May 7, 2009

Key "felt" into the search engine of an online bookseller and a plethora of "how to" and craft books will pop up. Instruction manuals have their place but the surfeit of knick-knack projects, raw colour and embellishments can be too much, even for robust enthusiasts.

There is renewed attention to the ancient and elemental fabric called felt, and it has many guises, from automotive parts to art installations. It is the embodiment of wholesome craftsmanship, traditional aesthetics; basic yet potentially chic; local and homespun while international and industrial.

Felt ticks the appealing sustainable and wellbeing boxes while remaining desirable and designerly. Despite its multifaceted appeal, there have been few publications of substantial content (Wollstonecraft, Darwin and Freud are namechecked here), so Felt is a timely publication for a diverse readership.

Mary Burkett's seminal 1979 text The Art of the Felt Maker is a key reference, and Willow G. Mullins' cooler style contrasts with Katharina Thomas' more emotional German-language work Filz. Mullins interviewed living makers and researchers, drawing on studies that have emerged here and there as publications but that have too often been confined to special interest groups, such as the International Feltmakers Association.

Sufficient ancient felt artefacts have survived for it to be recognised as a sophisticated and culturally significant form. Bronze Age European solid felt caps combined weaving with felting. Shaped and decorated, this ceremonial headwear may also have provided protection from the climate and in combat, and was surely a precursor to our hybrid techno textiles.

Yurts are a familiar totem of felt, having attracted academic attention from many disciplines. Admitting indebtedness to Stephanie Bunn in outlining the ecology of this Central Asian phenomenon, which encompasses visual aesthetics, cosmology, folklore and craft, Mullins finds her own voice. She seems in her element when reporting her Kyrgyzstan fieldwork. This establishes her benchmark for comparing the embeddedness of felt in other regional cultures. These sections are rich with detail and folklore, and much surer for that than the subsequent tired and rather woolly philosophy of art, craft and kitsch.

A book with material artefacts at its core will be enriched by visuals. The scope of Felt and its potentially varied circulation suggest some elements require illustration. Alas, the images are disappointing. Of the 32 colour plates at the centre of the book, surprisingly few, even the museum pieces, are dated. One cannot be sure if they are rare relics, seminal contemporary pieces or illustrations offered for anecdotal reasons elsewhere in the text.

The author's valuable fieldwork photography of traditional feltmaking accounts for almost half the plates. However, it is the juxtaposition of the remainder of the images that is jarring: Joseph Beuys and Elsa Schiaparelli sit alongside the ubiquitous Christmas stocking. Imagine a meeting of these makers - what would their shared understanding of felt be?

It is pleasing to find a book on felt that is not about crafting quick results, but instead describes a deceptively complex and sophisticated substance, multi-cultured yet culturally specific. Encompassing snapshots of the historical, technical, ethnographical, environmental, commercial, gender studies and the aesthetic in just 182 pages, Felt can ultimately offer only a taster.


By Willow G. Mullins. Berg, 224pp, £60.00 and £24.99. ISBN 9781845204389 and 4396. Published 29 January 2009

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