Bowed felt hat making
The making of functional, hardwearing felt hats from raw materials (wool or fur) using a pre-industrial felt making process that is specific to the felt hat making trade. See also hat making, millinery and feltmaking.
|Status||Critically endangered (previously extinct but has been rediscovered)|
|Historic area of significance||Britain was once globally recognised for its high quality (bowed-felt) felt hats, but this process was also practised throughout Western Europe and the Americas.|
|Area currently practised||Scotland|
|Origin in the UK||C16th|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||1|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees||0|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
This particular process of felt hat making is believed to have been introduced by immigrant Hatters from the continent in the C16th. Bowed felt making ceased for 150 years in the UK but has been redeveloped by Rachel Frost using historical records.
The main fibre processing is done with a Hatter’s Bow-carder. This is a seven foot long wooden tool resembling a giant fiddle bow, with a heavy gut string stretched along its length. The bow, being hung horizontally from the ceiling hovers over a table with the wool or fur fibres placed upon it. The bow string is plucked into the fibres, causing them to fly into the air. In this way the fibres are cleaned, fluffed up and arranged in a suitable shape and thickness in readiness for felting. Initial felting takes place on a hot-plate with steam and agitation.
Further felting is done by immersing in hot water and repeat rolling until a dense smooth felt is produced. At this stage the felt may be dyed (natural/plant dyes). It is then steamed and blocked to the desired shape and it may be stiffened and sculpted by hand depending on the requirements. It can then be dressed with a lining, sweat band and trim etc.
The cheapest hats were made of sheep’s wool with fur (often rabbit) being better quality and more expensive. Beaver fur makes the best felt that lasts for many years, but is fiendishly expensive and difficult to work. It would only have been used by the best hatmakers. The process is fundamentally much the same for the different materials, although a lighter bow is used for fur than for wool.
Feltmaking – Most feltmakers today make hats use a different process which, although facilitates great creative freedom in both design and colour, does not produce the dense, smooth felt traditionally associated with functional hats.
Felt hood making – Felt hoods are not made commercially in the UK. Machine made felt hoods for hat making are manufactured all over the world including the United States, Czech Republic, Poland, Portugal and China.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Lack of awareness of its existence, potential and therefore lack of demand for the product
Availability of tools and specialist materials
Lack of both living craftsmen and written instructions to learn from.
- The high labour investment and therefore lack of finacial viabilty on a commercial scale
Craftspeople currently known
- Rachel Frost, The Crafty Beggars
Bowed felt for hat making appears to be the only historical method of making felt in Britain. Unlike many other countries, Britain appears to have no tradition (prior to the 1960’s) of making hand-made felt, other than for the purpose of making hats.