A Brief History of Felt Hats

by Miranda Hilderbrand

It’s the time of year when the leaves are changing color, crisp breezes are blowing through and we get to enjoy nice, cool weather. Fall is the time of year for walks in the park, a nice cup of hot coffee and, of course, the time to bring out your felt hats. While felt is one of the oldest materials known to man, it is something that raises many questions – How are felt hats made and what exactly is the felt made of? How is it shaped into a hat? And what is the difference between the types of felt?

Felt is quite simply a fabric that is is made from a process of interlocking fibers of wool or fur by using friction, heat and moisture. It is one of the strongest fabrics due to every fiber being interlocked in every direction with a number of other fibers. This process accounts for felt being extremely smooth, highly resilient and more impervious to water.

While it is not clear when felt was first created, legend links its discovery to 750 AD-818 AD during the life of Saint Clement of Ireland. It is said that, while on pilgrimage, Clement used carded wool in his sandals to keep his feet warm. The friction of walking matted the wool which produced the earliest forms of felt. It is for this reason that St. Clement is celebrated as the Patron Saint of Felt Hat Makers.

The process of turning felt into a hat is a painstaking art. First, the felt is formed into a large, loose cone. Loose fibers are pulled and the cone is then immersed into very hot water. This shrinks the fibers, making a more dense felt. The next step is to shape the cone into a finished hat. This is done by steaming and compressing the hat over wooden hat blocks to gain the desired crown shape. Once this is accomplished, the milliner cuts the brim to the desired width and shape; this step is known as flanging the brim. When the hat is in its proper form, stiffener is applied to hold its shape. The felt is then sanded numerous times to create a consistent smooth texture. The final stage of the hat making process is trimming. This includes adding a liner, a hat band, binding the edge of the brim and adding feathers and other embellishments.

An interesting side note on felt hat making is Old World hatters in the 18th and 19th centuries would treat the fur with mercury nitrate. Hatters were exposed daily to trace amounts of this metal, which would accumulate in their bodies over time. Needless to say, this had adverse effects! Many hatters experienced dementia and developed characteristic tics and twitches which would associate hatters with madness. This is where the phrase “as mad as a hatter” originated from. Hats are no longer treated with mercury, so today it is a much safer profession!

When it comes to hat making, there are three main types of felt that are used – wool felt, rabbit fur felt and beaver felt. Wool felt is produced from sheep’s wool and is more coarse to the touch than fur felts. These hats are typically the warmest as well as the friendliest on your wallet. If taken care of, a wool hat can easily last 10 or more years. Rabbit fur felt is produced from the fur of specific breeds of rabbit, with a majority of fur being produced in Belgium. Only the undercoat is used as it is thick enough for the felting process. This felt is extremely soft and a hat made of rabbit fur felt can easily last 50 years or more. Beaver felt is known as the “gold standard” when it comes to the quality of felt hats. The higher the percentage of beaver fur, the higher the quality of the hat. Beaver fur felts tighter which gives you a very soft, lightweight and dense hat that is more resilient to rain. Like rabbit fur, it is another hat that will easily last 50 years.

One thing you may notice with beaver felt hats is many have an “X rating”. This system is used to rate the quality of the fur. Typically, the higher the X rating, the higher the quality of the hat. One thing to keep in mind is there is no industry standard for quality ratings on beaver hats. Each hat company can rate their products as they see fit. What one hatter rates as a 10X hat, another hatter may rate it as 100X or even 1000X.

Wool and fur felts are used to create hats of every shape, style and color imaginable. These hats range from being totally utilitarian in providing their wearer with warmth to being the perfect accessory for any fashionista. Felt hats are perfect for the colder months of the year and are an ever so classic addition to any wardrobe. Here at Hatbox, we have many choices for wool, fur and beaver felt hats. Come in today to find your own perfect hat for the season!

How To Choose the Right Hat

by Miranda Hilderbrand

There are two things we hear from people on a daily basis: one is “I love hats but they just do not look good on me” and the other is “I am just not a hat person”. If you have ever thought or said one of these, you simply haven’t found the right hat yet. So, in other words, it is not you, it’s the hat! Have no fear, here at Hatbox we are the Hat Professionals and have been greatly trained as Haberdashers to help you find your perfect hat.

Your first step is to get familiar with the many different types of hats and get a feel for which styles you are naturally drawn to. You should find a hat that fits your personality. This will give you a great starting point in your search. If you have any questions about hat styles or the origin of particular types of hats, do not hesitate to ask your haberdasher.

Once you have an idea on a type of hat you would like to find for yourself, it is crucial to be sure you try on the proper size. A good rule of thumb is you want a hat to fit snug enough that it will not fly off with a gust of wind. You never want a hat that is too big for you. You want to make sure you are wearing the hat, not the other way around. On the flip side, you never want a hat to be tight. Having a hat that is too small will be uncomfortable and it affect the overall fit and shape.

How do I figure out my hat size, you ask – It is as simple as measuring your head. Use a tape measure across the widest part of your head, just above your eyebrows and ears, and measure to the nearest ⅛ of an inch, as this is how hat sizing is determined. Once you have this number, view our Proper Sizing and Care section for an industry standard size chart. Or, if you would rather, come and see us at our original 6th Street location or the Domain Hatbox, we would be more than happy to help you with sizing.

Once you know your proper size, the next step is to start trying on hats. You would not believe how many hats may not appeal to you on the shelf but look amazing once you place it on your head. Hats are like any other article of clothing, you will never know how it looks until you are wearing it. Once you have the hat on your head, we can start to get an idea of the subtleties that will make or break the hat for you.

The greatest thing to take into account when choosing your hat is your facial characteristics. There are several key features you need to look at when selecting hats: the shape of the crown and the width of the brim and the band.
When looking at the crown shape, your hat should create an oval shape from your chin to the top of the crown of the hat. The crown cannot be too wide or too narrow – you want to find a shape that mimics your jaw line. If the crown is too wide, you will create a shrunken head effect and if it is too narrow the hat will look way too small on your head. You also want to find a hat where the crown is not too tall or too short. A good guideline to follow is you want your eyes to be centered between your chin and the top of the hat.

When you are looking at the brim, a good rule is that the brim width does not exceed your shoulder width except in the case of a utility sunhat or certain fancy hats for women. You want a balanced triangle effect from the top of the crown, following down to the brim and ending at the shoulders.

When you put all of these factors together, it will help you in finding the proper hat for your face shape. For example, if your face is long and thin, you want a hat that makes your face appear shorter than it is, such as a shorter crown and a wider hat band. Or if your face is short and round, you will need a wider brim for balance.

If you find a hat you love and have a relationship with, that is the hat for you. It is an absolute must that you feel comfortable in your hat which will not be an issue when taking all of these factors into consideration. Come visit your local Haberdashers here at Hatbox – your hat is waiting for you!

Smooth Sailing into Summer

by Miranda Hilderbrand

You may be wondering “which hat will be a perfect and unique accessory for this summer?” – our answer, the ever-classic Boater. This beloved treasure is an absolute must for summer picnics and barbecues, as well as savvy headgear for any formal events happening in these upcoming warmer months.

What exactly is a Boater, you ask – it is a hat that can simply described as one with a flat brim with straight sides to the crown that has a perfectly flat top. It has layers of stiffly woven sennit straw that allows it to be relatively lightweight and it typically has a solid or striped grosgrain ribbon around the crown. Think of the gondoliers in Venice, which is where this hat originated.

Like all hats, the Boater has its own unique history. While many have cited the creation of this hat to have been in the 1880s, there have been accounts of the first Boater originating in 1822 in the English town of Luton in Bedfordshire. Nevertheless, the Boater soared to popularity and became widely known in the 1880s with the gondoliers in Venice. It was these Italian immigrants who brought this amazing hat all over Europe and to the United States.

As the name suggests, the Boater was a very popular hat for boating and sailing. If you had a yacht, this was the hat you wore. However, like many other hats, the Boater is just one its many names. You may also hear it referred to as a Basher, Skimmer, Katie or Cady hat, a Sommer, a Sennit Hat and even a Can-Can hat.

The Boater became known as “the hat of the people” in the early decades of the 20th century. It was the hat of the working man, the middle class and even the elite, in fact Titanic tycoon John Jacob Astor IV would frequently wear a Boater with his suits. That is what is so amazing about this hat; it has been and still is a hat that is both formal and informal. The Boater could be seen anywhere from picnics in the park, a day at the races or at an evening soiree in high society.

Some look at the Boater and are reminded of its historical background in terms of government, politics and even education. It has been said that in the pre-World War I years, the Boater was part of the unofficial uniform of FBI agents. It also became synonymous with politicking and became the official hat of the Democratic Party. The Boater also was established as one of the most potent status symbols of many private and Ivy League colleges. Students and alumnus would embellish their hat with a ribbon band that was in the colors of their school. Also many private and boarding schools added the Boater to part of their school uniforms in the United States and Europe.

You may also look at the Boater and have your mind immediately drawn to the entertainment industry. Not only was it a favorite accessory for many Vaudeville entertainers in from the 1880s to the 1930s, it also became the hat of choice for many Barbershop Quartets in the 1940s to present day. It is not uncommon to put on a Boater and have the urge to start tap-dancing or even burst into song and dance – I’ve seen it happen!

The Boater was a very common hat to see in many classic movies and several television series. In the 1920s and 1930s the Boater became the staple accessory to French actor Maurice Chevalier. He would tip his hat forward, pairing it with a tuxedo while performing on stage and it was prominent in the 1958 film, Gigi. It was also worn by many characters in 1968’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Stars such as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly were frequently seen wearing Boater hats and Desi Arnaz would wear one as Ricky Ricardo in I Love Lucy.

I recently saw a quote simply stating “Straw Boaters are back”. It is a must as a classic throwback for males and can be coily cocked to the side or angled towards the front for females. This is one classic that will most definitely not stay in the past. Here at Hatbox, we can help you find your own perfect Boater so sail on in – we’re holding your hat.

Say “I Do” to the Hat!

by Miranda Hilderbrand

It’s that time of year when wedding bells are ringing – for many brides, June is the perfect month for a wedding.  Historically, mid-April to mid-October is wedding season for many American couples, with the height being in June.  With the popularity of last year’s Royal Wedding, more and more brides and wedding attendees are setting their sights on hats to accentuate their wedding day attire.

The traditions of wedding hats started with the veil.  In ancient times, warriors would steal their brides and carry them away from her family. In an attempt to hide the woman’s identity, her face would remain covered by heavily layered wool or muslin veils until the couple had their first child and hopefully the blessed arrival would wash away any bad feelings. Talk about sweeping a girl off her feet! Oddly, the veil did become a symbol of transferring a bride from her family home to her husband’s home as well as being a symbol of the bride’s purity.

By the 1500s, veils became more fashionable in design and were shorter with a lot less layering. These veils were more transparent and shimmery and actually allowed the groom to see his bride.  This step forward led to veils being replaced by elaborate hats in the 1700s and beyond. Feather-trimmed, beaded and jeweled bridal head coverings became a visual symbol of family wealth.

One question that tends to pop up during wedding season is in regards to wedding etiquette. What are proper manners, which styles of hats are appropriate and so on. One thing to keep in mind in terms of hat and wedding etiquette is that many are based on old traditions.  You know the bride and groom far better than we do and are a much better judge on which traditions you should uphold and which styles you should chose. The main rule of thumb that we strongly believe should always be upheld by all guests is to never upstage the bride and groom – it is their day, let them be the shining stars.

There are some basic tips you may want to consider in regards to hat wearing at a wedding.  For men the main thing to keep in mind is when to wear your hat. If the wedding or reception takes place indoors, it is proper to remove your hat while in a building. However if the groom and the bridal party are wearing their hats at all times, take the cue from them.

For the ladies we have a few more tips, but as mentioned, many of these are based on old tradition. For many years in the UK, it was custom that ladies are not to remove their hats unless the mother of the bride does so, doing so would be considered disrespectful. Luckily today’s etiquette is a bit more flexible.  For instance, if you are wearing a specifically “daytime hat”, you may want to remove it as the sun sets. Also, when picking your hat for the event, try to find a style that will not obstruct anyone’s view.

With wedding season approaching it is the perfect opportunity to don a hat that is a bit more formal, take a chance on something you would not normally wear and add an aire of sophistication to your wedding day attire. As a side note: in America we tend to be more conservative than the Brits on formal occasions regarding hat styles. They have a tradition that allows more flamboyance than is the norm on this side of the pond.

By today’s standards, a bride can go all out with elaborate headwear or keep it simple with a lovely, sheer veil.  At Hatbox, we can meet all of your wedding hat needs – we will be offering custom work for brides, wedding party, mother of the bride and anyone else who would like a special piece for the big day. We will build your headwear from the ground up with care taken to incorporate your personal wedding fabric, colors, embellishments or anything that will complete your vision. We do recommend that you give us at least 3 months advance to complete your custom pieces.  Also, Hatbox is very honored to offer the beautiful work of Vivien Sheriff – a favourite milliner to Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge formerly Kate Middleton along with Austin’s own Laura Del Villaggio of Milli Starr.

Rebirth of the Cloche in Roaring 2012

by Miranda Hilderbrand

The fashion world has spoken, and it is very clear that 2012 is the year of all the jazz of the roaring 20’s. Many designers have drawn inspiration for their new collections from the classic deco style and the razzle dazzle of the 1920s. What better to top of this fabulous look that with the cat’s meow of the era: the cloche!

The cloche was first invented by Caroline Reboux, a very well known Parisian milliner, in 1908. Fittingly, “cloche” is the French word for “bell”, and a cloche can be described as a fitted hat that covers a lady’s head from just above the eyebrows to the back of the neck. While cloches were commonly made of felt in their beginning and designed for the fall and winter months, straw versions were created for the spring and summer to ensure its status as a seasonless classic.

The cloche became so famous that one could even have it embellished with beading and lace for cocktail parties, soirées, and even bridal apparel. It also became customary for women to relay messages to on-lookers by affixing ribbons to their hat. My favorites include a firm knot signifying they were married and unavailable, or one could embellish their cloche with a flamboyant bow to signify she was single and interested in mingling.

This amazing hat forged through the 1920s as THE accessory to don, but shockingly and suddenly became obsolete between 1933 and 1934. It began to look as though the fashion world would lose this stylish beauty.

Thankfully, the cloche came back with a bang in 2007 when many designers re-exposed it in their fall collections. It was being featured in numerous magazines, and made its way to the silver screen when Angelina Jolie donned the style in the 2008 film “Changeling” (which was based in the 1920s). This fantastic exposure left many fashionistas taken by the cloche and wanting their very own to complete their personal collections.

Without showing any signs of fading, the cloche made two fabulous reveals in recent history: one in film, and one on New York City’s catwalk. French actress Bérénice Bejo wore many fabulous cloches in the 2011 silent film “The Artist”. The cloche was also an accessory of choice in Fashion Week 2012 for numerous designers including Ralph Lauren, Sonia Rykiel, and Christian Dior.

Mark Bridges (costume designer for “The Artist”) commented on the cloche by saying that “they sort of hide your face and are very coy”, which encapsulates the style perfectly. They give women an air of feminine sophistication, as well as a bit of sexy mystery, AND they are the perfect accessory for a bad hair day! The cloche is definitely a must for every woman’s personal collection, and I strongly encourage every woman to release their inner flapper and have fun with this adorable and timeless trend.