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Making felt Cowboy hats

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Hat Making
Felt hats

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 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 hats can be made either of fur felt (medium or high price) or wool felt (low price). Fur felt hats are chiefly made of rabbit fur. Some hare fur is used to make better felt hats, and is often mixed with rabbit fur to produce hats in various medium price grades. Beaver and nutria are usually used in the best felt hats, and muskrat also supplies raw material for hat making.

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 hat.

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. Various grades of fur from the form, such as cheeks, flanks, sides, entire, center backs, etc., and packed in different paper bags for storage. Cut fur is considered as "long stock," while recovered fur, such as from hat trimmings for roundings, is called "shortstock".

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 felt 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 revolved slowly. It is perforated, and an exhaust fan beneath it sucks the air, and the loose fur, in the chamber down to the cone.

The fur for one felt 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 felt hat, and so delicate that is 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 felt hat, it is so tightly felted that a strong man cannot pull it apart.

This is hard and painstaking work which 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.

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 temperatures, 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 felt 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 of 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 felt 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 felt hat is rubbed with sandpaper many times, the number depending upon the smoothness sought.

Finally the felt hat is trimmed, the leather, lining and band sewed on, all of which must be done with care because the workmanship shows.


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Cowboy Hats Store is the original online western cowboy hat store, offering a tasteful variety of men’s, women's and children's hats. We have been in the hat business for over 30 years, are family owned and operated, and committed to providing our customers with quality hats coupled with unsurpassed service. Our store sells only those hats that meet our superior standards; and will therefore provide you, the customer, with years of wearing pleasure. We stock an abundant selection of all your favorite hat brands; including Stetson, Charlie 1 Horse, Resistol, Bailey and more. Our online store has every imaginable hat style in both felt and straw; whether you are shopping for classic, hunting, old west, Australian outback, presoiled, palm leaf straw, cattleman, frontier, gus, or Tom Mix hats. We also offer an attractive selection of western military hats including cavalry, campaign and civil war hats and caps. Our professional sales personnel can help answer any questions you may have and make your online hat purchase a pleasurable shopping experience.

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