Legend, myth, history always melt together when speaking about the invention of felt. The legend tells us that James, son of Zebedee and brother of John the Apostle, in his pilgrimages around the world to spread the doctrine of Jesus invented a peculiar system to mitigate the pain caused to his feet by the long walks.
He picked up pieces of wool left on the ground by sheeps. Than he transformed these pieces into a soft layer between his feet and shoes. Soon he noticed that the wool became harder and harder thanks to pression, humidity and sweat. This natural process (essential for the manufacturing of felt) marked the very birth of this material.
It is true that in ancient times people had the habit to search for an inventor for everything. But it is also true that the first corporations of hatmakers were devoted to st. James. And even nowadays st. James is considered to be the protector of the hatmakers.
Obviously, the legend falls also within the medieval taste for hagiographic anecdotes. However, we cannot deny the important role that st. James played in the spread and development of processing the felt.
The felt ways along Santiago’s route
According to tradition, a hermit named Payo (diminutive of Pelayo) was attracted by some sort of star-shaped lights on Mount Libredon. The bishop Theodomir considered very interesting this strange phenomenon and he discovered in that very place a tomb containing three bodies. One of the three had a severed head and an inscription “Here lies Jacobus, son of Zebedee and Salome”. The place was named Santiago de Compostela after the latin “campus stellae”. Since than it became destination for one of the most popular pilgrimages of Middle Age.
Devotional journeys to Compostela became also an opportunity for trade and commerce. The routes began to be dotted with places to stop and monasteries. The high-quality merino wool, used for finer felts, found in these streets of faith the way to become a bargaining chip.