The Fur Trade
The Beaver Hat
Making a Beaver Hat

Felting a Beaver Hat

The making of a beaver hat included three main stages of production; preparing the pelt, felting the fur, and shaping and dying the hat.  This process involved a multi-step division of labor, the bulk of which was done by journeymen underneath the supervision of a master hatter.  For example, in Rouen, France, 1752, 18 master hatters employed 100 journeymen, not counting the women who also participated in the manufacturing process.[1]  Although there were hat making industries throughout Europe, the two prime regions for the production of beaver hats were France and England.  After the severe depletion of the European beaver populations in the 16th century, the only remaining supply of beaver was located in the northern part of the North American continent.  Although the Dutch also had some access to the beaver supply through their North American colonies, the England and French North American colonies dominated the fur trade.  As a result, England and France were able to supply their home hatting industries with their near exclusive access to the beaver supply in North America.

Stage 1: Preparing the Pelt

    The prime beaver fur with which to make felted beaver hats comes from beaver trapped in the winter months.  Beaver fur consists of two types of hair, the coarse outer guard hair and the soft underfur, called beaver wool (also know as duvet). (image courtsey of http://www.facesoftheprairie.com/


 1.  The Pelts
 Pelts imported from North America came in three general forms:  Castor gras (also known as coat), Castor sec (also known as  parchment), and bandeau.

Castor gras were pelts that had been trapped in the winter, worn by  Native American trappers through the trapping season, and had generally lost their guard hairs.  Fur, like all other hair, has a scaly keratin outer layer that helps in the felting process.  (image or human keratin structure courtesy of: http://www.wellesley.edu) Although the keratin on beaver fur makes it naturally inclined to felt, when the keratin structure is broken down through contact with human perspiration, it further encourages the felting process.  As a result, castor gras were highly desirable because there were fewer guard hairs to be removed and the wool required little extra processing before felting.

Castor sec referred to pelts that had been skinned and scraped clean, but not worn  prior to exportation.  Because the beaver skin had not been softened by time and human sweat, these pelts were stiff and generally more labor intensive to deal with.  All of the guard hairs had to be removed and the beaver wool had to be separated. Due to their familiarity with the European beaver, the Russians developed a combing technique that facilitated the separation of the beaver wool from the guard hairs.  Closely guarding the combing technique as a trade secret, the Russians were able to process imported castor sec and then sell the combed pelts back to the Western European market.

Bandeau were the least desirable pelts.  They were not necessarily scraped clean prior to shipment, and could be rotted by the time they arrived in Europe.

2.  Pulling and Shaving
The first step in processing was to pull out all of the remaining guard hairs, and then tear or shave the beaver wool off of the pelt.  Once removed from the pelt, the resulting balls of beaver wool were referred to as beaver fluff. 

This step was often done by women, as the work was not considered skilled, and thus earned a lower wage.  Women could either be employed in their own right, or brought into the trade as wage-less labor by husbands or fathers who worked as journeymen or master hatters

3.  Carroting  
Discovered in the early 18th century, the carroting technique was applied to rabbit fur to make the felting process easier.  It entailed the application of a solution of mercury salts diluted in nitric acid to either the pelt or fluff.  The chemicals dissolved some of the keratin scales on the fur (much like the human sweat did for the castor sec pelts), which would make them interlock more easily in the felting process.  Carroting was increasingly applied beaver fur, but could not be done so without a loss in the quality.   This process tended to color the fur orange, hence the name.

The application of steam to fur in the felting process released mercury fumes into the air.  Inhaled by hatters, the wafting mercury fumes had the detrimental effect of  poisoning those working with material.  The resulting mercury poisoning from hat production caused serious damage to the nervous system.  It has been suggested that the term "mad as a hatter" derived from the effects of mercury poisoning that were particularly high in the hat industry.   (image courtesy of: http://www.ericharshbarger.org/)

4.  Mixing, Weighing and Sorting
At this point in the process, the fluff would be sorted by color and perhaps mixed with castor gras to redistribute the coat beaver's oils into the fluff.  Each color would be weighed and carded, a process that agitates the fur and prepares it for felting.

Stage 2: The Felting Process

Felting is a general term for the application of moisture and agitation to fur or fibers, in such a way that they tangle and shrink together to create a pliable piece of material.

1.  Bowing
In this stage, the fur was agitated in order to begin the felting process, and to release  dirt and tangles from the fur.  In a draft free room, so as to prevent the fluff from being blow about, the fluff was laid out on a table with holes of slots cut into the surface.  A Hatter's bow, resembling a large violin bow was passed over the top of the piles of fluff, while the journeyman plucked the string.  This agitated the fibers and caused them to mat together.  This process both caused the fluff to bond together and encouraged the heavier particles of dirt to fall through the slots in the table and to the floor.  The resulting product was called a "batt  in English, and capades in France.  The fluff was bowed separately in two large bats, which made up the body of the hat, and two smaller bats, which were used for finishing joints and details. (image originally from Pancoucke's Encyclopedia, courtesy of www.hatshapers.com)

2.  Basoning
The batts were covered with damp cloth or leather and placed on top of each other     over a small heat source.  The heat and moisture would encourage further bonding, condensing, and shrinking of the batt.  At this point, an elementary shaping of the fabric would be begin.

 3.  Planking
Planking involved placing the shrunken bats into a headed metal basin filled with a mixture of wine waste, sediment, and hot water.  Conducted by fouleurs, the felts were agitated both by hand and stirring planks in order to cause them to shrink and felt. (image originally from Pancoucke's Encyclopedia, courtesy of www.hatshapers.com)

4.  Drying and Blocking

Once removed from the planking stage, the felts were stretched tight over wooden molds to be shaped and dry (blocking).

Stage 3:  Finishing

The finishing stage involved manipulating the hat body into the fully finished hat.  At this point in the process, the heavy manipulation of the hat body was generally done by journeymen (approprieurs), and the finishing and detailing, by either journeymen or women.

1. Trimming and Dying
The hat bodies would be heated over a fire and rubbed with a pumice stone to                 produce a nice external surface, trimmed, and sent to be dyed.

2. Waterproofing and Stiffening 
After dying, the application of a stiffening agent with steam would help to seal and create the final  shape of the hat.

3. Trimming
Trimming refers to the general finishing, lining, and detailing, usually done by                 women, that comprised the final stages of hat making. (image courtesy of http://catspahamas1.chainreactionweb.com/catalog)



[1] Michael Sonenscher, The Hatters of Eighteenth Century France, (Berkeley,CA: University of California Press), 41


-Crean, J. F.  “Hats and the Fur Trade.” The Canadian Journal of Economics and
            Political Science
28, no. 3, (August, 1962): 373-386

-Grant, Hugh.  "Revenge of the Paris Hat: The European Craze for Wearing Headgear             Had a Profound Effect on Canadian History."  Beaver (December 1988-    
            January 1989): 37-44

-Sonenscher, Michael.  The Hatters of Eighteenth Century France.  Berkeley, CA:                     University of California Press, 1987.  The hat making process is discussed                     in-depth in Chapter 3, "Customs and Conflict."

-Hat Shapers http://www.hatshapers.com/Felting%20Info.htm

-The White Oak Society Website, http://www.whiteoak.org/learning/furhat.htm

-The Felt Lady http://yurtboutique.com/beaver.htm