It is probable that
most people think of felt as a kind of cloth, smoother
and tougher than cotton or woolen fabric, but cloth
nevertheless. The fact is that there is no likeness
whatever in the principles of production between felted
fabric and woven fabric.
Felt differs from every other fabric
in that it is made of a myriad of short, single animal
fibers which are interlocked by their natural tendency
to "crawl" and twist when kneaded and manipulated
in hot water and steam. Felt is the strongest fabric
known because every fiber is interlocked in every direction
with a number of other fibers. All other fabrics are
made of fibers which are first twisted into threads
and then woven by hand or machine. As these threads
are always woven either in right angle or parallel lines,
the woven fabric may be torn apart along a straight
Felt can be made into the smoothest
fabric known, once again because it is made of tiny
single fibers interlocking in every direction rather
than groups of twisted fibers woven in a straight line.
Felt is the lightest fabric known, in relation to its
tensile strength, because a minimum of fibers are required
to make the requisite toughness. Felt is the most resilient
of fabrics, for the same reason. Felt is the more impervious
to water than any other fabric, because of the close
interlocking of its fibers and because the animal fibers
themselves do not soak up moisture.
Felt hats can be made either of fur
felt (medium or high price) or wool felt (low price).
Described herewith is the making of an all-fur-felt
Fur felt hats are chiefly made of rabbit
fur. Some hare fur is used to make better hats, and
is often mixed with rabbit fur to produce hats in various
medium price grades. Beaver, the finest fur, and nutria
are usually used in the best hats, and muskrat also
supplies raw material for hatmaking,
By "fur" is meant the downy
under-fur of these animals, not the long, coarse hair
that is commonly called fur. Only this under-fur has
on the surface of each fiber the barb-like projections
which will lock the fibers together to make a strong
The long hairs are pulled out or sheared
off. The remaining under-fur is chemically treated to
raise up the microscopic barbs for better felting. It
is then cut from the skin, or to be exact, the skin
is cut from it, being shredded away by flailing knives.
So precisely is this done that the loose fur retains
the shape of the skin when it leaves the cutting machine
on a moving belt. Girls pick the various grades of fur
from the form, such as cheeks, flanks, sides, entire,
center-backs, etc., and pack them in different paper
bags forstorage. Cut fur is considered as "long
stock," while recovered fur, such as from hat trimmings
for roundings, is called "shortstock."
Fur felt hats are superior in lightness
of weight, mellowness to the touch, and ability to keep
their shape and withstand weather and renovating.
A good fur blend is a proper combination
of large and small fibers to produce the texture wanted.
So much long stock is needed to give a good rate and
quality of felting and so much short stock to fill the
interstices, thus imparting smoothness and compactness.
As many as eight different types of grades of fur may
enter into a single fur mixture, depending on the price
of the hat, the color to which it is to be dyed, etc.
The bagged fur as delivered to the
hat manufacturer must undergo several mixing and refining
processes before it is ready to be formed into hat bodies.
After mixing, the fur has assumed a mottled grayish
color, and the original furs entering the mixture can
be seen only with the greatest difficulty.
Mixed fur is then "blown,"
a process which removes clotted fur, air and dirt. Fur
coming out at the delivery end of this process resembles
an endless sheet of gray absorbent cotton, soft, light
There are two main steps in making
fur into a hat. First, the fur is made into a large,
loose cone, and then this cone is shrunk and shaped
into the finished hat.
Forming the cone is really the key
to felt hat making. It is done in a forming machine.
Picture an upright, cylindrical compartment, and inside
this compartment, on the floor, a copper cone about
3 feet high, points upward. This cone revolves slowly.
It is perforated, and an exhaust fan beneath it sucks
the air, and the loose fur, in the chamber down to the
Fur for one hat is weighed out and
drawn into the top of the forming chamber. Sucked downward
by the exhaust fan, it settles on the revolving cone.
The fibers are interangled every which way, but only
loosely, the fragile layer of fur could be brushed off
with one's finger. The operator carefully wraps damp
burlap cloths around the cone and then immerses it for
a short time in a vat of hot water. That's when the
felting starts. The hot water shrinks the fibers just
a little, but yet enough to knit them into a flimsy
layer of felt.
The layer of felt is stripped from
the cone. It is several times the height of the finished
hat, and so delicate that it must be handled with the
Now the shrinking is begun in earnest,
until the body is felted down successively from its
original huge dimensions to its final size.
The body is folded, dipped in hot water,
and rolled with pressure. From time to time, it is opened,
examined, and if satisfactory, again folded, dipped,
rolled and pressed. Under the action of the hot water
and the manipulation, the fibers shrink, their projecting
barbs locking together tighter and tighter until when
the cone is no bigger than the finished hat, it is so
tightly felted that a strong man cannot pull it apart.
This is hard and painstaking work,
and must be done rapidly, else the bodies will cool
off, and a poor felt will result.
Although machines play a part in this
process, more in the lower and medium grade, than in
the fine grades, much shrinking is done by hand, especially
during the early stages when the cone is large and extremely
Machines which do the shrinking are
"rollers," like big wash wringers. The bodies
are wrapped in cloths and passed through the rollers,
over which hot water is pouring. Thus hand rolling is
A trained workman, however, must always
be on hand to wrap the bodies expertly, inspect them
frequently, and adjust the rollers. Even the forming
machine requires a highly skilled operator to control
the currents within the machine so that the fur is pefectly
distributed on the cone.
Besides the barb or interlocking theory
of felting, there are the intertwining and plastic theories.
According to the intertwining theory, fibers are forced
among each other due to the mechanical manipulation.
The plastic theory holds that the fur becomes temporarily
plastic at the higher tempertures, and thus accounts
for the well known increased facility of felting in
acid solutions and for the necessity of using hot water.
Probably no one theory of felting accounts for all the
A rough shape is obtained by stretching;
the finished shape by blocking the crown and flanging
the brim. Crown stretching is done on a machine which
has a frame over which the cone is placed, and above
this, metal fingers. The fingers "massage"
the tip of the cone, pressing the felt between the ribe
of the frame, thereby stretching it. The brim stretcher
grips the brim with metal fingers and works on the same
The hat is roughly blocked into shape
by wetting it and pulling it over a wooden block. Blocking
to final size is done with steam and an iron.
Wood used in the blocks comes from
the American poplar tree, which is better than other
woods because it has no grain or hard or soft streaks
in the better grades. Therefore, when felt is pressed
on a poplar block, the shape of the wood texture doesn't
The original block is made by hand
and the rest by machines which duplicate the original.
The hat manufacturer must have not only a set of blocks,
for each style, but also a set of blocks for every headsize
in which the style is to be made. A large factory must
have a number of sets of each popular style block so
that more than one workman can assist in turning out
Setting the brim in the hat manufacturing
process is called flanging. First the brim is ironed
flat, and cut to specified width. Then it is curled
and laid on a wooden flange of desired roll, ironed
again, and finally dried and pressed, while still on
the flange, with a sandbag such as you see in renovating
From the time the body is formed until
it is blocked, the hat gets a lot of careful treatment
besides the steps outlined here. It is dyed, a difficult
technical job, usually carried out in an early stage
of felting; the brim is impregnated with just the right
degree of stiffening shellac to make it hold up, the
entire hat is rubbed with sandpaper many times, the
number depending upon the smoothness sought.
Finally the hat is trimmed, the leather,
lining and band sewed on, all of which must be done
with care because the workmanship shows.
And there's the finished hat, a product
of fine craftsmanship which can glorify the entire costume
which it crowns.
A complicated process it is, but this
is only half the story, because the styling of men's
hats is as complicated as their manufacture. The stylist
must watch the fashion spots in all parts of this country
and the world, carefully study men's clothing trends
and the trends in women's hats and clothes, for all
these things and many more are reflected in some way
in men's hats.
Then he must study orders from all
parts of the country to check consumer acceptance, whether
wide brims are being reordered, or light colors or sport
types or what-not, improve on best sellers of the past
season and balance off his proportion of new things
A WOOL FELT HAT
The quality and texture of the finished wool felt hat
varies widely according to the kind and grade of wool
used, just as fur felt hats vary according to the fur
"Noils," or short fine fibers
growing next to the pelt, are largely used in felt hat
making. The long fibers of the wool, known as "tops,"
are largely used in making wool textiles. However, some
percentage of the unseparated wool, combining both long
and short fibers, is used in making wool hats to bind
the noils and make a more durable felt.
The wool is scoured, decreased and
chemically treated to remove foreign substances. Following
mixture operations, the wool is formed into a hat body
in the carding machine, where the raw wool enters at
one end and emerges as a hat body at the other end.
Flimsy wool sheets are wrapped automatically around
cones until the body is large and fluffy, about 1 1/2
feet high and one inch thick.
The body then goes to the hardening
machine where the first processes of felting are begun.
From here on the process is largely one of shrinking,
done with a nicety and degree of control unthinkable
in the old days. Shrinking is done mainly with the multi-roller
machine. The number of times the body is passed through
the multi-roller determines to a large extent its tightness,
smoothness and consequent quality.
In the fulling mill giant hammers pound
and toughen the body. Several other operations finally
lead to the finishing processes.
All felt hats look similar at quick glance, and a customer
may wonder why one costs $25, another $50, $100 or more.
True, the difference can be seen and felt once he gets
them in his hand, and it shows up even more after months
of wearing. But the question remains: what makes hat
The major items of cost are the fur,
the trimmings, and, highly important, the workmanship.
Selection of the fur determines the tightness of the
felt and the sheen and resilience of the finish. It
comes in dozens of different grades of rabbit, hare,
nutria, beaver, etc., and may vary in price from $10
to $100 a pound. Each has its own property of felting
tightly or loosely, and the tighter the felt the more
"live" and shape-retaining the hat will be.
Certain portions of the fur, the backs of land animals,
the bellies of water animals, are superior in quality
and command a higher price. There is also the cheaper
"short stock" (reclaimed fur) and synthetic
fiber which acts as a filler but does nothing to tighten
the felt. They all make hats, but with a difference
in "feel" and in pride of appearance after
a little wear.
Workmanship counts more than you think.
The bodies may be rushed once through the shrinking
rollers, or run through repeatedly with constant inspection.
They may be "pounced" (shaved) once or several
times. Some special textures require double the finishing
time. The "felted edge" locks the brim shape
forever, but it also involves an incredible amount of
expert hand work.
Trimmings too, from cotton linings
to finest brial satin, from imitation leathers to fine
specially tanned roans, all determine cost and quality.
A fine band costs more, and is worth it. A reeded leather
helps cushion the head and resists perspiration stains;
it also adds to cost. These are visable qualities for
the life of the hat.
In showing hats of different qualities,
you'll do your customer a favor by explaining these