Saddle Construction History - Wool Sheepskin vs Flocked and Stuffed Panels
Not too long ago, when saddlemakers were putting together a custom saddle and looking for cushioning material to put between the saddle bars and their horse’s back, their options were pretty limited.
Even just 50 years ago, most custom saddles were built with either natural sheepskin fleece under the bars and skirting, or flocked panels stuffed with wool or some other kind of fiber. Western saddles, in particular, favored the sheepskin fleece. It was crucial that saddlemakers use a top quality sheep hide or flocked/stuffed panels under the saddle tree and skirting, to hold up to years of rigorous use and provide some support and cushion between the bars of their saddle and their horses back.
Back then, most everyone used wool blankets between the saddle and their horse. Wool saddle blankets were great at wicking moisture and providing some padding while making a saddle fit a little more forgiving, but they had drawbacks, too. Blanket-weight material would wear out quickly and folded blankets could slip out of place and become uncomfortable during a ride. Sometimes the amount of blanket padding a horse needed to be comfortable would be bulky enough to have a negative effect on the fit.
Natural sheepskin fleece was king for a long time, but those prior generations of saddle makers didn’t have access to some of the materials we have now. These days, with all the customized tree and synthetic fiber options available, custom saddles fit horses better than ever, and as long as you’re using a good quality saddle blanket, the skirt lining is as much a cosmetic choice as much as a functional one.
One of the big advantages we have over yesteryear. is the quality of the felted wool that we can produce. Long ago, felt was made by hand and had flaws and inconsistencies that were a natural part of the process. But modern manufacturing has yielded a durable, flexible, breathable felt with superior cushion and wicking properties. There’s a reason why all those heavy 100% felted wool saddle pads have gotten so popular for performance sports - they’re excellent!
Wool- Nature’s Wonder Fiber
What’s so special about wool? Why isn’t cotton, horsehair, or any other natural fiber the material of choice. Well, wool was created with some special property that other fibers - even other animal fur products - lack.
Whether you’re talking a natural sheepskin fleece, a wool woven blanket or a felted pad, the basic properties of wool remain the same. Wool fibers have two different shapes that make them uniquely suited to the rigors of equestrian use. Corkscrew-shaped fibers are interspersed throughout the mass, curled into tiny springs. These resilient shapes act like a mini-suspension system, a carpet of tiny springs to add body and flex to a blanket or felted pad while allowing air to flow freely through. This natural fiber shape is what allows wool items to withstand the heat, moisture and pressure that exists between a horse and their saddle, shape to fit and then spring back once the ride is over. After a while, a wool pad will somewhat conform to the horse it’s being used on… but not necessarily forever. That pad can be cleaned and used on a different horse, with it’s useful properties still intact.
Also, wool fibers are hollow. Shaped like tiny straws, these waterproof fiber tubes have an inner cortex that wicks sweat away from the body, allowing it to evaporate more quickly without feeling heavy or damp like cotton or other fibers. The cooling action that this evaporation provides helps keep the sweater from overheating and allows them to keep a lower body temperature and work harder for a longer time. Even though we’re talking saddlery right now, it’s noteworthy that
many athletic sock companies have begun making sports socks with a high wool content for this very reason! Now runners and hikers are getting to enjoy the cooling benefits of wool that horses have been using for centuries.
The modern saddle maker has several viable choices for underskirting, and each option comes with it’s own unique benefits and drawbacks. We put all the options to the test, and have come to one conclusion: The superior quality of today’s wool felting makes it the best choice for the underskirting of our quality custom saddles. The most benefits, the least drawbacks. We’re so confident, we offer this as a standard, instead of an upgrade! That being said, we like our customers to be able to make their decisions based on based on style, ease of care, expense, durability and personal preference, so we can assemble your saddle with real sheepskin (yellow sheepskin fleece), if you prefer.
Why Choose Felt?
The felted saddle skirting shares all the benefits of having a sheepskin fleece but has none of the drawbacks. Over time, even the highest quality fleece will have fibers packing down and felting on their own or the hair may start falling out in clumps. This looks bad, but beyond the simple cosmetic appearance it can change the fit of the saddle. By contrast, the felted underskirting has already been factory compressed to a universal thickness and will remain supportive and grippy for years. Sheepskin fleece has some frustrating cleaning and storage issues compared to felted wool underskirting, as well. If you’ve ever managed to get bedding, shavings, or other debris into your sheepskin fleece, you’ll know what I’m talking about! The felted underskirt has dense fibers and no pile, which makes it much easier to clean. Any debris can be whisked off by a stiff brush. Finally, the sheepskin fleece has some storage concerns that aren’t an issue with felted skirting. There are many kinds of moths and mites that LOVE to snack on the lanolin found in the skin and hair, and that can wreak havoc on your saddles good looks! The felted ones are all but immune to those kind of pests.
With all these benefits for a felted wool bottom instead of fleece, why hasn’t it been done more in the past, or more often by other saddlemakers now? The bottom line is that it IS catching on. Saddlemakers are generally a traditional bunch, but you’ll see more and more felt bottoms on custom saddles as time goes on.