In the upper reaches of the Aude valley the manufacturing of woollen hats is a practice that has been carried out since the 19th century. Thanks to their high professional standards, the hatters have acquired a worldwide reputation, and today’s craftsmen are still practising this traditional trade with the same passion.
The manufacturing of a felt hat consists of several steps! (for direct access, please use the right menu).
THE RAW MATERIAL
Two types of wool are used for the raw material : One coming from the sheep’s fleece, which gives the wool its solidity. the other, short fibres from the spinning which gives it its softness.Once all the impurities have been removed, the wools are mixed together. This is the first step of the transformation of the wool into its bell shape.
THE TREADING WORKSHOP
Once the mixing has dried out and packed down the wool, the latter is sprinkled with a mixture of oil and water in order for it to regain its elasticity and softness.
Then the wool is carded ; The machine’s cards transform the wool into a sheet of just 1mm thick which is then wound around and layered up into a soft mattress.
THE WINDING UP
This mattress is then carded a second time ; This mattress is then carded a second time. A finer sheet is thus obtained which must then be wound up through a double wooden plank. Two cones will then be made, their weight varying depending on the model of hat. This delicate operation demands that the craftsman be very nimble-fingered, the difficulty being in crossing the sheet over extremely evenly in order to ensure that the bell-shape is of the highest quality.
These bell-shapes made up from a plumped–up, airy sheet will be given their first felting. Once the whole surface has been steamed and compressed, the material will become dense and solid. The heat makes the job trying, the smaller the bell-shapes, the greater the number and the faster the rhythm.
THE CHECKING OF THE THICKNESS
The thickness of the bell-shapes must be perfectly uniform. This is checked by their transparency ; Next, the edges are evened-off using a saw.
The bell-shapes then undergo a second felting by being passed between 14 and 18 times in hot water doused with sulphuric acid.
Tanned by two wooden sledgehammers before and after the dyeing, the bell-shapes will shrink to the desired shapes. This is the third felting.
The dying process takes place in a hot bath. A rotating movement ensures that the colours are spread evenly.
At this stage, the bell-shapes are too pointed, and so after being softened with steam, they are rounded off.
Once they have been stretched, the bell-shapes will reach their final shape and size ; This operation was hand-performed for many years although it was made incredibly difficult because of the heat of the felt.
Once they have been well dried out in the steamroom, the bell-shapes are delicately polished using sandpaper. The bells must be smoothed without being burnt. Now all that is left is to dust them down and leave them to rest.
The colouring is now over.
THE MAKING OF THE SHAPE
In order for all these identical bell-shapes to be transformed into wide-brimmed hats, bowler hats, top hats and others, the shaper will make blocks of aluminium between which they will be shaped.
First of all he prepares a plaster model which is made up of three elements : A male part made up of a head and a separate body, and a female counterpart made up of one piece.
Between the male and female parts, a space is created for the thickness of the hat. Each element is installed in an under-frame filled with tightly-packed sand. The shaper delicately taps the plaster away without distorting the imprints. He then carefully places the three under-frames one on top of the other in a pre-heated oven for 5 hours so that the aluminium reaches 500°. It is then time to pour it.
Ten minutes after the pouring, the pieces are ready to be removed from the mould. Once they have been well-adjusted and whitened, they will be sent to the fitting department.
The fitters will transform the felt bells into finished hats. Depending on the model, we dress the bell by coating it with a solution of good lacquer on the head and on the brim.
THE WIDENING OF THE BRIM
Once again the bell is steamed, it thus gets wider and becomes a wide-brimmed hat.
At this stage, the bell enters its final transformation into a hat. Depending on the proportions determined by the model, the separation is marked between the head and the brim. In past times, the dressing of the brim was carried-out by hand on boiling felt, making this job very trying.
The task of shaping the hat can be carried out in one of two ways:
The pedal press: The well-steamed hat will take its shape between heated blocks of aluminium. It is fixed to the upper block and then it is pressed onto the second block until it is perfectly dry. The hat has now reached its final shape.
The hydraulic press: the hat is placed head-down against a female block and heated by steam. Under the strong water pressure a rubber membrane will hold it against its mould and the hat takes its final shape.
The head and the brims of the hats are shaven. A lot of know-how and an excellent eye are necessary to give a hat a perfect finish. Worked either by sandpaper or the skin of dogfish, it is here that the suede or satin looks are obtained.
The act of trimming the brims requires a nimble-fingered and accurate, skilled worker: this step gives the hat its final allure.
THE FINISHING TOUCHES
Refined fashion accessories, we apply our finishing touches to the hats:
Stitching of the brim.
• Application of the maker’s label or badge onto the leather with fine gold.
Placing of the braid.
Placing of the inner lining and leather.
Stitching of the leather.
For one last time, the hat is subjected to a blast of steam in order to give it its final shape.
The hatters of Chapeaux de France have been masters of this complex process for more than a century.