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!