A couple of weeks ago I visited the Christys’ hat factory in Witney, outside Oxford. For more on the company, see previous post here. This is a step-by-step tour of the making process.
There are essentially two stages to making felt hats: felting and blocking. The first, known as the ‘wet’ side of hatting, is done at Christys’ factory in Stockport. It turns sheep wool or rabbit fur strands into felt cones. The cones, known as hoods or blanks, are then sent to Witney to be blocked into various sizes and styles.
You can see a basic hood and one slightly shaped hood above. Old hats were often just hoods with the sides or front turned up – Robin Hood is often pictured wearing one.
The first machine grips the raw hood and stretches it to the desired size, with the aid of steam. The metal grips around the edge can be adjusted depending on the size required.
Then the bladder press, which sets the crown of the hat. A metal mould corresponding to the desired shape is put in the bottom of the press, the hat placed inside, and a rubber ‘bladder’ lowered in. The bladder is filled with air, pushing the crown against the mould.
Now three stages of finishing for the crown. First, fine sandpaper is rubbed all around it to shave the felt down to a consistent length. Second, an identical machine rubs the surface with a waxed paper, giving the crown a silky finish. And third, the hat is spun around and brushed by hand, to remove any excess felt.
On to the brim. In the first of two cutting stages, the brim is cut down to a quarter inch larger than the desired width (here, 3¼ inches, as the Christys fedora I was having made has a 3-inch brim). The brim may shrink or expand during the curling process, but rarely by more than a quarter inch.
The curling of the brim is done in two stages – one mechanical (above), one rather more hands-on. It’s amazing how a quick spin and some steam can curl the edge, reducing its circumference but without any creases. Felt is an impressively versatile material.
After the mechanised stage, the hat is placed on a wooden flange that corresponds to the desired brim shape. Some of the old Christys flanges are beautiful – up to 150 years old and still going strong.
The hat and flange are covered in a white cloth and tied to keep them secure. Water is applied to the cloth and then the brim is ironed with an old-fashioned iron iron – ie, made of iron.
Then a huge sand bag is lowered on top of the hat and left for a few minutes, to finally set the shape of the brim in place.
Back for a final cut of the brim, to get the desired width now no more shrinking or expansion is likely.
And then the brim has a shave, wax and brush, just like the crown.
Upstairs, the leather sweatband is sewn into the inside of the hat, and the grosgrain hatband onto the outside. The machine used is like a normal flat-bed sewing machine, except it extends out on arm so the hat does not have to be bent in the process.