Steve Woods

A Short Introduction to the American Felt Hat

In What Day is it? on September 15, 2009 at 10:31 am
Oh how a hat can create a mood!

Oh how a hat can create a mood!

Trends come and trends go, many leaving societal ripples in their wakes.  Today was meant to be a day to commemorate the heyday of the felt hat.  You’ve seen them in classic movies;  ubiquitous fedora, casual panama, happy-go-lucky homburg, high-class derby, or classy Borsalino. Indiana Jones dons a beat-up felt hat for each and every one of his adventures. In the 1940s to be seen outside without a hat was considered in poor taste, and perhaps even a sign of loose morals.  The felt hat was more than a covering – it said a great number of things about you in those days…

History of Felt Hats

Felt is considered to be one of the oldest textile materials, used for centuries in all manner of clothing items, and of course hats.  There are three basic types of felt used to make modern day hats – wool, fur (largely rabbit) and beaver. Beaver was used to make hats as early as the 14th Century, largely in Holland and Spain. Russia introduced beaver pelt as a trimming for coats, then sent the excess to Holland for use in felt-making.  In the mid-17th Century North America began exporting animal skins to Holland for use in the felting process. The United States began to manufacture hats soon thereafter, only to have their exports banned by England in 1731 in an effort to control the industry, one of the many financial extremes leading to the American Revolution.

As with all industry, in the late 19th Century small-time experienced hat makers were replaced by larger hat-making factories. Steam power and the ability to combine the felt-making and subsequent hat-making processes together contributed to this turnover. The felt hat became prominent in the wardrobe of Western nations, creating a sea of floating felt on every major city street.

Manufacture of Felt Hats

Beaver felt hats are produced by removing the coarser hairs from the beaver pelt and then brushing the remaining pelt with a hot mercury-based solution. The shorter, finer hairs then locked themselves together under the eye of the professional felter, in a process known as “carotting.” During the 1920s through 1940s many poorly-ventilated factories led to the airborne mercury fumes causing brain damage slowly over time. Have you ever heard the term “mad as a hatter?” The finely matted-together hairs are then cut from the pelt, and placed on a special bench called a “hurdle.” A large bow is suspended over the fibers, and vibrated by a craftsman. This unique musical spectacle evenly distributes the fibers into a loose mat, called a “batt.” The batts are then layered together and shaped into a cone, then boiled and rolled to create a dense felt material.  The hatter then shapes the felt as desired, by ironing flat or shaping on a wood block.

Rabbit fur felt hats are produced in a similar fashion, but with a bit of a vacuum created under the fine, soft fur fibers to help matt them together.

Felt hats and today...

Felt hats and today...

The wood of the American poplar tree is typically used as a hood shaping block by the hatter, as the wood has no grain on it, so no grain shows up in the shaping process. The flange or brim is shaped by being soaked, ironed flat, then cut to the correct shape, dried and pressed. Shellac is typically applied to the brim, and the hood of wool felt hats. The assembled hats are sanded quite a bit, to smooth out the texture. Hats are then trimmed with inner and outer bands and silk linings.

Whatever happened to hats?

In the past few years, the felt hat has began a slow comeback into our closets; however, factories overseas have greatly increased the likelihood that any felt hat you purchase will come from an Eastern European or Chinese factory.  There just aren’t many hat-makers in the good ol’ USA anymore…

Should you choose to wear a hat, the conventions our grandparents followed in wearing headgear in public (taking it off inside, tipping your hat to each other in hello, pinning smaller hats to ones hair, etc.) are typically no longer followed. The hat is now seen more as a fashion statement these days, rather than a considered necessity, full of meaning and tradition.

  1. Gotta love a day dedicated to felt hats… warm, stylish, fun…

    Keep your eyes open, though. There are still some American felt hat makers here and there… 😉

    • Thanks for the read! Hopefully all that read the posting will visit your site and learn more about the hat-making artists that still reside in America!

      • Much appreciated. We’re a small number, perhaps, but mighty in our own right!

        Your site is so much fun… I had no idea about Cream-filled Doughnut day… thanks!

  2. Some feltmakers in Hungary still use mercury today too! There are also many contemporary feltmakers in Australia and around the world making fantastic hats.

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