The HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Hat making

 

The making of all types of hats using straw, felt and fabrics by an organised series of processes. These include, but are not limited to felt hats such as trilbies and fedoras, straw hats, fabric hats such as caps and deerstalkers, and uniform hats.

This category is distinct from millinery which includes bespoke, occasion wear, haute couture and theatrical hats, although we acknowledge that there will be areas of overlapping skills. A milliner would usually make one-off or small runs of hats. See also millinery, straw hat plaiting, hat block making and bowed felt hat making.

 

Status Endangered
Historic area of significance
  • Felt hats – Luton
  • Silk hats – Greater Manchester, Cheshire, Bristol and Warwickshire
  • Straw hats – Luton, Dunstable, St Albans
  • Fabric – East End of London, Luton
Area currently practised UK, but still centred around Luton
Origin in the UK
Current no. of professionals (main income) 11-20 companies making hats. Number of individual makers not known.
Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
Current no. of trainees
Current total no. serious amateur makers
Current total no. of leisure makers
Minimum no. of craftspeople required

 

History

Felt hats – This is the oldest of the organised hat making industries and is also the only type of felt that was traditionally made in the UK. Felt hat making as we know it today is believed to have started around 1500, before then they were largely imported from Italy and France.

The Company of Feltmakers was established in 1604. Originally they were responsible for making the hoods but gradually became involved with the making of hats. The industry of felt hood making and felt hat making was centred in London until the mid 1700s when both trades located in Manchester, gradually spreading into Stockport, Denton and Cheshire. Bristol was another important centre.

Felt hat making became a factory-based commercial enterprise and was the first hat industry to be organised into a recognised trade. There are two main types of felt used to make hats: fur-felt and wool. Fur felt was often made from beaver and/or rabbit. The final product was a felt hood, now known as a hood, cone, flare or capeline.

Felt making was also a cottage industry with small businesses established outside of cities. There is some evidence to suggest that the Feltmakers Guild tried to suppress these small enterprises in favour of the more industrialised approach.

The majority of felt hats in the UK are now made in the last few remaining hat factories using imported felt hoods.

Felt hats made from handmade felt – This relates to the making of functional, hardwearing felt hats from raw materials (wool or fur) using a pre-industrial felt making process (bow carding) that is quite specific to the felt hat making trade. Although this craft was practiced throughout Western Europe and the Americas, historically, Britain was globally recognised for its superior craftsmanship and exported its hats worldwide.

‘Contemporary’ feltmakers make hats using 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 is now commercially extinct in the United Kingdom. There is one felt hat maker that we are aware of, Rachel Frost, who makes felt hoods and hats using the traditional method of bow carding. Today, most hat makers and milliners use imported felt hoods for their work.

See bowed felt hat making for more information.

Straw hats – These can be dated back to the 1700s in an organised form, but probably predate this.

Fabric hats – These were traditionally less commercial and were associated with both hat makers and dress makers. Within hat manufacturing there is no longer any ‘mass’ production of fabric hats, except for sinamay/abaca (an open weave fabric made from natural fibres) which is used to produce long runs of single designs.

Uniform hats and riding hats – These are now made in one or two companies in the UK including Patey, Try & Lilly and Herbert Johnson.

There are many individual milliners making pattern-piece caps and hats.

 

Techniques

Felt hood making techniques – In the beginning the processes were mainly hand processes, but with the development and growth of the felt hat industry, the processes became mechanised to speed production to satisfy the demand for hats.

  • Unpacking the wool/fur
  • Blending – previously bowing
  • Carding
  • Forming
  • Hardening
  • Settling
  • Bumping
  • Bleaching/dyeing
  • Planking
  • Stiffening
  • Blocking
  • Finishing – polishing and dusting

The hood was then sold to a hat manufacturer or to an independent milliner to transform into a hat. Some companies did make hats from the hoods they produced.

Making a felt hat from a hood – The making of a hat involves a range of techniques, which will vary according to the type of hat being made. This falls into the Millinery category and also into larger scale hat manufacturing.

  • Steaming/softening
  • Stiffening
  • Blocking
  • Trimming

Straw hat making techniques – The process for a factory-based operation and millinery studio are very similar. The process will vary slightly according to the design, but main difference occurs within blocking. A long production run of hats requires the use of an aluminium block and blocking or pressing machine, while a milliner making a single or just a few hats will block by hand on a wooden block.

The following sequence of processes can be undertaken as a factory process or by a milliner.

  • The plait (handmade) or braid (usually man-made) is checked, wound onto a plait winder, lengths of plait or braid may be joined to create longer lengths.
  • Sewing – the process involves matching the hat to the design hat block. Note, within the factory setting the block was usually, but not exclusively, made from plaster or composite material. The sewing can be done by hand or on a specially adapted sewing machine.
  • Stiffening
  • Partial drying
  • Blocking – either by hand or on a blocking machine or press if this is part of a large run of hats. This relates to hat block making.
  • Trimming – within the trimming section there are various jobs, lining, sewing in the headband, adding labels. Adding the decorative trimmings of artificial fabric flowers, ribbons, feathers, etc. This relates to millinery.

 

Local forms

 

 

Sub-crafts

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • Market issues: Effects of Brexit affecting their European market
  • Market issues: Rising prices for materials/supplies
  • Business issues: Ageing business premises
  • Training issues: Perceived lack of interest for apprenticeships/training

 

Support organisations

  • Worshipful Company of Feltmakers
  • The British Hat Guild

 

Craftspeople currently known

Individual craftspeople:

Businesses employing two or more makers:

 

Other information

Historically the craft of hat making has taken place in a factory of large workshop. Hat making can also include hats made at an artisan level by individuals who use the same or similar processes.

 

References