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.
|Historic area of significance||
|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
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 1600s in an organised form of production, but probably predate this. Straw is a generic term covering many plant materials which were constructed into hats by either weaving or plaiting. Both forms existed as British industries. A woven straw hat only requires shaping over a block
while a hat constructed from plait involves more stages. The plait has to be wound onto a ‘plait winder’ then stitched either by hand or machine. See straw hat sewing.
Contemporary makers tend to use either ready-made straw hoods (flares or
capelines) which require stiffening, blocking and trimming, or sheets of sinamay
fabric (woven Abaca fibres) which may be cut to pattern shapes, or blocked then
trimmed. See straw plaiting and straw hat sewing for more information.
Fabric hats – Originally these were associated with both hat makers and dress makers. The fabric was placed over a base of straw or over a stiff fabric, or over commercially made millinery wire frames. As the commercial hat industry grew fabric hats were made in large numbers principally in the East End of London. The trade
came to Luton in the early 1900s. One of the most famous fabric hats was the iconic silk top hat. It’s manufacture was associated with Stockport. Many bicorne and tricorne hats were also made of fabric.
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.
Many contemporary makers do still make fabric hats over a base or over wire. This type of work is also found in theatrical millinery.
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, Cooper Stevens and Herbert Johnson.
There are many individual milliners making pattern-piece caps and hats.
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
- 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.
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.
For hats made from straw capelines (sisal or sinamay/pinok pok/abaca:
- The straw is blocked wet over a wooden or aluminium block.
- The straw shape is stiffened before removing from the block.
- Once removed from the block, the shape is wired, edged, lined, and has a petersham ribbon sewn into the head-fitting (if applicable)
- Trimming can involve a wide range of skills and materials such as fabric flowers, feathers, beading, and other constructed trimmings from millinery and other materials
- Finishing – included sewing in the label, attaching elastic or comb, and setting the head-fitting on a poupée, or block (if applicable).
For hats made from straw plait:
- 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 chain-stitch machine.
- 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.
- Straw hat machine sewing
- Hat block making
- Bleaching and dyeing
- Small-run production
Straw hat sewing
Bleaching and dyeing
Feather pad, mount and flower making
Artificial flower making
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Market issues: Effects of Brexit affecting their European market, creating problems for larger scale production and individual makers.
- Market issues: Rising prices for materials/supplies, creating problems for larger scale production and individual makers.
- Business issues: Ageing business premises and rising rents. Also rising energy costs are having a negative effect on all businesses. The industry requires Government assistance for the 3rd and 4th generation factories operating from historic buildings, where they are still producing hats. There neeeds to be greater awareness and willingness by local government to identify and support heritage crafts within their area.
- Training issues: Perceived lack of interest for apprenticeships/training. There has been a large growth of online and face-to-face training often only providing basic skills. There are threats to college-based courses due to increased costs and apprenticeships are still rare. To raise skills levels there needs to be a greater push to developing opportunities for training to a higher level. The two main providers of accredited advanced millinery training (Morley College’s HNC qualification and RCA MA course) are both under
threat. The RCA is not currently employing a millinery technician, prioritising design over technical skills. Students working on millinery have to gain their skills outside of the RCA. Morley is not currently able to offer tier 4 visas to overseas students, thereby greatly diminishing student numbers. Domestic
student recruitment has been diminished through increased fees and reduced opportunities for beginners and intermediate courses. The awarding body City &; Guilds is in the process of withdrawing their accredited level 2 and level 3 millinery qualifications, further reducing the opportunities for accredited
Craftspeople currently known
Businesses employing two or more makers:
- Herbert Johnson
- Ken Peirson & Son
- Llewellyn & Co
- Philip Wright, Walter Wright Ltd
- Snoxell & Gwyther
- DRH Pickering & Co
- Whiteley Fischer
- The Panama Hat Company
- Try and Lilly
- Christys Hats
- Lock & Co
- Majesa Ltd
- Nerida Fraiman
- Rachel Trevor Morgan
- Stephen Jones
- Philip Treacy
- The Whiteley Hat Company
- Vivien Sheriff
For a list of bespoke milliners including film and theatre see Millinery
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.
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