Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Commonly Felt: the Oldest Smart Textile


The Oldest Smart Textile is Making a Come Back

The oldest known textile – felt – is making a comeback in interiors around the world. When handmade it offers a zero waste method of production: water, wool and the energy to agitate the fibres so that they full or lock together all that the basic recipe requires. The material is ideally suited to dampen noise in public spaces such as restaurants and meeting rooms and can act as an insulation layer to help regulate room temperature. As American designer Janice Arnold explains, “Felt is so amazingly suited to comfort. It can be cool or warm depending on the environment and no modern fibre can say that.” Dutch artist Claudy Jongstra agrees – wool is a “smart textile with no chemical equivalent”.

There is also something to be said for the simplicity of felt that has piqued our interest of late. The attributes of felt are far from the results of cutting edge textile chemistry or materials innovation. In fact precisely the opposite is true. “Sheep evolved this heating and cooling system for their survival,” Arnold explains. Felt “is just one step away from being on the animal’s back,” offers Susan Brown, curator of “Fashioning Felt” concluding that “with other textiles there’s a lot of preparation…. Felt is more spontaneous.”

The Netherlands: Claudy Jongstra

Claudy Jongstra began her career in the fashion industry, but the pace and waste of fashion encouraged her to look for alternatives. Today Jongastra uses felt to create large-scale rugs and wall hangings that invite – and withstand – touch. Take as an example the 2007 commission to cover a wall of the public library in Amsterdam, which was planned to encourage the hands of visitors to explore its tangled surface. The wool Jongstra uses is unusually long and curly, sourced from Drenthe Heath sheep she owns and farms. The breed is the oldest in Europe and her herd of two hundred is part of only one thousand left in the Netherlands today. Along with the contribution she makes to sustaining this rare breed, the nimble creatures also contribute to the local landscape, as Jongstra points out, “doing the work machines cannot do”.

Studio Claudy Jongstra also makes use of a garden ‘laboratory’ to cultivate plants that are used as natural dyes in her felt. Jongstra’s cradle-to-cradle approach has earned the support of the local Friesland government who have recently agreed to collaborate with the artist by providing additional local land for planting. Once planted with indigenous sources of natural dyes this additional land will enhance the biodiversity of the local area and eliminate the need to import the natural dyes Jongstra currently tests in her own garden and then buys in bulk, often from abroad and. “Cultural heritage is often lost and it is important to experience beauty in traditional agriculture,” she explains.

Jongstra’s carpets can be found in a number of private homes and Dutch government buildings. She also produces wall hangings, both stretched and as free hanging panels to improve the acoustics of a space. A recently completed commission at the Lincoln Centre in New York City uses and mix of silk and wool dyed with weld and madder. Alongside these commissions, Jongstra runs a natural dye and felt workshop each year in Umbria, Italy. Her work is, in every sense of the term, organic from her commitment to the Dutch landscape, to education and her remarkable installations that challenge any fusty associations we may have been secretly harbouring about felt.

Japan: Jorie Johnson

“It seemed tempting to work with wool in the Finnish landscape,” chuckles American artist Jorie Johnson in a recent phone conversation from her from her studio in Kyoto. Johnson was first introduced to felt on a study trip to Finland in the late 1970s. Since her arrival in Japan in 1988 she has worked to introduce felt to a culture that has no history of wool farming and a seemingly inhospitable climate. “Japan is not a wool country,” Johnson admits. “Things arrived via the Silk Road, but homespun wool only appeared 120-130 years ago.” Jorie relates that it was the European admirals who arrived wearing uniforms of boiled wool suits that sparked an interest in the material that offered a status appeal. “Now it is the Japanese and the Italians who buy futures in the finest wool,” she muses.

With the exception of the northern island of Hokkaido, the climate of much of Japan does not lend itself to the use of wool year round. Valuable textiles find themselves “put away in the worst months with the biggest moth balls” and then aired in the dry autumn breezes. This seasonal emphasis on the care of textiles is so embedded in Japanese culture that Johnson explains even the national television and radio weather reports will include predictions on when it will be a good day for hanging the laundry. Ironically the summer months have posed a minimal design problem for Jorie as she explains, “Interior decoration is seasonally oriented here, felt is [now] used in late autumn and winter which for me is perfect because it prolongs the textile’s life.”

Along with a different set of climate challenges, Jorie also works within a culture that supports a markedly different system of aesthetic values. “Heavy textiles do not visually appeal,” she warns of the differences in taste. But lighter weight, fine wools have found a market – their fragility balanced by their seasonal use. Johnson’s experimental collaborations have also flourished, including a series of lacquer vessels created with the American furniture maker Clifton Monteith that set the clean glossy surface of lacquer against felt. A recent trend for larger (by Japanese standards) homes being built in the countryside with wood flooring has also generated a number of carpet commissions that suggest a growing admiration for the material.

America: Janice Arnold

American designer Janice Arnold began working with handmade felt in 1999, first using the material as part of the window installations she was commissioned to create for the Nordstrom Corporation stores. She concedes that if you were to stop an individual on the street in America today and ask them to describe felt the image that most would conjure is the “needle punch acrylic felt used in kindergarden”. “We don’t have an adequate vocabulary to describe this material,” she observes. “It can be ethereal, lightweight, thick, dense…. we need to reinvent terms to articulate and appreciate the many nuances of felt.”

In her most recent projects Arnold has expanded her production of large-scale hand felted installations and now also creates hybrid projects that make use of industrial felt in combination with handmade felt. A collaboration with Avery Brooks and Associates provided the opportunity to use industrial felt in a Las Vegas restaurant to dampen noise and provide a visual accent. Most recently completed is a project for the reception area of a medical clinic in Washington State makes use of industrial felt with a handmade felt façade, a technique Arnold had trademarked as Felt Veneer™. The use of industrial felt helps to keep costs down while the handmade surface offers, in Arnold’s words, a “handmade surface quality” that she hopes will pique the interests of interior designers and architects in the US.

Now enjoying pride of place in a number of interiors commissions, felt is experiencing a long overdue image update. If sustainable options really are to become the backbone of our design future it seems unlikely that felt will remain overlooked by others for much longer.

Cover (summer 2010: 66-67)