Thursday, June 04, 2020

Chiropody Felt: A brief history

One of the most enduring footcare accessories to be found in your friendly pharmacy is Chiropody Felt. Felt is a fabric made from wool but unlike weaving and knitting there is no yarn involved. To make felt you need wool fleece, water and agitation. The fibres on the wool have small scales on the outside surface. When the wool is watered down the scales open up. When the fibres are rubbed together, the opened scales close and get interlocked. The wool fibers are made up of a protein called keratin. The keratin in the fibers becomes chemically bound to the protein of the other fibres thereby resulting in a permanent bond between them, making the felting process irreversible.

Originally Chiropody felt was made from quality merino wool and consisted of thousands of fibres compressed one on top of each other with air trapped in the structure. It is available in compressed and semi-compressed forms and is easy to cut and shape with scissors.The impacted fibres offer resistance to compression where the foot makes ground contact or toes rub against each other. Cavities cut in the material help reduce shear and peak pressures, which can relieve pain and discomfort. The trapped air heats up and acts as insulation to the surrounding tissues, and the constant temperature can have a direct sedative action to superficial nerve endings.

In late Victorian Times adhesive backing made from soap plasters was introduced but proved somewhat messy in use. Later the adhesive industry introduced new and improved rubber adhesives which soon became popular, especially when Zinc Oxide was added to prevent rashes. Over the last half century hypo-allergic adhesives have replaced zinc oxide rubber adhesives and these prevent allergies and pseudo-allergies when chiropody felt is used regularly next to the skin. Adhesive backed chiropody felt traps microscopic drops of water in the keratin layers of the skin, hydrating them and making them softer and in the case of corns, less painful. These are temporary functions but all add to the comfort of Chiropody Felt.

No one is quite sure when felt was first discovered but it is considered to be one of the oldest textile forms and thought to have originated in Asia about 5000 years old. Archaeological evidence indicates from very early on people had discovered the tendency for fibres to mat together when warm and damp long before they learned to spin or weave. It is believed the nomadic people of Central Asia were the first to learn the techniques for making felt. Caps of thick solid felt from the early Bronze Age are preserved at the National Museum in Copenhagen. These date back some 3500 years and were found in the pre-historic burial mounds of Jutland and North Slesvig. The oldest archaeological finds containing evidence of the use of felt are in Turkey. Wall paintings that date from 6500 to 3000 B.C. have been found which have the motif of felt appliqué. At Pazyryk in Southern Siberia archeological evidence of felt was found inside a frozen tomb of a nomadic tribal chief that dates from the fifth century B.C. The evidence from this find shows a highly developed technology of felt making. (These felts are in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia).

The Romans and Greeks both used felt and the Roman soldiers were equipped with felt breastplates (for protection from arrows), tunics, boots and socks. The earliest felt found in Scandinavia dates back to the Iron Age. Felt sheets believed to be from about 500 A.D. were found covering a body in a tomb in Hordaland, Norway. Felt was used for many things including hats, wall coverings, blankets and boots.

Felt boots can be traced to Siberia and was called the Valenki. Archaeological finds include dainty low riding boots of a Scythian woman of high rank which also contained a pair of felt socks of the same cut and sewn from two pieces of thin white felt. The remains of travelers caught in ice glaciers also support felting in shoes was used to keep the feet warm. Not only was felt used for clothing but also for saddles, curtains, rugs, coffin coverings, bottle cases, mattresses, shelter and for ceremonial purposes as well. In pre-history properties of felt, were greatly appreciated and exploited with felt relics found dating back to 1500-1000 B.C. in Mongolia, Scandinavia, Germany, Turkey and Siberia. Excavations at Antinoe in Upper Egypt revealed clothing items of wool felt in graves of the Coptic period. These goods may have reached the Nile valley through trade from Persia.

Ancient Chinese historical records refer to felt as early as 2300 B.C. China's warriors equipped themselves with shields, clothes, and hats made of felt, for protection; they also used felt boats. At public functions, the Chinese emperor was carried into the presence of his subjects sitting on a large felt mat.

By the Middle Ages many legends existed as to the origins of felting including the claim Noah discovered it. According to the legend when he built an ark he covered the floor with sheep's wool and loaded it with his family, their household belongings, and livestock for food. However, the weather suddenly turned bad and rainwater came pouring in. Inside were many people and animals moving about; the heat produced from this was almost overwhelming. The water and heat combined with repeated trampling on the wool made become a flat sheet of felt. Another variation on the theological theme described a barefoot holy man walking through the desert, leading his camel. With the mid-day sun the sand became too hot and he could no longer walk. Almost by divine guidance he suddenly tore off clumps of the camel's hair and wrapped them around his feet. Finally sunset came and the heat subsided. Removing the clumps of camel hair, he noticed that the camel hair on the soles of his feet had become flat and solid. His sweat had added moisture, the sand had added heat, and the action of walking on the camel hair had entangled it, turning it into flat sheets of felt.

When a Pope during the Middle Ages was troubled with sore feet, he decided to use some animal wool to pad his shoes. Bliss resulted and felt “tootsie rolls” were given the Papal Pedal Seal of Approval.

Reviewed 4/06/2020

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