There's no doubt that primitive mankind first trod the world without the benefit of clothing. Historians suggest that thousands, perhaps millions of years passed before animal skins became fashionable. Then, sometime in the dim past, man discovered that the hair of certain animals pressed together stayed together. The fabric known as felt replaced animal skins. No one knows the age of felt—only that it was in use long before Neolithic man learned how to weave cloth a mere 12,000 years ago.
The manufacture of felt is simple. Under a microscope, the hair of many animals appears as a barbed strand, the barbs all pointing toward the tip of the hair. When a number of hairs are pressed together, those which lie in opposite directions interlock barbs and resist efforts to pull them apart.
Legend has it that St. Clement (patron saint of felt makers) discovered felt when, at the beginning of a long journey, he put carded wool between his feet and the soles of his sandals. When he reached his destination, he found no carded wool in his sandals. The wool had been compressed into felt.
It is certain, however, that felt was around long before the Christian era. Because the nomadic tribes of central and northern Asia still make felt today for basic shelter, in the same way as their ancestors of thousands of years ago, it is possible that felt's first use occurred there. And certainly the Bedouins of Arabia and the herdsmen of Tibet were covering themselves and constructing tents of felt centuries before St. Clement.
The first Greek mention of the fabric occurs in the Iliad, when Homer relates that Odysseus wore a helmet of hide, lined with felt. Male Greeks and Romans of all ages wore skull caps of felt. In fact, so popular was the fabric that among the ruins of Pompeii is a complete workshop for making felt hats and gloves.
Among Roman citizens, the conical felt cap was a status symbol. When a laborer obtained his freedom, he shaved his head and put on the pileus, or cap, of undyed felt. Caesar put felt to more practical use. His legions, harried by Pompey's archers in a civil war, were instructed to wear breastplates of felt and to cover their tall raiding towers with a protective layer of the fabric. Far away in India felt was transformed into the richly embroidered Numdah rugs as an improvement over the coarse straw mats found in man's early dwellings.
Felt was again introduced to Europe centuries after the decline of Greece and Rome. Returning crusaders brought back reports of beautiful Arab tents made of felt, and Marco Polo, returning to Venice after 26 years in the land of Kublai Khan, reported to thirteenth-century Europe the many ways in which the Mongols used felt. Similarly, Ibn Batutta, the famous Arab traveler of the fourteenth century, journeyed to Sarai, ancient capital of the Golden Horde, and described their four-wheeled, felt-covered carts in a manuscript that was translated by European scholars.
The same properties of felt that prompted nomadic herdsmen to use it for shelter against heat and cold make the venerable fabric valuable today as weatherstripping for homes and cars and heat insulators for airplanes. The piano would not have its pleasant tonal quality if someone in the 1740's had not thought to replace the leather on its hammers with felt. And, of course, people of many nations favor felt as hat material.
Countless other industries employ felt, often in inconspicuous ways. Intravenous feeding, for example, is aided by two dramatic properties of felt—porosity and capillary attraction. A tiny sterilized felt washer, placed in the neck of a bottle, acts as a filter that pumps air but retains the saline solution which presses against its inner surface. Control of the intravenous feeding rate was adjusted by hand until several years ago when a Detroit doctor discovered that felt could do the job.
Each year some 30 million pounds of fiber go into the production of felt, proof enough that this fabric from the Stone Age has found its place in the Space Age.