Legend attributes the invention of felt to the Apostle James, John the Evangelist’s brother.
It is said that as he was travelling around the world spreading the word of God, he came up with a way to comfort his sore feet from the long walks he was not accustomed to as he was a fisherman.
He gathered tufts of wool that the Rams left behind on the bushes and placed the soft layer between his sandals and his feet. After a while, he noticed that the wool had hardened thanks to the pressure, the dampness and sweat.
That compact under padding marked the birth of felt.
The natural process of agglutination had been produced, and it is still the fundamental operation in felt manufacturing.
It’s true that there was once the habit of looking for the inventor of everything, but what goes beyond legend is the fact that the first corporations of hatters praised St James and considered him protector of their art.
The legend has a medieval flavour of a hagiographic anecdote, but the role that this religion had in the transmission and the development of felt cannot be ignored. According to tradition, the place in which the apostle’s tomb was discovered was called Santiago de Compostela. This name derives from campus stellae, the field miraculously indicated by a star which became destination of one of the most popular pilgrimages of the Middle Ages.
It was these worshipping trips towards Compostela that also offered the opportunity to trade along the itineraries which were filled with monasteries and resting places. The precious Spanish merino wool, used by hatters for more refine felts, also found the way to transform itself into trading goods.
St. James is celebrated on July 25th. Iconography represents him as a wayfarer; a poor cape rests on his shoulders, he leans on a long wooden cane with a curved handle, and wears a wide brimmed felt hat to which a seashell is attached. 1
1. F. MONDOLFO, op. cit., pg. 60