This is a modified for the web version of documentation submited for an SCA Arts and Science project.
A Simple Felt Rug
Turkmen, 1220
     I was first introduced to felting at Pennsic 32. ; I took a class at Clan Preachain, and made a simple felt pouch.  From that moment I was hooked on felting.  I loved the texture and smell of the wool, the simplicity and functionality of a fiber art that is more like sculpting than sewing or weaving.
     I continued to explore felt making, learning how to make balls, bags without seams, shoes and some hats, all with the "rubbing method."; In my research I discovered a wealth of traditional flat felt crafts that still exist in Turkey, Iran, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, and throughout central Asia, all using the "rolling" method.  This summer with the help of some friends, I made several felt rugs using the rolling method.
     All the while I've been trying to find primary documentation for felt anywhere within the SCA period. ; It has been like a wild goose chase, with copious secondary and tertiary sources, and an overwhelming feeling that, "Duh! Of course there was felt in the middle ages!"   My search so far has given me tantalizing tidbits, which are beginning to felt together into a solid fabric.
Difficulties finding primary felt sources.
    In the SCA a primary resource is one that comes from the time period and culture of the object or concept that one trying to document.  For felting that would mean actual extant pieces of felt, or writings or art clearly depicting or describing felt or felt making.
    Felt is very utilitarian and decomposes easily, easily made and easily disposed of. ; Even though it can be artistic, and in deed is thought of that way modernly, most felt in period would have been boring everyday objects that would have been worn out reused and thrown away.  No one would have saved his or her felt sock for posterity.  Like most textiles after only a few years, felt will decompose without a trace, unless preserved under extraordinary circumstances, such as flash freezing or being encased in tar. So felt in grave finds is rare.
    I have not yet found any period accounts of the felt making process, which again, is logical given its simple and ordinary nature.  The process was no big secret, and it was simple, so why write it down? And the people making felt, likely could not read either.
   In the case of artwork, one can look at objects in artwork and say, maybe they were made out of felt, but unless the picture it titled  "Uncle John Wearing a Felt Hat";, there is no reason the item couldn't be made of another textile also.
Felt, the first textile?
   Felt making is a simple process.   Wool is exposed to a combination of moisture, heat, agitation, and a change in pH, and it will felt.  It is so simple that many archeologists believe it could be the first textile ever made, even older than spinning and weaving.
    Some cultures have stories claiming they invented felt.  One comes from Noah's Ark.   The sheep living in cramped quarters shed wool on the floor, urinated on the wool, and trampled on the wool.  ; When they left the Ark there was a felt rug where the sheep had been.   Another story exists about horse men who put a layer of wool underneath their saddle to protect their horses from saddle sores, and the natural agitation, heat and sweat produced in riding the horse made felt.
    Because of the simplicity of felting, it would be reasonable to assume that not only was knowledge of felt making passed from culture to culture, but also felt making was probably independently discovered and developed by many cultures.
Pazyryk finds
    Ironically, the best examples of pre 1600 felt making were found in Siberian graves dating between 300 and 600 BCE.  The site of Pazyryk is located in the Altai Mountains of modern day Siberia.   The culture of these Altai people has been identified as either part of or closely related to the Sythians. The Pazyryk graves contained perfectly preserved bodies, textiles, woodwork, ironwork, and much more.   Felt was found in a variety of contexts, including rugs, wall hangings, sculpture, hairstyles, horse saddle pads, and foot wear.  The quality of the felt is described as made of fine wool and usually thin, although thicker for saddle pads and such.  One researcher theorized that the fine quality of the felt was due to the particular wealth of the families buried in such a ceremonial fashion.  Implying that less wealthy families of this culture may have had rougher, thicker felt.  In all examples, ornamentation is made by cutting and appliquing the designs rather than felting the design right into the felt.
Visit the State Hermitage Museum website for more information on and pictures of the  Pazyryk finds.
Medieval Sources
   In her book, Felt, New Directions for an Ancient Craft, Gunilla Paetau Sjoberg gives a brief but concise introduction to the history of felt. Fabulous, considering her book is mainly intended to describe technique. In addition to the Pazyryk finds, she also give examples of a Norse bear mask from 400-500 AD, Chinese and Korean floral rugs, with felted in designs from 668-918 AD, and various ancient and medieval versions of the felt hat.
   In his research report on felt, Richard E. Wright also speaks about the copious use of felt as floor, wall and door coverings, and seating places, by Persian, Turkmen, and Mongolians, throughout medieval times, and the 16 -19th centuries. He quotes "William of Ruberick in 1253, among the Turkic tribes on the plains north of the Caucasus: 'Before the door they hang a felt curiously [finely] painted over, for they spend all their colored felt in painting vines, trees, birds, and beasts thereupon.'" (See the list of sources below for a link.) It was this report that led me to the following source.
    A fairly odd but useful source is Leonardo Olschki's', The Myth of Felt. Published in 1949, The Myth of Felt is a literary criticism of a particular piece of Dante's Divine Comedy, in which Virgil professes of a coming political redeemer, which is described as coming "E sua nazion sara' tra Feltro e Feltro ('Twixt Feltro and Feltro shall his nation be)."; The whole of the book discusses the possible meaning of "Feltro e Feltro" a rather tedious argument to those like myself fairly disinterested with Dante. However he goes into great depth about various Mongolian and Turkmen customs concerning the enthronement and burial of leaders in the Medieval period, such as raising the new leader up on a felt rug, and burial of a leader using a felt burial shroud.  Olschki goes on to make numerous references to felt throughout Central Asia, China, and even Europe contemporary to Dante (1265-1321). He makes a case for felt being the most humble of all fabrics to all except the nomadic cultures of Central Asia, where it was used extensively for tents, blankets, rugs, sleeping pads, clothing, and many other uses. In 399 AD a Chinese traveler Fa-hsien crossed the northern border of his country and found himself in a barbarous environment as soon as he noticed the extensive use of felt among the nomad population, (presumably the Mongolians). Genghis Khan is said to refer to the unified Turko-Mongolian tribes as "the generations that live in felt tents." Despite its oddity, The Myth of Felt has proved to be a valuable resource in the research of felt in the Middle Ages, particularly in Central Asia.  Olschki's bibliography will provide my next steps in the search for those elusive primary sources.
Modern Inspirations
    Traditional felt making still exists in several areas of the world, most notably Scandinavia, Mongolia, Iran, and Turkey.   A resurgence of interest in felt making by western fiber artists has made examples of traditional felt making readily available.
     In the case of rug making, there are several prominent styles. Mongolian syrmak rugs are made of cut and appliqued felt, very similar to those in the Pazyryk finds.  They also make totally white rugs, called shirdeg, which are heavily quilted with designs.   Another type of rugs are made by the inlaid technique, in which the colored or contrasting wool is laid out in a pattern and felted into the rug.   This is variously called kece in Turkistan, tekemet in Kazakhstan, and alakiiz in Kyrgyzstan.  In Turkey yet another type of rug is made using slightly pre-felted colored wool, cut into designs and felted into the rug.
    Modern examples of traditional felt making have been invaluable in reconstructing medieval felt making.  While modern designs can not be taken literally "as is"; for medieval designs, their designs and construction techniques give reasonable clues to what may have been, particularly in nomadic cultures where fiber traditions are slow to change.
    When taken as a whole, the information available suggests that almost any culture with sheep or other fiber animals probably had felt in some form throughout ancient and medieval times.   The nomadic cultures of Central Asia used felt extensively, and are particularly famous for their large felt pieces, tents, rugs, door covers and the like.   Given the extensive finds at Pazyryk and the remains of traditional felt making today, it is reasonable to connect the dots and assume that the Central Asian felt making tradition flourished throughout the medieval period.
My Rug
    When starting this rug project, it was very difficult to choose a time and place, given my main resources are from the modern era, and any of my own conclusions drawn so far are for the Central Asian area in general.  It seems to me the rug I have created would be at home in any number of those cultures, Mongolian, Turkmen, Persian, Kyrgyk, Seljuk or Ottoman Turk, through out the whole of the Medieval period.   I decided on Turkmen, given their modern use of the inlaid technique, their nomadic history, and their great amount of contact with the other mentioned cultures, indeed the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks originated from Turkistan.  The date is even more arbitrary given the ongoing tradition and lack of extant pieces.  So in honor of excitement, romance, and The Myth of Felt, I set my rug in 1220, the era of Genghis Khan, the Mongolian who conquered Turkistan from 1218-1224, a time and place of cultural intersection.
   My rug is made from about 2 pounds of natural colored Corriedale wool roving.  Corriedale is a modern breed of sheep, but it is known for its ease of felting due to its fine texture, is readily available in this country, and affordable. I have not yet researched breeds of Central Asian sheep, or their fleece characteristics. This will be one my next steps in my research.
   I used the rolling technique common throughout Central Asia.  The Sjoberg book, Felt, New Directions for and Ancient Craft, has been a wealth of resources for the construction of felt.   She describes the Mongolian method, which does not use soap, only hot water and lots of Camel power, the fiber is not pre-washed, and is beaten with sticks instead of combed or carded.  ; They lay out the wool in layers on a  "mother felt", roll around a log, add water and pull behind a horse, camel or tractor until fully felted. She also shows photos of felt workshops in Turkey where the wool is laid on a rush mat, design first, sprinkled with hot soapy water, then finished in a felt machine.
    I also found a 15-minute video online showing an elderly Iranian felt maker at work throughout the whole process.  His technique was like the Turkish technique, only he still did the process by hand (and foot), rolling the wool back and forth, even standing on it while rolling which looked something like a lumberjack log rolling in a river.
     I used a 4'x6' matchstick blind to roll my rug. ; I decided to try a round rug because when I made previous rugs in a rectangle to fit the blind, it was difficult to turn the rug sideways to felt in that direction, the rug was then wider than the blind. I decided that keeping the rug round would ensure that the rug was evenly fulled in all directions. I first laid down the curly motifs, using a bit of soapy water on my hands to shape the wool, then I laid down the brown outer border. ; Because the rug was a circle, I laid a layer of the white wool in concentric circles, then a layer in a starburst pattern (opposite the previous layer), then two layers of brown in the same manor.  This gives the effect of the white background being totally encased in the brown motif, including on the back of the rug.
    I sprinkled about 6 cups of hot soapy water (plain ivory soap), onto the wool, then used my feet to squash the wool flat.  When the wool was flat, I rolled up the mat, tied it, and rolled it back and forth with my feet, hands, whatever part of my body was the least tired.  Occasionally I unrolled the mat and turned the rug in a different direction, all the while trying to keep the rug as round as possible.  This took about 4 hours in total.
    When fully felted the rug was rinsed of soap and laid flat to dry. I chose not to trim the thinner scalloped edges of the rug, because I like the primitive texture it adds.  Some points of the curls did not fully felt onto the rug, perhaps too much pre shaping caused the piece to felt too much before it could be felted to the main rug.  Modernly I would use my felting needles to repair those spots, but I chose not to in favor of authenticity.
    In general I am pleased with my rug.  It is just the right size for one person to sit on, and will look great in a tent a Pennsic. I hope to increase the complexity of my designs, and the depth of my research for future projects.  I also hope that through making felt and sharing felt making with others I can help increase the frequency of felt on the SCA landscape.  It is certainly an under practiced craft in the current Middle Ages, considering its importance throughout the real Middle Ages.
Olschki, Leonardo, The Myth of Felt, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1949
Wright, Richard E., "On Felt", A Compilation of Notes Concerning the Nature and Origins of Textiles,1985,
Raissnia, Melinda, website, video of traditional Iranian felt rug maker, Haj
Alii Halajion, shot by Dodd Raissnia in May 2003,
Sjoberg, Gunilla Paetau, Felt New Directions for an Ancient Craft, Interweave Press, Loveland Colorado, 1996
copyright Lorna Rankin 2006