Making felt slippers

With winter on its way, the time of walking around in flip flops has well and truly gone. Here at Enjoy the Algarve we want to keep our feet warm towards the end of the year, so this month we try making felt slippers in Penina, at the foot (haha) of the Rocha da Pena area.

See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine November 2016

Pictures by Kyle Rodriguez


Walk into Manoli Ortiz de la Torre’s (48) atelier and it’s not the felt you notice first, but the eco-print clothing. The Spanish artist, who was born in Belgium and has lived in the Algarve for 16 years, regularly collects plants from the nearby countryside and prints them onto cotton, linen or silk. The colours, a mixture of light brown and green (sometimes helped by a bit of turmeric for yellow), come from the plants themselves, as do the prints. Leaves and branches, especially those of rock roses and eucalyptus, are clearly recognisable on the t-shirts which are best described as eco-chic.

Look up from the rack of clothes and it’s clear Manoli is as creative with felt as she is with plants. There’s a seamless phone case, decorative flowers, hats, lamps, keychains, jackets, bags, and an enormous blanket with detailed drawings. All made of felt. “It’s the versatility of the product that I love about it most,” explains Manoli. “Originally I studied drawing, but what can you do with a picture? Just hang it on the wall. Out of felt you can make stuff that you can use in everyday life.” Combine it with silk, a technique that’s called nuno felting, and create a scarf for example. Or just use it to isolate houses or music studios. Today, we’re making felt slippers. And thus I start cutting out plastic templates which seem way too big, even for my size 42 feet. “The felt shrinks about 10-15%,” Manoli reassures me.

Native to the Algarve are the ovelha churra, but although in the old times the hair of these sheep was used to fill mattresses, it’s too rough for felting. Instead, we work with wool of the Merino sheep. These sheep produce very fine wool, the best quality in the entire world. Most of it comes from Australia, but Manoli only works with Portuguese Merino wool. “Two years ago we had a shepherd living here who’d give me his wool,” Manoli says as she proudly shows us around the little village of Penina, pointing out the small museum and exchanging greetings with every local on the street. Unfortunately the shepherd and his Merino sheep moved away, so now she buys the wool from a factory in Guarda, in the north of the country. Manoli is part of a group who have taken action to defend Portugal’s wool and keep it in the country, instead of transporting it abroad. “It’s absurd to buy Portuguese wool from Germany.”

Buying local and getting back to nature is all hip nowadays, which also shows in fashion. When selecting the wool, Manoli goes for natural green and red earthy tones, while I’m less fashionable and pick out bright blue colours. Not like sheep in real life look, but too pretty to resist. We pull off fine tufts of wool and lay them across the template horizontally. After wetting it with warm water so the fibres open and can felt into each other –Manoli has got a special instrument for this which resembles a handheld spray shower- we cover the wool with a net and rub it with a big block of olive soap. Then comes a vertical layer and more rubbing. It’s important not to push too hard in the beginning, in order to prevent holes later on. Think flat palm of the hand, rather than finger tips. After a gentle massage we turn it around and continue our work on the other side.

Four layers later, we change colours to work on the outside of the slipper. My blue looks like Sulley from Monsters Inc. – albeit quite lumpy and uneven – while Manoli’s creation is super smooth. Slowly but surely the slipper builds up. Manoli: “You don’t need a lot of stuff, just wool, water and soap, and you can already make something. It’s magical. Nature supplies everything.” I’m still sceptic, wondering how and if these delicate woollen threads will actually felt together, and fearing my creation will fall apart at the slightest touch. Naturally, it doesn’t; the end result is so strong I couldn’t tear it apart even if I wanted to. In Mongolia, they make entire yurts (tent-like houses in which the nomads there sleep and live) out of felt.

There are many legends about the origin of felt. One is that monks in the north of Portugal and Spain tucked the sheep’s hair they found in the bushes into their sandals to cushion their feet. Later they discovered the loose fleece had transformed itself into felt socks. Another is that felt was first produced in Noah’s Ark. Sheep, goats, camels and other animals shed their fleece and during the voyage trampled it underfoot. When the animals left, Noah found the floor carpeted in felt. What’s sure is that this artisanal process has been around for a long time. “The earliest examples of felt date from 6,000BC,” explains Manoli.

It’s when we finish preparing one slipper that I find out there isn’t any more blue wool. Oh well, red is also nice. Massaging the hairy Bigfoot shapes feels almost like meditation and I forget how many layers I’ve put on. I add different colours of blue on top, while Manoli finishes her slippers off with really nice orange and yellow stripes. “The environment here inspires me; the plants, the stones, the nature. I couldn’t do this when living in an apartment.”

With the slippers on, we rub our feet over a plastic washing board to also felt the underside and mould them exactly to our toes and heels. After rinsing out, mine need some more work so Manoli rolls them into a bamboo mat, just like you would with sushi, to allow for more felting. I’m still amazed by the transformation of the smooth wool and contemplate getting some sheep in my garden. “You can even felt with dog hair,” comments Manoli. As I grab a scissors and call for Gustave, she quickly adds “but it will start to smell horrible after a while.” No shave for Gustave the dog then…

Another advantage of felt: it’s durable. OK, these slippers aren’t as durable as their leather counterparts, but, Manoli says: “They’ll easily last for two years, as long as you don’t use them outside or march around a lot.” Don’t worry, it wasn’t my plan to hike the Rocha da Pena trail in my new shoes. I was more thinking about adding them to a good book, a comfy sofa and a fireplace. Possibly with a glass of wine or two.


When to go?

Making felt slippers is possible all year round. That said, you don’t want to work with warm wool (or even think about woollen slippers) in the hot Algarvian summer months of July and August. It’s more of an autumn and winter activity.

There’s no need to have any previous experience in anything and all material is included. The minimum group size is two, whereas the maximum number of participants is six.

Want to go? Make sure to contact Manoli at least two weeks in advance via phone (00351 96 0382196) or email.


For whom?

DIY-ers who like to keep their feet warm! Creative types wanting to make useful stuff that also looks cool on Pinterest will love it.

Manoli speaks English, Portuguese, Spanish, French and Dutch. Taking the kids along is no problem: this activity is suitable for children age 6 and up. There are workshops of three hours and whole-day workshops. It’s also possible to make a hat or decorative flowers out of felt.

Want to see Manoli’s work? Check out her website or visit Faro’s artisan market (every second Saturday of the month), where she has a stall.


See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine November 2016

Posted in This month we try.