Mongolian HerdersFelt making in Mongolia

The most important animals in Mongolia are the five hoofed animals of Cow, Sheep, Camel, Goat and Horse. From these a Mongolian herder can obtain most of the resources they need to survive - clothing, housing, food, tools, games and even fortune telling! Of all of the animals the sheep is the most versatile and produces the dairy, meat and wool that are the cornerstone of survival in the harsh climate.

Mongolia often calls itself the ‘Felt Nation’ and this fitting tribute only touches on the importance this material has held to the people. Its versatility, warmth and strength means it can be found as boots, hats, gloves, a cover for the car engine, a bag, a rug and much more. Yet its most important contribution has been to provide simple and effective insulation to the traditional tent (ger). This goes around and over the wooden ger frame as large rolled felt pieces and the whole is then usually covered with a fitted white cotton cover. These felt pieces are made approximately 2cm thick. While in summer one layer is enough for the tent, in winter (as temperatures drop to minus 40 degrees C) it is more common to use 3 or 4 layers.

Making the felt

There are several traditional techniques for making felt in Mongolia depending on which part of the country you are from but the basic principle remains the same. The earliest piece of Mongolian Felt is a 13th Century rug depicting stylised animals and motifs around the border which hangs in the national museum. This early survivor is a reminder that the basic technique and design has not changed for hundreds of years.

After the wool has been sheared from the animal it is laid out on a large sheet and beaten with sticks to soften the strands and help mesh the wool together. The beating is usually done by the women and children of the community and requires a good spring day to get the work done. It will be beaten for several hours and a small amount of water will be sprinkled over the whole to help the binding process. The sheet will then be rolled tightly and either firmly rolled and rerolled by the group of women or tied behind a horse and rolled around the fields for a while. The video below shows the later process.

Once the felt is firmly bound together, it will be unrolled and left to dry out. In principle, felt is a very simple process but requires skill, hard work and team work to complete. Because it has no regular weave pattern, the finished felt can be cut very easily to any shape and will not tear provided the felting is thick enough. To join pieces of felt together such as for a rug or bag, spun wool is used and the pieces are sewn together. Traditionally all the tools for doing this would also come from the sheep so the wool winding tools and needles would be made from various parts of the sheep’s bones.

The Mongolian felting technique differs dramatically to that often used in the West. Here wool is usually knitted or woven into an object or sheet first before being carded on the outside (using spiky boards) which loosens the outside of the weave and creates the felt look.

Making fine felt

While the usual Mongolian technique works best for producing large sheets of pressed felt it is not suited to thinner or shaped felt as used in clothing such as hats or gloves. In this instance the wool is first carded into a soft wadding using a hand cranked spiked drum. It is dyed at this stage using a variety of natural or manmade dyes. Using lots of soapy water the coloured felt is put inside a pillow case or similar and hand rolled to create a small flat sheet. This felt sheet can then be moulded over a hat block or other object and manipulated into the desired shape. To add extra detail (such as flower or pattern decorations) small pieces of wet felt are often hand pressed into the main object.  

Once dried, felt holds its shape very well and - being a tight weave - is relatively showerproof. Also because the dye is added early in the construction and goes through several rigorous washing processes, the colours do not bleed out or fade. This means you can be confident that your bag or boots from us will stand the test of time. Even better still you know you are wearing a unique fully handmade item - a difficult thing to find in this day and age!