introduced in the late 1980's and 1990's. This needle has greatly changed feltmaking, allowing for people to make felt more quickly and with more control than in the past.
Contemporary feltmaking has been active in North America for the last 35 years. Even though it had a shaky beginning, with the influences of time and communication, it has grown into a mature, exciting art medium.
Patricia Spark, an artist working with handmade felt since 1975, is the author of four books on feltmaking. The latest are called: Watercolor Felting Techniques and Making Faces, Using Wet and Dry Felting Methods. Two are from Shuttle Craft Press: The Fundamentals of Feltmaking and Scandinavian-Style Feltmaking; A Three-dimensional Approach to Hats, Boots, Mittens and other Useful Objects. She is also the editor of the North American Felters' Network. For information concerning feltmaking, contact: Patricia Spark, 1032 SW Washington St., Albany, OR 97321 USA.
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