Thursday, 18 September 2008


Beavers were nearly hunted to extinction in Europe during the 16th century for their wool which was used in the manufacture of fine hats. Once the Americas were found, beaver skin was so prized that it was imported for the felt hat industry. Especially prized were beaver skins which had been worn, either by native American Indians or by early settlers, as it was found that once worn the fur itself would felt more easily. Those of us who were brought up with cowboy films probably all have an image of Billy Crockett and his beaver hat with the strange tail hanging down the back!

Here is a translation of what Plinius Secundus had to say about beavers in his book "The Historie of the World. Book VIII" written in 1601

"The Bievers in Pontus gueld themselves, when they see how neere they are driven, and bee in danger of the hunters: as knowing full well, that chased they bee for their genetoires: and these their stones, Physicians call Castoreum. And otherwise, this is a daungerous and terrible beast with his teeth. For verily, hee will bite downe the trees growing by the river sides, as if they were cut with an axe. Looke where he catcheth hold of a man once, he never leaveth nor letteth loose untill hee have knapped the bones in sunder, and heard it cracke againe. Tailed hee is like a fish, otherwise he resembleth the otter. Both those beasts live in the water altogether, and carrie an haire softer than any plume or downe of feathers."

Master Pinchbeck can remember working with Beiver at his fathers workshop in London!

It looks like Beaver were also hunted for their genitals and they would bite them off rather than let the hunter have them! I like Pliny's description of the beast and how strong and ferocious it was deemed to be. They are a great talking point - even though the likely hood of actually getting hold of a beaver skin these days, let alone using it for felting is very slim!
p.s. just checked out "castoreum" and it seems that these are glands used in perfumery and for various remedies, the wearer will be irresistible!

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

woolly wonderings

One of the things which has exercised my mind since setting up felting at Kentwell Hall has been that of wool.

The first year (2006) we just had the wool from the Norfolk Horn sheep that live on the Manor. We found this wool was difficult to work with which set me to wondering why it didn't felt easily; if we could make it easier; and what wool actually would have been used in earlier times.

The Norfolk Horn is a predecessor of the Black faced Suffolk Sheep, I have now found out that felters today generally consider working with this wool to be a wasted energy. With perseverence we have got it to felt albeit the results are springy and prone to pilling. However all things have their purpose and this has given great comfort to a number of feet (insoles) and backsides (seat pads). I also experimented and found that it was more suited to needle felting - not a lot of good for Tudor times but a handy 'mend it' option for when visitors have gone home!

The best sheep wool for felting has the right thickness, the right crimp and the right staple (I think I will do a seperate post about this another time).

Turning my thoughts to how can we make this easier I wondered about water; soap; and the wool.

With experimentation we found that the hotter the water the better - that was some progress.

Would it make a difference if the soap we used we more akin to that used in Tudor times? we made our own soap but found that although its a great talking point, it didn't make a lot of difference to the felting, its just very rough on our hands.

Was soap even used to create the right enviroment to get the wool to felt? don't know about that one yet!

I have heard of carrotting for other felting fibre (rabbit, beaver), is there anything that could be done to make this wool easier to work with. Recently I found mention of felters using short staple wool and felters choping wool to shorter lengths. We have yet to give this serious try.

These days felters seem to favour Merino wool imported from Australia, I didn't think we would be importing wool from Australia in the 16th century so that option seemed to be out and I have been trying to identify other options. There has been mention of 'Estridge Wool'; 'Wool from Pollonia'; 'Spanish Felt Wool' in the OED on line (see 'F' words) and in the information about Monmouth caps there is reference to 'Ryedale Wool'. This year "one who knows much of such things" did say to me that much wool was imported from the Baltic areas? What other sheep would there have been around at the time?

In my modern life I was introduced to Blue Faced Leicester which felts beautifully in no time at all. I don't know if this wool would have been around at the time but we bought some, a beautiful soft brown colour and all ready prepared to use this summer - we had our most successful hat making outcomes yet. I am really proud of the hat I made, I will try and post a picture soon!

Since the summer I have been exploring options from the Baltic and was kindly sent samples of Finnwool and wool from the Gotland sheep by Rod Finland ( just have a look at his web site for inspirational modern felting!). I have made some small samples and am most impressed with the results. I need to experiment with these a bit further.

I have recently found out that the modern Merino Sheep are descended from Spanish Sheep and am guessing that these were the sheep which provided the fine 'Spanish Felt Wool'. Maybe we can legitimately use Merino after all!

Next I want to try and get hold of the fleece of a Ryedale sheep and find out exactly what is Estridge Wool? - any ideas?

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Monmouth Cap

(a knitted and fulled, brown hat with a 'button' on top).

Now knitting has never been my strong point, in fact I would go as far as to say that I really do not like knitting. However it is clear that knitting was a skill practised in Tudor times and that one of the popular hats was in fact knitted and then fulled to make a durable, warm and water replellent head covering.
Knowing that from 1488 to 1597 legistation existed to protect the knitted cap industry and that people were knitting what became known as 'Monmouth caps' as early as the mid 15th century, the last time we went camping in Wales we visited the museum in Monmouth (and a very splendid castle) where we saw a real Monmouth Cap on display.
My subsequent investigations unearthed a web site which give a history and knitting instructions for the cap. It seems pointless for me to repeat any of what the author, Jennifer Carlson, has said so you may as well have a look for yourself
I would really love it if someone wanted to knit one or two of these hats for us to full and have on display at Kentwell - I don't mind buying the wool - hint hint!

Thursday, 4 September 2008

how to do everything!

found a great book when I was googling last night
"The Circle of the Mechanical Arts" written by Thomas Martin in 1813
there is a whole chapter on hat-making and chapters on just about everthing else you could possibly think of making. OK so its not Tudor how to do everything but its a lot older than most craft books you can find and has some great insights into much earleir methods of production than we would use these days and ... there is a great description of bow carding (you will already know that this is something that has been interesting me this year).
Its been scanned into the google on-line library so you can find it and download it for yourself if you google the name of the book.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Deliberately Concealed Garment

During the reformation someone went to the trouble of hiding a blue wool-felted hat made around 1350 in a cavity in a church in Little Sampford Church, Essex, UK. It was conserved in 1979 and is now displayed in a museum in Saffron Walden, Essex.
When I saw a picture of it I could hardly beleive how modern it looked with a rounded crown and flat brim all made in one piece. You too can see a picture and read more about it at
thanks to Karen Larsdatter for pointing me in this direction.