For most people, felt belongs on the same shelf with pipe cleaners, to be used for craft projects: soft stuffed forms with glued-on googly eyes, or posters covered with a mishmash of vibrant letters.
But in the last couple of years, wool's hardworking cousin has upgraded its fashion status, making its way into rugs, chairs, wall panels, and home accessories.
Feel-good felt just hasn't felt better.
"Craftsmen really like working with it for its simplicity," said Kelly Smith, cofounder of FilzFelt, a Boston-based company with a Center City office that imports felt and customizes pillows and rugs, and novelties like place mats, trivets, coasters, and table runners. The firm's most recent innovations have been its hanging panels introduced this year. "There are so many design possibilities when working with felt."
It's a trend propelled by pop culture's current yearning for early-20th-century ornamentation. On HBO's Boardwalk Empire, gangsters top off with felt fedoras and wear pin-striped suits piped with felt. Handsome ladies parade with cloche hats made of felt in PBS's Downton Abbey.
"In the past couple of years, things have been trending toward the use of heirloom fabrics, felt being one of them," says third-generation upholsterer and interior designer Sandra Sciacca of Sciacca's Upholstery in Riverside, and author of the blog "My Fabric-Covered Life" at Phillyburbs.com. Sciacca is also seeing seductive felt blends - a mix of felt with bamboo or rayon, combinations that are more silky to the touch and tend to be more lightweight.
Smith was working in architectural firms early in the millennium when she started a side business making felt accessories, sold mostly in museum stores. As her sales rose, Smith found it harder to source felt from the United States, which led her, along with partner Traci Roloff, a corporate interior designer with a background in historic preservation, to launch FilzFelt in 2008.
From a German mill, they import design felt - 100 percent sheep's wool that is matted, condensed, and pressed into varying densities, some thin enough to create a purse, others thick enough to assemble a headboard. Sales have doubled or tripled each year, says Smith, who now serves as creative director since the company was acquired in 2011 by Knoll furniture.
Catherine Pelletier, a FilzFelt seller at its Philadelphia office at 23d and Chestnut Streets, talks of felt's attributes: It's nondirectional and doesn't fray. It's biodegradable, water-resistant, and easy to clean. Submissive and compliant, it can be folded and ruffled, as well as embossed into a crocodile-like finish.
Felt's natural ability to reduce sound appeals to people looking for acoustic insulation. There's also the punch of color in an otherwise muted atmosphere (Pelletier has on display 60 colors and patterns). That thinking led Temple University to install felt on the walls of the student lounges in the Mitchell and Hilarie Morgan Residence Hall, the 27-floor tower under construction on Broad Street near Cecil B. Moore Avenue.
Felt also is renewable. (Cheers, sheep!)
But the current proliferation of felt products might arguably be from midcentury nostalgia, says designer Matthew Izzo, known for his miscellany of hip and unorthodox pieces. Izzo, who divides his time between Philadelphia and New York, used to have two shops near Antiques Row.
Izzo has recently added to his online boutique a meld of fashion-forward felt furnishings, including chairs and rugs, and a thick felt headboard ($1,399 and up) in colors of wheat, charcoal, and aqua. "In the really high-end marketplace, felt has been around for a while. People who want a purist concept lean toward felt. They know it holds up amazingly."
Type "felt" into search engines, and a cache of kicky things show up: one-of-a-kind chairs on Etsy, tailored lampshades on All Modern, cozy office items on West Elm, plus felt lounge chairs, ottomans, benches, and more hawked on a trove of lesser-known sites.
Head over to 22d and Chestnut Streets to Mettlers American Mercantile store, where manager Jen Schwartz says they recently started carrying made-in-America felt rugs ($650 to $2,200), purses ($249), hand-painted felt medallions ($200), and iPad cases with leather trim ($54) in colors like chocolate and Granny Smith green. "We've had a lot of interest in our felt products. The look is unique and very cool."
For another local, it's the eco-friendly characteristic of felt that's appealing. Says interior designer Jennifer McDonald of Center City architecture firm Francis Cauffman, whose clients include health care and pharmaceutical companies, "We use felt for wall upholstering, and have used it in freestanding screens. On top of the fact that it is aesthetically colorful and easy to work with, felt fabric is all part of the healthy lifestyle that our clients want to deliver."
Is there anything felt can't do? Pelletier seems perplexed when asked about its limitations - the humble fabric has rarely let her down.