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How Hats are Made

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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 line.

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 hat.

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 felt.

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 and downy.

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 cone.

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 utmost care.

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 delicate.

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 mechanically stimulated.

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 facts.

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 principle.

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 show.

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 orders.

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 shops.

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 or novelties.

MAKING 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 mixture.

"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.

WHAT MAKES HAT QUALITY?

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 quality?

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 points.