07. Sir Felt
In the past, a figure of speech called ‘synecdoche’ was used. It consisted in touching one part of something in order to indicate the whole of it, for example, the material with which something is made in order to indicate the thing itself.
The “wood” on which the Argonauts travelled meant the ship, and “steel” was synonymous to sword for warriors.
This involuntary process allowed the use of the term “felt” to refer to hats.
This is the material par eccellence with which it was made.
Felt is the undisputed protagonist on the stage of men’s head dress.
It is soft to touch and resistant. It is suitable for modelling because it is a mat of hairs that when soaked in steam take on a good deal of flexibility. Lastly, it is reconstructed fur, seeing that the animal hairs are shrunken without any aid of glue and if correctly treated can be polished like a fur. We can all verify the porosity of felt by blowing cigarette smoke through it. Instead, water swells the material and passes through slowly hence, it also has a certain degree of natural water resistance. The “softness” it takes on once steamed, is very important because it permits moulding in various shapes. There is no other material as soft that can be moulded into such articulated forms without being sewn.1
Felt is the oldest form of cloth and the art of matting appears to be older than weaving. It was known by the Mongolian tribes long before the Greeks and the Romans. The nomads of central Asia were among the first to obtain a compact cloth by beating carded and wet wool with which they made tents, clothing, and of course, head gear to guard themselves from the cold.
Felt may be made from wool or fur. The former is obtained from sheep, goats, shearlings and camels, the latter from hares, beavers, otters and above all rabbits, especially Australian rabbits. Wool felt is rougher, heavier, thicker and less resistant, but also less expensive. Fur felt is “strong, soft, fine grained, with lively colours and smooth when sanded”. 2
The casual observer is not always able to perceive the differences that are instead quite obvious to the hatter’s trained eye and touch. The main feature of felt is that it is a cloth which is not a cloth. In fact, it is a material that is obtained without spinning and weaving. The fibres are matted by a mechanical and chemical process, with humidity and heat, by chafing and pressing. 3
Felt is considered a fabric, but its productive process has no relation with loomed cloth textile where two series of threads are loaded, the weft and warp, and perpendicularly woven together mechanically. Even cloth, a woven wool fabric which is particularly resistant because it is shrunken and compacted only after weaving, isn’t felt even if it is a “fulled” fabric.
Felt is the result of the matting of animal fibres that possess a certain quality of naturally interlacing by matting, and after being treated, connect tightly with each other. Specifically, felt is formed thanks to the fusion of microscopic scales, that are on the surface of fur, and their curling. 4
1. F. MONDOLFO, op. cit., pgs. 61 s.
2. Ibidem, pg. 65
3. cfr. N. PAFUNDI, Cappelli e bastoni, PAFPO editore, Milano, 1998, pg.35
4. F. MONDOLFO, op. cit., pg. 64