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 Felting on the Frontier


Suzanne Pufpaff
(information from this page may be copied for
educational purposes only)

     Many fiber artist and craft persons are asked at some point to demonstrate their skills.  The invitation may be for a craft show on the green or for a local school system.  Directors of museums and historical events also often ask for demonstrations.  Feltmakers (felters) have a wonderful opportunity to use such invitations to educate the public on a fun, fascinating and relatively simple new, old craft. 

     Sharing my experiences may help others effectively demonstrate this ancient craft.  There are two ways to start demonstrating.  The first way is to go out, demonstrate, and learn from mistakes.  The second way is to research how felting has been done in the past and then demonstrate in a historically accurate manner.

     When trying to find documentation to prove felting was part of frontier life, lack of appropriate information is quickly evident.  When confronted with a hard question, follow the first rule of research - never take "no" for an answer.  Keep asking questions and eventually the right question will find the right person and the answers will start coming.  Once the first answer surfaces, it seems like a connecting trail opens up and information pours forth unsolicited.  If the opportunity to do historical demonstrating has ever been available or desired, here are some ways to do it more authentically.

     First, take the time to learn the history of the area where a demonstration is to take place.  This does not have to be from the exact community where the display will be located, but the more informational the presentation, the more people are going to enjoy the portrayal.  Learn about events from the time period being re-created.  Who was President?  Was the region a state or territory?  What was the population?  Were there primarily trappers, traders, Indians, or settlers in the area?  Where did the settlers originate?  Were the people of the area from the East Coast moving West, or from across the oceans?  Is the show a re-enactment of a specific event?  If it is, learn about what would have been happening during that event.

     In the process of finding out the above information, a specific direction for the demonstration's exact style may come to light.  One example could be discovering the specific techniques used by a group of artisans in a local area.  The techniques used to make felt vary between different ethnic groups at different times during the history of America.  Another example might be how felting contributed to the manufacturing and economic development of a community.  If a felt boot company or hat factory was one of the first manufacturing ventures in the community, using the history of the company in local demonstrations would enhance a presentation.  When choosing the who, what when. and where of a portrayal, keep techniques in mind.

    Now, with questions in hand, where are the sources for the answers?  The library is an excellent source for local history.  Most libraries carry files of old newspapers from the community.  Some may also have other information available, such as census records, family histories, business files, and old photographs.  Local historians and historical societies are a source of area history.

     Something relatively new is computerized cataloging of some of the larger library collections.  This catalog information is now available through most inter-library loan systems and some other computer connections.  Find a library that subscribes and make friends with the research librarian.  There is a wealth of information available in rare book collections, many of which have been put on microfilm.  The books on microfilm can be mailed almost anywhere and viewed at the local library.

     Local museums are another excellent resource.  Don't stop with just a visit, get to know the staff.  If some preliminary information gathering has been done, the staff will probably be extremely helpful in exchanging information.  Be prepared to be included on their list of available demonstrators.

     Now with some basic background information in hand, take the time to get the right clothing for the character portrayed.  When researching, notice the pictures and drawings used to illustrate the information.  These show clothing styles of the time.

     There are a few things to keep in mind when deciding what to wear.  Keep it simple.  These clothes are not available at the local K-Mart.  Someone is going to have to make them.  Whether the demonstrator or someone else is making the clothing, time is money.  The more elaborate the costume, the more time-consuming or expensive the clothing will be to make.

     For a felt maker, the costume is not going to be high fashion.  The status of a person was known by the clothing worn.  If a woman had to ply the trade of felt making, it was because either no man was available or the man around was not adequately providing for the family's needs. By definition, she was going to be seen in lower, working or peasant clothing.  Also remember, felting is work, dress accordingly.

    If a man was plying the trade of felt making, it was probably in the hat making industry.  The only hatter or felter with truly high status would have been the guild master, the rest of the workers would only have the status of workmen or laborers. As with the woman, felting is work, dress accordingly.

     A demonstration costume that is simple and complete for a woman would include two petticoats, a chemise, and either a bodice or short gown.  Other accessories include an apron, a kerchief, a corset,  a pocket, a cap, and a felt hat.  The wide-brimmed, low crowned, felt hat was worn by both men and women in the rural communities throughout America's early history.

      The simple men's costume would include a shirt, breeches and waistcoat.  Other accessories would include a heavy work apron, kerchief and felt hat as mentioned before.  There are a number of fairly good books available on clothing.  A very helpful one is Rural Pennsylvania Clothing, by Ellen J. Gehret.  This book includes many illustrations, instructions, and patterns for making your own clothing.

     After establishing a sense of history and a costume, a few tools of the trade are in order.  Try to be as accurate as possible.  First, any form of plastic is unacceptable!  Next, the kind of pots and pans used for wetting and rinsing should be as close to the period represented as possible.  Then take a look at what can be used as a table and think history.

     Make allowances for modern conditions.  For example, in the late 18th Century, the wool commonly was not washed before beginning the felting process.  Therefore, very hot acid baths were used to "felt" the wool.  In reality, the wool was being washed and felted at the same time.  Considering that urine was the most available and therefore frequently used acid, most modern noses would not respond well to that much authenticity.

     Other problems for re-enactors are the need to be portable, lack of reliable hot water and the need to work in windy conditions.  These challenge the felt-maker when trying to show a true-to-life representation.  One way to deal with adverse conditions is to limit the scope of the demonstration.

     One suggestion for adapting to conditions is to show only the forming and fulling steps of the felting process.  By starting with washed, pre-carded wool batts, most wind problems surrounding trying to card wool can be avoided.  Hot water is also optional.  Water warm enough for the felter's comfort with a small amount of detergent or vinegar added, will felt most wools.  Detergent (put in on the sly to stay in character) works better than soap when the kind of water available can't be predicted.

    Another helpful adaptation is to use very fine wool or a mix including at least 30 percent fine wool.  The fine wools felt much quicker and are therefore preferable in a setting where results need to be seen as quickly as quickly as possible.  If demonstrating the making of a hat blank or hood, fine wools are also the most historically accurate.

     A simple setup for demonstrating could include the following:

oA costume appropriate for time and place

oA sturdy collapsible table large enough to form and full a hat or other suitable project.          My husband  made a table for me and it works wonderfully.  The top is three feet square with three-inch sides hanging down.  This has been coated with about five coats of clear finish.  The base is separate and folds flat using a scissor action.  The base is held in place when open by the edge of the table and a shelf placed between the open legs.

oA pot or kettle to warm water in, which can double as a way to fetch water at the beginning of the day.  An enamelware kettle, well encrusted with fire residue to camouflage what it truly is, is acceptable, but this is not completely accurate for historical presentations. Lead is what was most often used historically, but this would lead to issues in modern society which are better avoided.  Try to work with the local re-enactors to come up with the best compromise.

oA small brazier to contain a fire in to heat the water.  By using a brazier instead of an open fire, those watching the demonstration are somewhat safer.

oA dipper for getting water from the kettle to the felt.  This could be either wood, metal or possibly a gourd.

oOld wooden hat forms and other small hat making tools which can be found through antique shops.  They can be expensive, but sometimes deals can be made.

oAt least two old cotton or linen clothes for forming the felt.  Old, torn up bed sheets are an excellent source.  Try to avoid colors for historical settings.

oCheap dish detergent or vinegar in a period appropriate container.  A small glass jar works well.

oSome finished goods for display purposes or to sell.

oLast, but far from least, washed precarded fine wool batts.  When the wool is carded, make sure little or no spinning oil is put in during the processing.  Oil slows down the felting process, especially in the primitive conditions of demonstrating.

      This entire setup will fit comfortably in the back of a small van or even the back seat of some cars.

     With this setup, the fulling and forming of a wide-brimmed felt hat is easily accomplished.  Even if hats are made while demonstrating, a woman should not call herself a hatmaker. Most communities would not have allowed women to make men's hats.  The hat makers were guild-controlled and very secretive about their craft.  As " The Felt Lady," I have found that demonstrating and selling woman's hats and items for the home and family is allowable and historically accurate. 

     After getting some background history, clothing, and tools, go out and demonstrate!  One other thing which can make the whole project more entertaining for both the demonstrator and the public is to develop a personal history of the character portrayed.  An example of this is my story line used for "The Felt Lady."

     Mrs. Paff is the 18th Century daughter of a hat-maker.  When she was young, her father emigrated to Upstate New York from England with his wife and children.  The family came to America because of long-standing frustrations caused by the extremely restrictive hat maker's guild system in Europe.  Since Mrs. Paff was the oldest child, her father taught her to felt so she could help in the family business.

     As happened with many young women, Mrs. Paff met and married a young man.  The young Mr. Paff was back East visiting relatives at the time they become acquainted.  His homestead was on the frontier, so after their marriage, they went West to set up housekeeping.  Young wives were given many gifts from their families and friends when they wed.  These were all designed to help with the setup of a new home.  In Mrs. Paff's case, this included a few fine-wool lambs from her father's flock.

     Another frequent occurrence was men leaving their wives alone on frontier homesteads.  In Mrs. Paff's situation, her husband was called upon to assist his new country with mapping out the new territories because he was a surveyor. 

     While the man of the house was off experiencing high adventures -- babies, livestock, home, and garden had to be supported, somehow.  Since Mrs. Paff had learned the skill of felt-making while growing up, she fell back on it as a way to keep her family warm and to create items for barter.  Bartering was how she could acquire what she couldn't  make herself.  So was created "The Felt Lady."

     After creating a personal history, it can be fun to think from your character's viewpoint rather than from a 20th Century one. For example, how would the character deal with everyday activities like laundry, making meals, taking care of sick children, animals or husband?  What would be a daily routine?  Let the research include information to help fill out the personality of the character.

    Using these ideas, along with your own research and skills, any felter should be able to bring felt-making alive for those lucky enough to see a "real felter" the next time they go to an historical re-enactment.

     Additional resource material and a bibliography of available works on felting is available through the North American Felters Network c/o Patrica Spark, 1032 SW Washington St., Albany. OR 97321.  Suzanne Pufpaff has compiled a book Nineteenth Century Hat Maker's and Felter's Manuals, available from her for $18.00 plus $3.00 shipping. Address 5038 E. M79 Hwy, Nashville, MI 49073.