The History of Felt in Hat-Making
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Felt has been used for producing headwear for many centuries and is perhaps the oldest textile material. Archaeological evidence shows that from very early on, people had discovered the tendency for fibres to mat together when warm and damp, many years before they learnt how to spin and weave yarn.
To this day there are three varieties of felt used for hat making. Wool felt, fur felt and Beaver felt. Beaver felt hats date back as far as the 14th Century with the majority of production being based in Holland and Spain. European Beaver skins were first sent to Russia to be used as coat trimmings and then re-imported into Holland as used furs would felt more easily. By the early-mid 1600s the beaver’s European breeding grounds became exhausted, after which time North America became the main supplier of skins to the trade. The United States also became an important manufacturer of hats although in 1731 England passed a Hat Act that prohibited the export of hats from the USA. In the 18th Century Beaver Felt was still the preferred material for headwear, although a mixture of felts, beaver and wool, beaver and fur felt, became increasingly popular for the less expensive hats.
In the late 1800s, the traditional and independent hatters who made the hats they sold in their shops were soon to be replaced by large hat making factories due to the advent of steam power, which made the hatters bow redundant. Many of these factories combined both the felt making process with the production of the finished article. Importing the fur from various overseas sources, fur mainly from Belgium and wool from Australia, they would then put it through various machine processes to arrive at the final felt hood. This would then be blocked into shape, sanded, lined and finished.
In recent years, although the hat has seen a marked revival, many of the traditional hat factories have been faced with closure as a result of cheaper imports from both the Eastern block countries as well as the Far East.
Fur felt hats
Fur felt hats are produced most commonly from rabbit fur with some of the better quality hats being made from beaver, although beaver today is exceedingly rare. Hare fur today is also fairly common with a combination of rabbit and fur being more popular.
The initial stage in the hat making process would be the plucking of the coarse guard hairs from the beaver pelt, which was then brushed, with a solution of nitrate of mercury.
This would raise the scales on the fur shafts so that they would become firmly locked together. This process became known as "carotting" and if carried out in a poorly ventilated room, the mercury fumes could damage the brain, hence the expression "mad as a hatter". The fibres would then be cut from the skin and placed on a bench in a workroom known as the "hurdle". Over the bench would be suspended a hatter’s bow, very much like an oversized violin bow and the fibres responded to the vibrations of the bow which was controlled by the craftsmen, separating themselves and becoming evenly distributed until they had formed into a thick but loosely structured mat of material known as the "batt". Several batts would then be shaped into a cone and reduced in size by boiling and then rolled to create a firm dense felt. The hood would then be sent onto the hatter who would mould it to the required shape and then line and finish it.
Hats made from Beaver felt were to see a marked decline in the mid 1800s and gradually became replaced by the silk hat, followed by fur felt hats and wool felt hats.
Rabbit / Hare
Specific breeds of rabbit are preferred with the majority of fur being produced in Belgium. Only the under-fur of the animals is used, as only this fur is suitable for the matting process involved in felt making. The fur, which is removed from the rabbit, is bagged according to the grade of fur and undergoes various mixing refining processes before it is ready to be made into a hood. The fur is then blown, a process which enables the removal of any dirt and clotted fur. The actual process of hat making can now commence.
The initial stage is the production of a cone. This is produced by placing a certain quantity of fur onto the top of the forming chamber (an upright cylindrical compartment - within which is housed a copper cone approximately one metre in height). The cone which is perforated revolves slowly and an exhaust fan beneath it sucks the air and the loose fur in the chamber down onto the revolving cone, creating a matt of loosely interwoven fibres. The cone is then immersed in a vat of very hot water where the heat of the water shrinks the fibres thus starting the felting process. The fur, which has formed into a loose layer of felt, is then removed from the cone.
At this stage the felt hood is many times larger than the final finished hood. To achieve such a significant reduction in size, the layer of felt is put through the processes of folding, dipping in hot water and then finally it is put through rollers which will squeeze out any of the excess fluid thereby furthering the felting process.
Felt hoods are generally blocked on wooden blocks. The wood for these blocks tends to come from the American Poplar tree as it has no grain, which if present would show in the blocking process. A hat block is required for every size of hat and for every shape of hat and with the current price at around $200 per block, the creation of a new style of hat represents today a fairly heavy investment.
Flanging is the term used to describe the forming or creation of the brim. The brim is first ironed flat. It is then cut to the required width, placed on a wooden flange of the necessary shape, ironed and finally dried and pressed.
Stiffening and sanding
A stiffener such as shellac is normally always required for the brims and obviously the more stiffener applied the stiffer the brim. Stiffener is often avoided in the crowns of fur felt hoods, although is regularly used in wool felts.
Finally the hat is sanded many times, to create a smooth texture so characteristic of the fine fur felt hats.
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The final stage of the hat process is the trimming. This will include the insertion of a leather inner band or similar (like Petersham), the lining of the hat as well as the application of some outer band. The latter, although a relatively simple process can be the most significant in the terms of the final appearance of the finished hat, very much determining the character of the hat and consequently its potential wearer. The more flamboyant the trim, e.g. feather band or silk band, the more flamboyant and individualistic in style the wearer.
Wool felt hats
These are produced from sheep’s wool and consequently are significantly coarser in touch in comparison to the soft fur felt. They have in recent years gained in popularity primarily due their competitive price advantage and because of this are particularly favoured as a fashion item. They do not wear as well as fur felts and unlike fur felts have a tendency of losing their shape and shrinking if exposed to rain. The hat making processes involved in producing a wool felt hat are very similar to those used for fur felts, although many of the additional finishing and sanding processes required to produce a fine fur felt are obviously not required.
''Hand felted'' Wool felt hats
Hand felting with sheep wool has been around for Centuries but it was around the 1980’s when felt making was rediscovered and gained popularity. New techniques were developed by felt makers all over the world including Polly Sterling, Australia, who created ''Nuno felt'' which is known as laminated felt in America. May Jacobsen Hvistendahl, Norway, has made a name for herself with seamless felting, Inge Bauer, Germany, uses leather and felt more to make bags, Elina Saari, Finland, has a wonderful playful way of making hats in felt.
There are many more felt makers all over the world who have written books and developed techniques and it has to be noted that the making of those felts are unique yet often very time consuming. Most felted articles are one offs as the maker very seldom would want to reproduce the same twice. The way hats can be moulded and shaped through Hand felting, is not possible with commercial wool felts which are seen as lesser quality by the Millinery industry. Through hand felting the maker is in control of shape, colour, size and design, where as with commercial felt hoods the maker is limited to the material one buys of the shelve.