The HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Hat block making

 

The making of the blocks, either in wood or metal, on which hats are made.

 

Status Endangered
Craft category Stockport and Luton
Historic area of significance Greater Manchester, Cheshire, Bedfordshire Wiltshire, West Midlands.
Area currently practised
Origin in the UK Structured hats and felt hats were worn as early as the 14th century, which would have needed wooden forms to create the shapes that are depicted from that age.
Current no. of professionals (main income) 3 businesses
Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
2
Current no. of trainees
Current total no. serious amateur makers
Current total no. of leisure makers
Minimum no. of craftspeople required

 

History

A hat block is used in the process of shaping and stiffening hat forms. Each block is created
to form the style and size of the finished hat. Some hats require a block for the brim and a
block for the crown, dependent on the style of hat being formed. Crowns have measured
holes in the bottom, these are for hat stands which gives a better working height, makes the
hat easier to be shaped when they are blocked and enables the newly formed hat to be
pulled of the block with greater ease. The types of wood used to make the hat blocks often
depends on the country of their origin. In Luton, seasoned Sycamore and Alder were often
used.

In the process of forming a hat block, measurements must be carefully taken, ensuring that
all the pieces align. Some blocks are divided into sections, commonly five. This allows the
different pieces to be taken apart and assembled back together and allows the block to beremoved without deforming the hat. Wooden hat blocks are essential to make hats for small
bespoke commissions.

Aluminium is a more modern process developed for factories to produce long production
runs where hats are blocked on a machine. The pans are in two parts, male and female. The
metal will withstand the pressure, heat and steam of the blocking machines. Examples in
museum collections show that metal blocks have also made from iron and spelter.
In hat factories milliners used cheaper plaster blocks to check size and shape. There were
also blocks made of ‘composition’ materials.

Although hat blocks probably date to the earliest shaped hats, the first reference to a Hat-
Block Turner appears in 1724. Hat Block Making was considered a highly skilled trade, a Master Blockmakers’ Association was formed in 1896. Within the hat industries of Greater Manchester, Luton and Warwickshire, the making of hat blocks was often kept as a specific department within the factory. Hat blocks are closely related to the final design and had to be kept secret from competitors. Blockmakers working outside the company building were expected to keep their work secret and could be identified in Luton as they walked through the town carrying the blocks in sacks.

 

Techniques

  • Experience with traditional hand woodworking tools
  • Ability to work to fine tolerances and finishes
  • Joinery
  • Wood-carving
  • Sculpture
  • Wood turning
  • Hand tools used include: planes, spokeshaves, gouges, hand saws, rasps.

Also need to have experience using common woodworking machinery including planer/thicknesser, bandsaw, lathe, sanders, routers etc. as well as hand operated power tools.

Specialist techniques are required for making aluminium blocks, such as casting and making a plaster or wood form for the cast.

 

Local forms

 

 

Sub-crafts

  • Wooden hat block making – these are mostly supplied to milliners for small, bespoke commissions
  • Metal hat block making – these are supplied to companies who mass produce hats. This is the most endangered part of the craft with only one remaining manufacturer in Luton.

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • The making of aluminium hat blocks is now carried out by one company, Boon & Lane, in Luton. The decline of the hat making trade in Luton could threaten the hat block making trade in turn.

 

Support organisations

 

 

Craftspeople currently known

  • Boon & Lane Ltd – based in Luton, Bedfordshire. The only manufacturers to make both wooden and metal hat blocks.
  • Guy Morse Brown – based in Chippenham, Wiltshire.
  • Hat Blocks Direct – based in West Midlands.

 

Other information

 

 

References

  • Stockport Hat Works Museum
  • Wardown House Museum and Art Gallery, Luton*
    *Holds a large collection of hat blocks from the early 1800s onwards, blockmaking tools,
    photographs, literature.