Felt for interiors

Felt for interiors

Felt is one of the earliest fabrics made by man, and thousands of years later we still love it for its beauty, warmth, strength and eco-friendliness.

By Kay Hill
Silk and wool throws by felt expert Claudy Jongstra for Willer

Felted wool can be smooth - the industrial variety - or look almost as natural as a sheep's fleece. Claudy Jongstra is a remarkable designer who keeps her own sheep, the fleeces from which she dyes using extracts from plants grown in her botanic garden. She makes her felt by hand, and transforms it magnificent wallhangings, and luxurious interior accessories. Pictured above: silk and wool throws retail at £2,200 and are available at Willer.

 

Facts about felt

  • Felt is the oldest known textile fabric. Fragments found date back to the fourth century BC in Central Asia, where it was used to make hats, blankets, carpets and even tents, and to the fifth century BC in felt articles found in tombs in Siberia.
  • One legend says felt was invented when Saint Clement and Saint Christopher, fleeing from persecution, packed their sandals with wool to prevent blisters. At the end of their journey, the movement and sweat had turned the wool into felt socks!
  • Felt is most commonly made from sheep’s wool, but hair from goats, bison, yaks, camels, rabbits, alpaca and llamas can also be felted.
  • It's also possible to make felt from polyester fibres gleaned from recycling plastic bottles, which is known as PET felt (not to be confused with pet felt, which is also perfectly possible if you have a mongrel willing to be combed…)
 
Ruff thick felt seating pouffes by Romero Vallejo for Gan Rugs
Colourful felt covered dining chairs by Ligne Roset, £576, from www.chaplins.co.uk
Muuto's Under The Bell light, £499, www.thelollipopshoppe.co.uk
Cut-out felt rug by Michelle Mason, dia 120cms, £350. www.michellemason.co.uk
San Fransisco-based Peace Industry's felt rugs are made by hand in Iran. www.peaceindustry.com
Peace Industry's Hive rug measures 8x10 ft. Company was founded by Dodd & Melina Raissnia in San Francisco's Mission district
Designer Anne Kyyro Quinn has pushed felt to the foreground as a material for contemporary interiors. www.annekyyroquinn.com
Hand-embroidered felted wool and silk throw by Claudy Jongstra, £2,900, www.willer.co.uk
Geometric patterns adorn this shyrdak felt rug from www.feltrugs.co.uk. Prices from £280
Flock felt self-adhesive tiles for walls, £26 for six, www.notonthehighstreet.com

In case you don't already know, there are three main types of felting:

Wet Felting is the earliest felting technique, which simply involves friction and lubricating with soapy water to matt the fibres together.
 
Needle Felting is a more modern technique of dry felting, invented in the 1850s. This enabled felt to be made on an industrial scale using machines with up to 200,000 needles, or it can be made at home with a single needle. The needle doesn’t sew the strands of wool together, it has small barbs on it that entangle the fibres as the threadless needle is pushed in and out.
 
Nuno or Laminate Felting was invented by Polly Stirling and Sachiko Kotaka in 1994 to create a lightweight felt suitable for clothing in hot countries. It uses a gauzy backing to which a thin layer of wool fibres will become attached during a dampening and rolling process.
 
Felting may have been around for the best part of seven millennia, but if you think felt belongs in the past, think again because designers around the world are doing wonderful things with it, such as Dutch felt-maker Claudy Jongstra who makes her felt from her own sheep's wool, and Anne Kyyro Quinn, who cuts industrial felt into highly contemporary shapes for cushions, pouffes, runners and art installation.  
 
Felt for flooring
 
A wide variety of modern felt rugs are on the market, from ones made out of “pebbles” of felt (the fun Jellybean rug from John Lewis)  or the more sophisticated colourings of the Dot rug from The Lollipop Shoppe, through to rugs made from strips of felt, such as the elegant Cell rugs from Lama Concept.

 

Canevas felt collection by Charlotte Lancelot for Spanish brand Gandía Blasco, available at Wovenground
What fun.. cocooning felt Hush pods from Freyja Sewell, POA. www.freyjasewell.co.uk
Need some privacy? Pod chair, made from recycled PET felt, from £1,800 by Benjamin Hubert www.benjaminhubert.co.uk
Chabada felt covered dining chairs, £1,160, Roche Bobois, www.roche-bobois.com
New from Lama Concept in the Netherlands, Cell wool felt rug, POA, bespoke sizes. www.lamaconcept.nl
Jellybean felt rug from John Lewis, 180-120 cms, £250, www.johnlewis.com
Cream felt wallhanging by Anne Kyyro Quinn
Pleasingly utilitarian, Coburg felt baskets, from £69, www.urbanara.co.uk
Felt box by John Rocha for Debenhams, £18. www.debenhams.com

UK rug and runner manufacturer Roger Oates introduced his contemporary Tapis felt wool rug range more than a decade ago, and these colourful squares of felt blanket-stitched together are proving to be timeless. Wovenground sells Spanish brand Gandía Blasco's Canevas collection of rugs and seating cubes by Charlotte Lancelot, which feature felt decorated with cross stitches in contrasting colours that from a distance resemble pixels. 

Michelle Mason uses intricate laser-cutting to form her charming Stella rugs into crisp geometric shapes, while San Fransisco-based Peace Industry sells gorgeous thick, tactile rugs and seating cubes in subtle colours and designs.

Traditional felt

Because felt can be created with just wool from your sheep, water, soap and elbow grease, it's popular with nomadic peoples, who've used it to create beautiful designs, either using the natural colours of the wool to create patterns or making use of locally sourced vegetable or mineral dyes.
 
Tim Moock is director of felt rug company Felt, which sells shyrdak rugs from Kyrgyzstan - these rugs are made by sewing patterns of felt in contrasting colours onto a felt base. 'The marvellous thing about traditional hand-made felt is that it is irregular – each piece is unique and carries its own history,' he says.
 
'With the shyrdak pieces, no machines at all are used in the process, which dates back at least 2,500 years. Just a lot of hard slog by the nomadic women, with the assistance of a galloping horse which  drags a rolled up reed mat containing the wetted wool fibres. 
 
'When you look at a piece of all-natural, un-dyed wool felt, it's made up of lots of different colours meshed together and this gives a depth to the fabric. When dyed you get a fantastically rich surface as the layers upon layers of coloured wool fibres catch the light in different ways. Hand-made felt is labour intensive but is quick and easy to work. A large pair of room-sized rugs can be completed in 10-20 days, which is unthinkable for a traditional knotted rug.'
 
Unique Rugs also has a range of traditional shyrdak felt rugs made in Kyrgyzstan, including some which have patterns in natural, un-dyed wool.
 
Melina and Dodd Raissnia of Peace Industry are fans of traditional felt-making. They launched the business after falling in love with a small, felted rug Dodd brought back from a trip to Iran. Unable to find a supply of the tough but delicate-looking rugs, adorned with geometric designs, they eventually set up a factory in Konya, central Turkey, to create pure lambswool felted rugs, made with only natural dyes and fairly traded. However, the couple is delighted to have been able to move manufacturing back to Iran after the US lifted trade sanctions against the country earlier this year. A huge range of designs is available or they can be custom-made. Worldwide shipping is available.
 
 
Colourful shyrdak rugs from www.feltrugs.co.uk
Hand-mae felt wallhangings by Dutch designer-maker Claudy Jongstra
Peacock chair by Cappellini, £4,900, from www.chaplins.co.uk
.

Felt for furniture

Felt is basically wool subjected to friction, so it makes sense that it is a tough and hard-wearing material when subjected to the everyday friction that seating suffers. According to James Press at high-end furniture retailer Chaplins, 'the reason designers love working with felt is due to its flexibility and robustness when shaping and stretching - it's good for furniture that has organic, modern shapes.'
 
So perhaps it’s not surprising that despite its historical antecedents, it is most often seen on highly contemporary designs such as the Peacock armchair by Cappellini or the Feltri high-backed chair from Cassina (both available through Chaplins).
 
Felt is a popular choice for dining chairs, with examples including the brightly coloured Felt chair from Ligne Roset,  and Roche Bobois’ Chabada dining and lounge chairs. One of the most unusual pieces of furniture in felt is Hush by Freyja Sewell, an enclosed pod you can retreat into when you feel the need for a bit of calm.  Made from industrial strength grey wool felt, it's been nominated as one of Kevin McCloud's Green Heroes at Grand Designs Live a few years back. Designer Benjamin Hubert has also picked up on the need for privacy with his semi-enclosed Pod chair, made from recycled PET felt.
 
For accessores, you'll find plenty of felt at online retailers including Not On The High Street and Made By Hands of Britain, as well as at John Lewis and Debenhams, which are very much on the high street.
 
How eco-friendly is felt?
 
Wool in itself has a fairly good eco-footprint. In the UK, sheep are often reared in mountainous areas or islands where the ground is not much used for growing crops, although a lot of wool used here is actually farmed in New Zealand and Australia, meaning that it does travel quite some distance by ship. 
 
Some potentially toxic chemicals may be used on live sheep to eradicate pests, and if synthetic dyes are used they may have more environmental impact than natural dyes. In addition, when wool is processed on a large scale, huge amounts of water are used during the washing process.
 
From an ethical point of view, sheep are not harmed by shearing and most live their lives in a free-range environment - although animal rights pressure group Peta does warn that some Australian sheep undergo a painful mutilation called mulesing to keep their bottoms free from flies, and that when their fleece-producing days are over they are often exported alive to the Middle East for halal slaughter.
 
Since the felting process involves only matting the wool fibres to turn them into a fabric, felt is as hard-wearing, naturally absorbent and breathable as wool itself, and it also has valuable insulating properties. So cover your floors and seating with felt and you can turn down the heating a few degrees...
 
.
.