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Demonstrations>Accessories:Eastern European>Felt Boots

Who says that all the frontiers of the world have been explored? The following is an exploration into the wilds of felt boot making. Come join me and my faithful student on this textile safari as we tame the wild textiles, capture the formidable felt process, stare death in the face as we full the felt, and finally emerge victorious with an actual felt boot... oh, come on, intrepid costumer! You've read this far...

Necessary Accouterments:

You will need a stove or access to one, a couple of deep pans for the felting solution, Ivory liquid soap (or melted Ivory bar soap), water, a ladle, and a shaker (for pouring the felting solution onto the felt), a reed mat, and lots of towels.

The felting solution is one of those tricky things. One word of caution: the soap MUST be Ivory (either liquid or melted bar - 99.99% pure). Nothing else will do. Why soap? The pH of the wool must be changed in order for it to felt quickly. You can felt with just plain water but it takes considerably longer. Making the water acidic will also accomplish the same thing but soap is easier on the hands.

Generally, you don't want too much soap in your water but the wool dictates how much soap you will need and here's more trickiness; you won't know until you start to work with the felt. I started with about one third cup of my soap mix (about four bars of Ivory melted into a half gallon of water). After pouring it onto the wool and working with it, it should work smoothly and have some lather. If the wool wants to stick to your hands and is not working smoothly, add a bit more soap to your water and wet the felt again with that mixture. DO NOT ADD TOO MUCH. Change the pH too much and the wool will not felt at all or be very sluggish.

Start the process by putting your pans of water on the stove and heating the water until you can barely stand to put your finger in it. Ladle in your soap mix and let simmer while you construct the felt pile.

Create your pattern by getting some heavy paper and drawing around your foot. Depending on the wool and how much it shrinks, you will add anywhere from an inch to two inches around the diagram of your foot. Add to that a section for your ankle. Once finished, your pattern will look like the picture to the right.

Be sure to create two patterns because you will be using the first pattern as a template during the felting process and it will probably not survive. Once you find a pattern that works well for you, make it out of plastic or commercial felt so that you can use it repeatedly (you can never have too many felt boots, right?).


The Wild Felt Poodle Pile:

The wool that felts best is undyed roving that has been cleaned and carded. When you buy your wool, either from a store or off the Internet, get at least 9 oz. per boot. It comes in long, continuous fluffy strands. Grasp the fluff strand about three to five inches from the end with one hand. With the other hand, pull a tuft away from the strand. This will give you a tuft with all the fibers running the same direction.Follow the placement illustrations shown below.

Lay bats down first going one direction and allowing for both sides of the boot as well as seam allowances.

It is VERY important that the tufts overlap one another at least an inch or so. On your reed mat, lay down your first layer in one direction and then proceed to lay down a second layer in the opposite direction. Follow your pattern and allow about an inch or two overlap for seams as you lay down the wool. For a good, sturdy boot, it takes about four to six layers.

This illustration shows the beginning of the second layer of tufts or "bats" layed over the first. Lay down the third layer following the direction of the first layer, the fourth layer following the second, and so on.

Darn Hot and We Like It That Way:

Once the poodle pile has been laid, get out your shaker and ladle some of the hot felting solution into it. It is better to shake the water onto the felt rather than pouring it so that it all gets wet evenly. Initially, wet the wool until it mats down a bit. Work it with your fingers to test if there is enough soap in the solution. Use the palms of your hands for this part and be careful not to create any holes.

Felting Happens, Whether You Want It to or Not:

Just by pouring hot water onto wool, you will have already mostly felted the wool. However, in order to felt the entire section, you must make sure that the whole area is wet and encouraged to felt. The solution must be hot enough that it is uncomfortable to the touch. Rubber gloves are a good thing at this point. Massage the wool with your fingers and palms but, again, be careful not to create holes. Make sure that the whole area is wet and starting to felt.

Only wet and felt one half of your poodle pile, making sure that you DO NOT felt the seam allowances. Remember that we want these to felt to the other side of the pile. Check the felted section to your pattern.

Once you have on side wetted and felted, place the pattern down on it and do the same thing with the other side, leaving your seam allowances unfelted. At this point, return to the first side, and wet the top of the pattern just enough to hold the seam allowances as you fold them over. Once the seam allowances are folded over the pattern, pick up that side and fold it onto the other side. Wet the top and fold the other side's seam allowances onto the top of the first side. Add more hot solution and work the seam allowances to make sure that they felt to one another correctly. This step is tricky and this is where any holes will appear if you're not careful. More about taking care of holes at the end of this demo.

Fulling Happens, With a Little Help:

Once the boot and seams have been felted, the hard part starts.

Start the fulling process by rolling the boot up in the mat and rolling it back and forth under pressure. Open it up, pick up the boot and turn it 90 degrees, roll it back up and repeat the process. Do this for a while until the boot has noticeably shrunk. This is where the towels come in handy because you'll be squeezing the water out. Add more hot solution as the boot starts to dry out a bit. Fulling requires heat and water.

If this boot is for you, put on a pair of shorts, sit yourself down in front of the tv with a full bottle of hot felting solution and put the felt boot on your foot. It will still be huge at this point but once you begin to full it, it will shrink to fit. Rub the boot with your hands, arms and knuckles against your leg, being sure to rub all over the boot. Rather magically, the boot will begin to conform to your foot. This part takes quite a while and can be sped up by popping the boot in the drier for a few minutes, taking it back out and wetting it down, rubbing it against the foot, and repeating that process a few times.

Viola! A Boot!:

It takes about four hours to make a boot, start to finish. To make a pair of boots is easily an eight hour, one day project but the results are worth it. After the boots dry, which takes over night, you are ready to embellish, appliqué and finish them according to whatever direction you want to go.

Felt boots have been found as early as the Scythian period and as late as modern times. The process has not changed much and does not vary much from culture to culture, time period to time period. References to felt boots are found from the Scandinavian countries all the way through Asia.

Surprisingly, these boots are very sturdy, very comfortable and great for walking around in Summer or Winter. If you live in a wet climate, add a leather sole to the bottom or wrap a leather bootie around the foot part of the boot to protect your foot.

For more information on how this process works, I recommend the following text: Felt: New Directions for an Ancient Craft, by Gunilla Paetau Sjoberg. This book takes you through the above process and talks about making hats and clothing items as well.

Happy boot making!

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