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What Is Felt? How to make Wool Felt? And Felt Bags?

We all know felt hats from the past, but what is felt made of, how is it produced, and how can it be turned today into bags?

split image with on the left a detail of a wool felt hat and on the right a wool felt courier backpack from eKodoKi

How old is felt making?

Wool felt is the oldest known textile. It was most likely discovered many times, in many different places, in many cultures, when early humans in the prehistory discovered that wool, shed from wild sheep, used to soften sleeping areas, formed a cohesive fabric when laying on it for a while – or that the wool on skins such as mammoths and bisons used for clothing became over time matted.

Clothing made of felt has an insulating, warming, quality; imagine how great this material must have been during the ice age to keep the head, body and feet protected from the harsh environment. But due to the biodegradable quality not much remained from the earliest time of felt making.

The traditional way of making felt is still carried out to this day by nomadic people in Central Asia, like the Mongols, Iranian shepherds, Caucausus, and Turkic of the Altai – for clothes, tents (yurt), rugs, and horse blankets.

split image with on the left a sadle and on the right a cap both made of wool felt and both dating from the 4th century BC

Left: Saddle cover, 4th century BC, with mouflon (wild sheep) and swan, excavated in barrows, the burial mounds in the Altai Mountains, Southern Siberia.

Right: Felt cap, 4th century BC, Phanagoria Necropolis, Hermitage Museum, Russia.

What is felt?

The term "felt" was originally used only for matted natural animal wool fibres. Today "felt" refers to a technique and is used for a variety of different textiles, including felted woven wools, felted synthetics and industrial felts.

Usually, when manufacturers make a textile from wool, they first turn it into yarn and spin it into a woven textile, but this is not the case with making felt.

detail of a sheet of thick dark grey wool felt partly rolled on a grey table

Felt is a non-woven textile material composed of loose fibres that is produced by matting, condensing, and pressing the fibres together. This is done using techniques that involve humidity, pressure, and heat.

Which animals can deliver wool?

The most common wool from animal fibre is the sheep. But there are differences in the quality per breed of sheep. The colour of the fleece is depending on their breed and genetic history, and there are many different colours like white, black, red, cream, grey, silver, and brown.

Corriedale, Blue Faced Leicester, Rambouillet and Merino are among the best-known wool sheep. Merino wool originated in China is considered the best quality. China has the world's biggest sheep flock estimated at about 140 million head and producing about 363,000 tonnes of wool.

restful sheep face

Other animals that deliver wool fibres:
Cashmere, angora goats (combed)
Camels, llamas, alpacas, vicunas, guanacos (shearing)
Angora rabbits (shearing)
Musk oxen (shed each spring)
Bisons (shed each spring)
Beavers (killed, so not a good practice!)

Why is it necessary to shear sheep?

Sheep grow wool to keep themselves warm during cold winters. This wool tends to tangle on fences or low-tree branches and is gradually shed off, meaning that sheep need to shed wool in their natural habitat to prevent overheating in the summer. Therefore, sheep must be sheared once a year.

detail of the fleece removed from a sheep by an expert shearer using a handheld electric machine

Sheep are nowadays often sheared with advanced electric shears or shearing machines for reasons of efficiency and speed to prevent stress on the sheep. Some still do it with scissors or hand blades – in this case, some wool remains on the body, and is strangely enough, it is better for all year-round cold climates.

Shearing is an experienced skill of removing the fleece in one piece. It is obvious that sheep farmers do not want to damage or cause suffering to their livestock, and therefore they select well-trained shearers. On average, a sheep can produce 2-3 kgs of wool per year.

Is it cruel to shear sheep yearly?

On the contrary, for many modern sheep, it is cruel not to shear them. Domestic sheep do not totally shed their winter coats. If one year’s wool is not removed its resulting in sheep that overheat in summer.

cruelty of not shearing a sheep

They get greatly decreased mobility and are in much greater danger from flystrike, all of which causes suffering and possible death. Shearing is nowhere near as cruel as the fur industry, for instance, which obviously requires the animals in question to die!

What is mulesing?

“Mulesing”, a practice mainly carried out in Australia, consists in the removal of strips of wool-bearing skin from around the breech (buttocks) – often including the tail – of a sheep, to prevent parasitic infection flystrike (myiasis). It is a crude attempt to create smoother skin that won’t collect moisture.

The exposed, bloody, and painful wounds often become infected and many sheep who have been mutilated still suffer slow, agonizing deaths from flystrike. But research has shown that it is possible to successfully manage non-mulesed sheep with little extra time or cost.

back of a young sheep not mulesed turning his head and looking at the camera, with a picture insert showing a group of mulesed sheep

New Zealand, however, is one of the kindest environments for sheep to live in, with a pristine climate, clean water, fresh air, grass, and growers who look after their animals and land with utmost care.

In fact, New Zealand lawmakers have made history by officially passing a ban against sheep mulesing practices, following increased pressure from animal welfare groups and major clothing companies.

Can wool be recycled?

Real wool is easy to recycle and it biodegrades, releasing valuable nutrients into the soil. In fact some of the Dutch wool is now directly turned into soil fertilizers, an environmentally friendly peat.

Wool in essence is a circular material, and forms a part of the natural carbon cycle. However, wool is considered of negative value. It costs more to get it off the sheep, than it is paid for it by manufacturers. In such context, many sheep are only bred for meat, and their fleece is wasted.

schematics of the five stages of the carbon cycle of wool

An animal bred for just one of its outputs, such as meat, seems wasteful when its milk or wool could also be of value. Holistic thinking from start to end and the carbon cycle in wool is a promising direction for more sustainable practices.

What types of felt are there?

Natural felt made from animals' fibres (fleece):
• 100% real wool from sheep, alpacas, vicunas, guanacos, goat (mouton) and camels. It is non-flammable and dirt repellent.
• Fur felt, like beaver or rabbit skin – not a preferred choice, as animals are killed for it.

Natural felt made from plant fibres:
• Cotton felt.
• Xotic felt – bamboo/rayon blend of made from 50% bamboo and 50% rayon fibres. Bamboo is considered a sustainable fibre as it is a fast-growing crop that does not need chemical fertilizers, but rayon does however need chemicals for its production. This felt is incredibly soft. It retains its shape with washing and does not shrink.

Synthetic felt (man-made fibres):
• Rayon felt – a semi synthetic fibre made from cellulose pulp (plant based mostly from trees).
• Polyester – a petroleum based, cured hard felt that has two different sides – one side is scratchy. Good for projects that need a rigid shape. Polyester is a versatile material popular in many types of garments, while acrylic is used for warm-weather clothing.
• Acrylic felt – a petroleum based. Acrylic felts wash very nicely and won't shrink but is highly flammable. The main difference between polyester and acrylic is that polyester is more breathable, and acrylic is a better insulator.
• Craft felt – mainly acrylic, polyester, rayon, or a rayon/viscose blend.
• Eco-fi – like craft felt but made of polyester fibre from 100% recycled (PET) plastic bottles. It is even more rigid than polyester felt.

Blended wool felt:
• Blended wool felt – made using the same process as for real wool felt, but made of Nylon, polyester, polypropylene, or cotton mixed with wool. Blended felt is pricier than craft felt, but it is less expensive than real wool felt.
• SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers industrial felt) – for high-pressure applications in industries, is a combination of raw wool fibres and polyester or cotton, rayon/viscose, synthetic, or plant fibres.

split image with on the left four examples of different types of felt and on the right a comparison list of animal fibres felt versus petroleum based felt

Left images – Felt examples:
1 – wool felt
2 – polyester felt
3 – craft felt
4 – SAE industrial felt

Long story short, animal or plant fibres are natural, easy to recycle, biodegradable, and fire resistant (creates scorched ashes). While in comparison, man-made synthetic fibres are petroleum-based, polluting (landfill pollution, microplastic pollution), non-biodegradable, and highly flammable (melting).

What are the different methods to make felt?

A – Wet felting (pressed felt)
Wet felting is the most traditional technique, and can be only done with real animal wool, wool blends, and fur fibres. Warm, soapy water is applied to layers of wool positioned at 90-degree angles to one another, causing them to hook together into a single piece of cloth. This process uses the inherent nature of animal hairs because the fibres have scales on them which are directional, and the hairs have kinks in them. It is the combination of these properties that reacts to the stimulation of friction and causes the phenomenon known as felting.
• Higher price point
• Smoother finish with better shape memory
• Uses sulphuric acid that needs to be neutralised with sodium chloride, but this process is improving.
• Heavier result than dry felting

B – Dry felting (needle punch felting)
With needle felting, any fibre works, man-made fibre and animal fibre; all artificial felts are needle-punched felts. A needle felted fabric is a non-woven fabric made from webs or batts of fibres in which special barbed felting needles on an industrial felting machine are used. The barbs catch the scales on the fibre and push them through the layers of web, tangling them and binding them together. This needling action interlocks the fibres and holds the structure together; it is popular for two- and three-dimensional felted work.
• Cost saving
• Less shape retention
• Clean product line without chemicals
• Less soft and flexible

C – Woven felt
With woven felted wool, there is thread and weaving involved. It is produced by applying heat, water, and pressure to pre-woven fabrics. The result is a matted fabric that can be much thinner than pressed felt.

split image comparing the process of wet felting versus the process of dry felting

Shown above:
A – Wet Felting / Pressed Felt: heavier, more dense smoother texture
B – Needle Punch Felting / Wool Roving: lighter, more open, slightly rougher, texture

Why having different felting techniques?

To answer this question, we need to look at a microscopic level.

Polyester and nylon are normally produced as very smooth fibres that will slide past each other with ease; they cannot be matted into felt with the wet technique.

Real wool has areas of roughness, scales that allow adjacent fibres to naturally catch on one another.

split image comparing microscopic views of wool felt fibres with polyester felt fibres

A – Real Wool Felt
B – Polyester Felt

What does influence the quality of wool?

As mentioned earlier, not only are there quality differences by breed of sheep, but also the way a sheep is raised has consequences for the condition of the wool.

close up of a sheep fleece with two inserts one showing the fleece inside and the other bags of sheared wool

Heath sheep or stable sheep
A sheep grazing in the open field naturally picks up more dirt from its surroundings than an enclosed sheep. In fact, a sheep in the open fetches even less money for its fleece than an enclosed sheep for this reason, as it requires more cleaning.

Open or closed fleece
For example, the fleece of a Shetland sheep does not hold together as a unit and tends to have a lower fat content, as opposed to a fine wool breed such as Merino sheep, whose wool surface does not open and is characterized by a high fat content.

Why and how do they sort and mix woolfibres?

The sorting process is important as different sheep produce different quality of wool. The first step is to sort the wool into different categories. Various wool grades are combined to create a homogeneous mixture.

The quality of wool is also depending on the part of the sheep’s body it comes from. The best part grows on the flank side of a sheep, second best is the top and thirdly, legs and neck. Wool on the top and side of the sheep is often long and fine, but on the legs short and thick. Different kinds of wool are used to make different types of products. Longer wool is better suited for clothing, while the shorter wool is used for making rugs.

workers hands sorting sheared wool fleece

Criteria to judge the quality are:
fineness (the finer, the softer)
length (long fibres are the best quality)
resilience/elasticity (preventing breaks)
waviness or curliness (providing volume)
colour (the whiter the more easily dyed)
the presence of jar (unwanted thicker hair in the middle)

How local vs global is the wool industry?

eKodoKi is based in the Netherlands and we are shocked to see that according to the Dutch Wool Federation, 80% of Dutch wool goes to China, due to cheap labour and easement of environmental and labour laws. The amount of travel miles for wool must be massive and this has an impact on the environment.

pile of wool bales

At one point in history, up until the 1950’s, most manufacturing of wool was done in The Netherlands, but nowadays, it is China that manufactures most wool and determines prices. China has bought most of Western Europe’s machinery for wool processing.

And shockingly, wool has been rated at negative cents per kilo. In general, The Netherlands rears sheep mainly for meat; wool is secondary. It costs more to get wool off the sheep than what is paid for. Most Dutch sheep wool disappears as fertilizer into the ground.

How are wool fibres washed?

Some mills are cleaning the wool in an eight bowl system with eight squeeze rollers; the process is called scouring. This involves using hot water and detergents to remove soil, vegetable impurities, grease and contaminants from the fibres. Sheep wool has a lot of lanolin or grease that needs to be removed. Alpaca or llama have not any lanolin in their fibres and only need to be washed to remove the dirt.

close up of machine washing sheared wool with three additional image inserts

Until the 1930s, wool was cleaned with human urine and water; nowadays it is done water and alkali – but scouring with an organic solvent is the preferred method. Important is that the dirty water is discharged a water recycling process, where the grease is separated, and cleaned water is being recycled in a loop.

cylinders of a willower in action untangling the wool

Next the wool gets dried in huge dryers, fluffed up, and packed.

What is the preparation towards wool felting?

Since some felts use more than one types of fibre, the cleaned fibres must be mixed and blended first together. This is done either at the end of the scouring (washing) line, or with a replacing method that also removes the impurities in a process called willowing.

detail of a machine carding wool with three additional image inserts

After that it tangles the fibres together and merges them into several layers resulting in a fluffy wool sheet where fibres lay in alternating directions, forming a net – called a batt. These batts are then rolled up and ready for the felting process.

What is wet felting?

Multiple batts on top of each other are put onto a conveyor belt and get subjected to heat and moisture simultaneously by going through a steam table. Then they are passed onto a plate hardener that applies pressure and oscillates, thus matting the material.

wet felting machine processing wool

The outer layers of wool fibres consist of overlapping scales like fish scales. Heat and moisture make these scales open up, and the friction of the plate hardener causes the scales of different fibres to interlock, resulting in a thick wool mat.

And what is dry felting, then?

With this other felting technique – also called needle punch felting – real wool fibres, blended wool fibres, and of course man-made synthetic fibres (all artificial felts are actually needle-felts) can be used.

barbed needles detail from a dry felting machine with a picture insert showing the machine

The prepared batts are fed in between the upper and lower hole-plates. Barbed needles are penetrating through the holes of the hole-plates and the batts. In every stroke, the barbs of the needle seize fibres and pull them through the web, creating a bundle, tangling them and binding them together. This needling action interlocks the fibres and hold the structure together much likes the wet felting process.

The level of web densification is depending on the number of punches per unit area of the web, and the number of needles. The frequency of the needle board determines the performance of the machine.

How to obtain an optimal compact and thick wool felt?

While the felt has significantly bound together, added density is needed to provide durability. Therefore the felt made with the wet-felting technique is fed into a fuller, a process that can only be done with animal fibres. It’s a process that makes the felt more thermal and protective by increasing thickness and compactness by applying pressure.

close up of a fulling machine processing wool with an additional picture insert

In the past this was done by large wooden hammers beating the felt. Today, fulling – also known as tucking or walking – involves the cleansing of wool to eliminate oils and dirt, making it thicker by subjecting it to moisture, heat, friction, and pressure, until shrinkage of 10–25% is achieved.

A set of upper and lower steel rollers covered with hard rubber moulded treads, move across the felt. They move towards each other for putting pressure on the felt and they move forward and backward to create friction. This pressure and friction, in combination with the wetting of the felt with hot water and sulphuric acid, causes the batts to shrink in length. This shrinkage occurs in both directions, producing a denser, smoother, tightly finished fabric that is warm, and relatively weatherproof. The felt loses some 50% of its elasticity during this process.

How is felt coloured?

Dyeing of the wool is often done after the scouring phase, before carding, when it is still a fibre. Alternatively, it can be done after the fulling phase when it is already a felt fabric.

machine dyeing wool

1.Washing – The felt is washed before dyeing to obtain the best absorbency. This happens in big tanks. The wet felt has sulphuric acid residue and must be neutralize by running it into tanks filled with a sodium chloride and warm water solution. The use of chemicals is unfortunately essential in the dyeing process; the challenge is to use as less chemicals as possible and to eliminate them completely from the water released in the process. Another challenge is to use as less water as possible; a waterless fabric dyeing process has even been introduced recently.

2.Dyeing – Many natural colours of wool from different sheep are available, and therefore don’t require dyeing. When dyeing is required, plant-based dyes are preferred for ecological reasons. The dyes are introduced in a dye vat and heat is added to set the dyes. The process can take up to six hours.

What are the steps towards the final product?

The neutralized felt is then run through a refilling machine in which heavy rollers pass over the surface of the fabric one last time to smooth out any irregularities.

machine drying shaving and pressing wool felt

Drying – The felt is stretched across the drying bed and dried with heat to prepare for its final finishing.

Shaving – Since the felt is a nonwoven textile, lose or errant fibres can be left on the surface of the material. The felt is shaved on each side to remove these fibres and to create a smooth surface.

Pressing – During the manufacturing process, the felt tends to be thicker in the middle and thinner at the edges. In order to provide a consistent thickness, the felt is pressed and measured to assure that the material meets the acceptable thickness tolerances.

What is the final finishing phase?

Calendering finishing is a process of imparting luster and smoothness to a fabric by passing it between pressurized rollers. If the moist fabric is passed through these rollers, the result will be quite like steam ironed fabric.

The main benefits produced by calendering include reduction in fabric thickness, compaction of structure, and change in textile luster.

machine calendering wool felt

Calenders are a series of hard pressure rollers used to form or smooth a sheet of material. One of the calender rolls is usually made of stainless steel (which may be heated to the required temperature) while the other may be covered with highly compressed cotton, paper, or synthetic material.

What are the qualities of wool felt?

rolls of thick wool felt

Soft to the touch.
Does not fray – The edges of wool felt will not fray.
Flame-retardant behaviour – Wool felt is generally not flammable. Even if it is directly exposed to fire, felt will only char above around 300 degrees Celsius.
Resistant to chemicals – Acids, bases and oils cannot destroy wool fibres. Therefore felt wicks or cylinders are able to transport liquids in technical applications.
Regenerative / Regrowing – Wool is a regrowing natural resource.
Biodegradable – Wool felt is fully compostable.
Insulation – Wool felt is noise-reducing, and also insulates against heat or cold.
Water repellent – acts more as a shield than a sponge when felt is very dense.
Durable - very resilient to wear and tear, able to be compressed and released without deformity.

Is wool felt easy to work with?

Wool felt can also be easily cut with different methods:

CNC cutter – computer-controlled cutting with a blade that provides a clean, crisp edge. The maximum width is 175 cm for 2mm, 3mm, 5mm and 152 cm for 8mm and 10mm.
Laser cutter – cutting wool with a laser cutter is possible however since wool is made from sheep hair it singes and smells like burned hair (so it is appropriate for prototyping, but not for final production). Synthetic felt forms a small, melted bead along the cut edge, and there's a limit to the thickness of the felt.
Waterjet cutter – a waterjet cutter easily cuts through thick, dense felt. The finish of the cut edge is very nice.
Steel moulds – This traditional technique is still the most appropriate for large product quantities.

detail of a sewing machine presser foot stitching a zipper to wool felt plus two inserts showing steel moulds and laser cutting

Felt is easy to sew as needles go through easily. As the edges of felt don't fray, any stitch can be used to join edges together. Wool felt, and wool blend require a cotton thread, while synthetic felts require a polyester thread.

What can be made with felt?

Felt is used in numerous industries, such as home construction and home decorations, crafts, or the fashion and automotive industries.

photomontage showing multiple applications of wool felt such as hanglamps baskets shoes and hat

It has a variety of applications like: thermal insulation, acoustical insulation (soundproofing rooms), gasket materials, saddle pads, padding for machinery and musical instruments, casino play-tables and pool tables, carpets, insoles, etc.

Why is a wool felt bag a good choice?

Wool felt is a gift from nature, for people who love environment-friendly materials and look for long-lasting alternatives to fast-fashion, while not compromising on quality or style. Wool felt is the authentic renewable and sustainable substitute to counterfeit polyester and acrylic felts.

fashion model carrying a large wool felt backpack from the brand eKodoKi

Innovative fashion statements with a unique look, eKodoKi’s wool felt bags are:

• soft to the touch and comfortable to wear on one’s back and shoulders.
• soft and thick, to protect electronics hardware
such as laptops and tablets, as well as other belongings.
• strong and durable
– wool felt clothing from ancient time, that have stood the test of time, are still being discovered today!
• water & dirt repellent.
• based on mulesing-free wool
, since our wool comes from New Zeeland, where any harm to the sheep is forbidden.

wool felt bags and soft accessories collection from the brand eKodoKi overlaid with the eKodoKi logo

Photo credits:
• 2911 – carding wool
• 11160 – SIROSCOUR – Wool before scouring by the Siroscour process (top), and after (bottom)
• 2801 – wool-scouring
• 10794 – wool-scouring
• Hat Felt-1882816 – jackmac34
• Sheephead-3743000 – Uschi_Du
• Wool-880571 – MIH83
• Shearing sheep – 563003 – Jan Mallander
• Sheep shearing-1421519 – Myriams-Fotos
• Sheep wool-3261353 – MabelAmber
• Felt production-4655529 – danjoualex
• Woman with eKodoKi felt bag
• eKodoKi felt bag collection

Icon credits:
• history-3249728 – Becris
• fabric roll-122801 – Rodrigo Vidinich
• goat-3365493 – Ian Rahmadi Kurniawan
• llama-3479798 – iconixar
• buffalo (Bison)-1081915 – Anniken & Andreas
• wool-4707820 – Ian Rahmadi Kurniawan
• shaver (Razor)-3336446 – 3336446 – Firza Alamsyah
• scissor-2199670 – IcoLabs
• temperature-1065017 – Orin zuu
• sheep-3404199 – DompbelStudio
• sheep-4616202 – Adriansyah
• plant-4929667 – Rubem Hojo
• recycle-2353463 – Koson Rattanaphan
• biodegradable-4730861 – USCP
• non-flammable-4730321 – Made x Made
• petroleum industry-1571110 – Template
• trash pollution (Landfill)-4353223 – agus raharjo
• melting-4138410 – ChangMing Chen
• microscope-3414997 – Econceptive
• wool-3478364 – iconixar
• sheep-4484911 – basith ibrahim
• shopping bag-3822332 – Made x Made
• shovel (Compost)-4036298 – SBTS
• grassland-1952580 – Maxicons
• work together hands-4094331 – Berkah Icon
• (wool with wheel) brain-4961735 – Natthapong Mueangmoon
• washing (Washable)-3035083 – businessicons13
• cog wheels-3145497 – Arthur Dias
• cog wheels-124662 – Stephen Plaster
• pressure- – Magicon
• steam-3267015 – Larea
• pressure-1086794 – ImageCatalog
• washing machine-3980821 – SA Family
• dye (Paint tubes)-2132861 – Llisole
• fabric roll (rolling machine)-4060520 – Andre Buand
• (roll) cutter-1782692 – Hat-Tech
• (calendering) machine-1270908 – Eucalyp
• fabric-168232 – Amy Schwartz
• soundproof (Insulated)-4864324 – Sunchel Project
• (durable) chain-2001018 – arif fauzi hakim
• sewing machine-1733521 – Made
• laser cutter-1693968 – Camille Bissuel
• (fashion) sketchbook-3688223 – Shocho
• architect-3104093 – IronSV
• fabric rol-3961059 – vavavavara

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