It was quite a surprise when our driver Deep took us to visit a felter in Gujarat. I’d read a lot about embroidery, tie dye, weaving and block print in the state – but nothing about felting.
Felt-making runs in Karim Umar Mansuri’s family – his father and grandfather before him also made felt. However, according to Mumbai newspaper DNA, he now has to do carpentry on the side to make ends meet, as he can’t sell enough felt.
Karim showed us photos of some of his rugs, all in natural-coloured wools, and in great organic designs. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately for my baggage allowance!) he didn’t have any in stock, or I’d have snapped one up.
He was kind enough to show us how he made one of his smaller pieces, crouched on the vinyl floor!
First he wet the corner of a cotton sheet and started rolling out some coloured roving, wetting it thoroughly before forming a double outline of a circle.
Then he formed the outline of a butterfly and filled in the gaps with different colours of wool. I should say that apart from the roving, the wool didn’t appear to have been combed in any way. I don’t know what type of sheep it was from – Deep’s interpretation skills didn’t extend to discussing different sheep species! 😉
However, Craftmark suggests that it’s a type of wool known locally as CDX, or waali-yeer.
After filling in the outlines Karim filled in the rest of the circle in khaki and added a red border.
Then he put another layer of white on top. He did a little bit of dry rubbing and patting, but not very much. All the wool apart from the roving was dry – he didn’t wet between layers.
After completing the layout, he folded the rest of the sheet over the top and rolled it up – again, no wetting was involved.
I am convinced something got lost in translation here, because when I asked what happened next, I was told that he soaked the roll in hot soapy water and then left it out in the sun for seven hours to felt – and that was it!
I asked several times whether any rubbing or rolling was involved, miming the actions, but was told definitely not. Maybe there was some friction involved as part of the soaking process, but this didn’t come across in any way, and we didn’t have time to stay and watch.
But the pieces I saw were definitely very firmly felted.
There isn’t much about namda felting techniques on the internet, but I found a report of felting businesses in Tonk, Rajasthan, which describes the methodology as follows:
“The mass of fleece is sprinkled with soapy water and rolled and kneaded until the layers of wool are felted. The namda is then soaked in a large cauldron of water and finally laid flat to dry in the sun.”
Craftmark also suggests that the felt may be rolled by foot, or by treading on it.
If it’s possible to make felt just by soaking it and laying it out in the sun without the hard work of rubbing and rolling, I’m moving to India! 😉