Felt may be the oldest fabric known to man but it's also hip, happening, and all the rage with style gurus and top designers. And it's much cheaper than cashmere.
Only the most gullible style slaves, surely, fell for that hip interiors fad, "stealth wealth". You know, inconspicuous consumption in the shape of cushions and throws in such unassumingly muted colours you barely notice they're made of cashmere or suede. But who can be bothered to affect the look, let alone afford it? Far better to opt instead for that equally tactile, humbler and, let's face it, more affordable fabric creeping into homes and wardrobes right now - felt.

If felt is humbler than other fabrics it's not simply because it's cheaper. It's also usually invisible, though ubiquitous: it's used as the underlay for carpets and piano keys. The highest profile it's likely to have enjoyed is as coloured felt-tip pens and - who could forget? - hours-of-fun Fuzzy Felt.

Felt's lowly status surely derives, too, from the fact that, traditionally, it has been put to primarily practical use. Since time immemorial, nomadic tribes in central and western Asia have depended on it as a means of insulation, in their felt yerts and blanket coats, or kepeneks.

Then there's the fact that felt-making is a crude, basic process. The oldest fabric known to man, felt is made by the simplest of means: when wool fibres (these can come straight off a sheep's back) are rubbed together in the presence of heat and moisture, they mat and bond. Yet felt's very earthiness has, over the years, inspired many a designer at the craftsy end of the market.

Annie Sherburne, who began making felt rugs in 1982, when the fabric held little appeal, talks up its ecological qualities. "It's a renewable resource - as long as there are sheep, we'll have felt." Heather Belcher, who makes hand-rolled felt cushions (from pounds 85), on sale at Heal's from the end of March, says: "I love felt's primal qualities, which suggest warmth and protection." And Asta Barrington prides herself on hand-stitching and hand-dyeing her throws and cushions with felted wool fringes (available from London shops The Cross, Browns and Designers Guild).

Victoria Brown, meanwhile, who makes decorative wall hangings (from pounds 100) using layers of fleece, on sale at Contemporary Applied Arts, is fascinated by the "possibilities of layering colour within the fabric to achieve mysterious colours which appear as a `bloom' on the surface of the felt".

So much for its folksy pedigree - hip urbanites are warming to it, too. Super-urbane interiors glossy The World of Interiors recently featured an article on (applique-free) felt. Antwerp-based fashion label, AF Vandervorst, is currently cutting a swathe with its idiosyncratic felt clothing, while London-based Rolf Sachs produces, among other things, a witty (pounds 20) felt wine cooler, available from chic London shop Bowles & Linares.

Due in all probability to the Nineties cross-pollination of fashion and interiors across Europe, metropolitan designers from both fields often share the same influences. AF Vandervorst and Sachs, for example, are both inspired by felt-obsessed artist Joseph Beuys.

"Felt keeps liquids at a constant temperature, so Sachs' cooler keeps wine that's been chilled cool for ages," says Sharon Bowles, of Bowles & Linares, which also stocks a nifty, own-label, felt cafetiere cosy. Another Sachs design is an army blanket-grey floor runner (pounds 300). "It's fantastic for bedrooms," swears Bowles.

If you thought Beuys an unlikely mentor for felt designers, how about design company Hive's veneration for that godfather of conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp?

Hive's designers, Monica Platkowski and Mark Dyson, have come up with a felt chair cover made of a thick slab of industrial felt which slips over a timber armature or stands on its own as a decorative sculpture. Hive's more practical offerings are available from London gallery Mission: ultra-simple porridge-coloured or donkey-brown notebooks encased in blanket- thick felt, which come with carrying handles (from pounds 50) and a cream felt pail (pounds 45), which can be used as a bucket bag or smart wastepaper basket.

German designer Angela Hauser also touts minimalist, urban-chic felt accessories, notably a hotwater bottle with a grey cover wittily stamped with a red cross, tailor-made for those determined not to let flu cramp their style (pounds 29). These, along with similarly swanky slippers and egg cosies, sell at the cult London shop, Egg.

Craftiness and artiness aside, felt is beginning to cater to every taste, from the ultra-classic to the hyper-kitsch. French company Pierre Frey offers a super-deluxe throw in felted cashmere (pounds 178). The General Trading Company stocks Nathalie Hambro's Ref H tote bag (pounds 175), which incorporates stylish rivets, and comes in Chinese lacquer red, indigo or grey. A number of other London stores flog felt, too: Artisan sells - very monastic chic this - a curtain tassel in felted wool with a contrasting jute tieback (pounds 18 for the two), Mulberry tattersal felt cushions with a suede trim (pounds 89), and Liberty grey felt and flannel cushions (from pounds 59). Aero even stocks keyrings dangling wedges of Gruyere cheese in yellow felt (pounds 4.50).

Looking ahead, in the autumn, Paperchase will stock felt-covered photo albums, notebooks and address books. In the meantime, you might want to indulge a child, or for that matter yourself, with Shaker's felt Noah's ark (from pounds 39.95). We're talking Fuzzy Felt in 3D, and then some. What could be better than that?

Stockists: Aero (0171-351 0511); Artisan (0171-498 3979); Bowles & Linares (0171-229 9886); Browns (0171-514 0020); Contemporary Applied Arts Gallery (0171-436 2344); The Cross (0171-727 6760); Designers Guild (0171-351 5775); Egg (0171-235 9315); General Trading Company (0171-730 0411); Heal's (0171-636 1666); Hive (0171-261 9791); Liberty (0171-734 1234); Mission (0171-792 4633); Mulberry (0171-491 3900); Pierre Frey (0171-376 5599); Shaker (0171-935 9461)

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