This information is reprinted from the For Beginners column of Hand Papermaking Newsletter #45 (January, 1999).
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Western papermakers remove each freshly pulled sheet from their mould by transferring (or “couching”) it onto a damp felt. Felts support the wet sheet during pressing and drying. They are very absorbent, maintaining a consistent water content and encouraging uniform drying. Felts impart a surface texture to the sheet, which varies depending on what the felts are made of and how they are made.
Traditional 100% woven wool felts are available from papermaking suppliers, but they are costly and require a certain amount of care. Consequently, suppliers offer synthetic substitutes, or synthetic and wool blends.
Felts are one more item on the list of papermaking necessities where high cost or low availability forces papermakers to prove their resourcefulness. One workable substitute is old wool blankets, though they are not as thick as true papermaking felts. Thinner still is the synthetic felt found in arts and craft stores. Pellon, an interfacing material found in fabric stores, is another option. You can also experiment with discarded household linens. These felt substitutes are easier to come by, but not as absorbent as true papermaking felts. They can be used alone or in combination with actual felts to achieve desired textures.
Some papermakers acquire used felts from commercial paper mills. Today, these are most likely a synthetic material, which wears better than wool but is not as absorbent. Used felts from the paper industry require multiple washings to get rid of leftover sizing and fillers.
Since woven wool is traditional and preferred, some understanding of the weaving process might be helpful. A weaver’s loom holds a series of long threads under tension--called the warp. Threads which cross the width of the loom, not under tension, are called the weft. If a piece of felt you purchase has one smooth edge, this edge runs in the direction of the warp. If your new felt is much longer than it is wide, chances are the longer measurement is the warp. When felts are washed, shrinkage occurs in the direction of the warp; expansion can occur in the direction of the weft. These considerations are important when cutting a large piece of woven wool felt down to size. If possible, wash new felts before cutting them. Cut your felts about three inches larger than the size of the paper you plan to make. Confirm that the size of your felts will not be too large for your press.
Felts are easily stained with dyes and pigments. It is best to have a second set when working with colored pulp.
Wash your felts in mild soap and ammonia, and hang them in the sun if you can. This will discourage mildew, which causes dark spots, and bacteria, which ultimately breaks down the material. Unbrushed felts may deposit lint or hairs on the surface of new sheets, so frequent use of a scrub brush is recommended. Store dry felts in plastic bags with mothballs.
Copyright 1999 Hand Papermaking, Inc.