Simple felt hats were made in Britain throughout the 17th and 18th centuries and all were made in the same way with the same materials, but fashion dictated how their shape was adapted. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, felt hats were decorated with feathers and the brim was curved in various ways, developing into bi-corn and tri-corn hats which, through their association with the French Revolution, became unfashionable during the 1780s.
Beaver fur was the best material from which to make felt hats. Beaver became extinct in Europe in the later middle ages, but it was hunted in North America during the 18th century and as a result it was almost extinct by the beginning of the 19th century. The fur was purchased from the native Americans as fresh pelts, but the most valuable were those which had been worn by the natives because the felting properties of these pelts were considered better than fresh ones.
Blankets made at Whitney, Oxfordshire were exchanged for beaver pelts and were marked with their value in number of pelts.
Beaver fur could be felted on its own or mixed with rabbit or hare fur and sometimes wool. It could be brushed to produce a smooth, shiny surface or a furry surface known as a nap. A layer of beaver fur could also be attached to a base of felt of other furs or wool.
Two factors reduced the popularity of beaver fur in hat making: the increase in price because of the near extinction of the animal and the popularity of the silk hat.
There is some evidence to suggest that there were centres of felt hat production in Wales, for example in Llangynfelin and Gors Goch, both Ceredigion, but there is no evidence that they produced tall Welsh hats with broad brims.
There is a tall felt hat, 21.5 cms high which may have been worn by a man or woman in Newport Museum, (NPTMG 37-109). Made by Rittson and Lawrence of London, probably early 19th century.
The only other known surviving hats made of felt during the 19th century are the safety hats worn by lead miners. These were strengthened with clay or resin. There are several examples in Ceredigion Museum.
Felt Welsh hats
It is probable that the earliest Welsh hats were made of felt.
There is only one known surviving Welsh hat made entirely of felt. It is 22 cms high (Ceredigion Museum AYH1761). It is not known where or when this was made.
There is a Welsh hat made of felt and covered (or plated) in silk plush (Ceredigion Museum 1999.99.6)
William Cherry of Buckland wrote to Dr Powell of Nanteos in 1820, asking questions about the hats worn by the Welsh, in particular their method of manufacture, but the reply does not survive. (NLW, Nanteos, 543). There were probably other centres of felt hat making in Wales, but little information about the industry has survived.
1843 (Description of different types of felt hats)
IMPORTANT TO BUYERS OF HATS from THOMAS INGLIS, BEAVER & SILK HAT MANUFACTURER, 11, COMMERCIAL STREET, NEWPORT, OPPOSITE THE WESTGATE HOTEL,
AMIDST the mass of information daily presented to the public in the shape of Periodicals, &c., in which are exposed to public view the science, the mystery, and art of the various branches of British Manufacture, there is no branch of Manufacture about which the public know so little-no article of dress, of the quality of which the people are so little informed, as a HAT. This want of information acts as a screen to prevent the detection of unprincipled Dealers; thus, whilst the public are imposed on, the honest Manufacturer is injured in his trade. HATS are usually divided by Manufacturers into two kinds, viz., Beaver and Silk, of which there are different qualities, according to the difference of material of which they are composed. BEAVER HATS are divided into STUFFS, SHORT NAPS, and PLATES the former range in price from I2s, to 21s.; the bodies of these are composed of Rabbit Fur, Saxony and Spanish Wools, &c., stiffened with varnish composed of various gum resins, dissolved in alcohol, by which they are rendered waterproof; the Nap is composed of Beaver, Newtre, Hares’ fur, &c. which is regulated according to the price at which the article is sold; a good one.5.be known by the fineness and evenness of make, particularly it should be firm in the brim and square, or edge of the crown, and when held in the hand by the brim, with the crown upwards, should easily bear its own weight.
SHORT NAPS are an imitation of the Stuff Hat; the bodies are usually composed of Saxony Wool alone, and the nap composed of Newtre, Musk, and Hares’ Fur; the stiffening is similar to that of the Stuff Hat, and manner of judging it the same they are often sold for Stuff Hats, and in some instances the imitation is so good, that they cannot be detected by a judge, without the precaution of raising the leather, when the interior surface of the Hat presents a roughness not to be found in the Stuff Hat they range in price from 8s. to 12s.
The other kind of Beaver Hat is called the WATERPROOF PLATED, or FUR HAT; the body is composed of English Wool, stiffened with varnish composed of gums similar to those used in the Manufacture of Stuff Hats; the nap is composed of the fur of the Rabbit and the Hare; their quality is known in the same way as the Stuff Hat; they usually range in price from 4s. to 7s., and are a good article when properly made, but there is a spurious imitation of this article usually sold by Drapers, against which the public will do well to take care they resemble in outward appearance the Waterproof Plated or Fur Hat, and their chief difference is, that instead of being stiffened with waterproof varnish, they are stiffened with paste and glue in dry weather they become hard, and break and in wet weather they become soft, and lose their shape, the wet drawing the glue into the nap, they are spoiled. In order to detect this imposition, raise up the lining—it they are stiffened with varnish, the inside surface will be clean and black, but if stiffened with glue it will be of a dirty-whitish colour, encrusted with the paste and glue; those glue-stiffened Hats are, therefore, not worth anything, however well they are made.
Best Beaver Hats, 21s
Excellent Stuff ditto, 12s. to 20s
Short Nap ditto, 8s. 6d. to 12s.
Waterproof Plated ditto, 3s. 6d., 4s. 6d, to 8s.
Felted or Shell Hats, 4s. 6d. to 7s.
Monmouthshire Merlin, 19.8.1843
Making beaver hats was profitable work at one time. I knew two brothers at the top of the parish who were successful at the craft. There was an abundance of beavers in the River Teifi at one time and they were caught and their skins sold to the hatters. The hats were made at home and taken, in large boxes on their backs, throughout the country to be sold, but the craft has died out now. Some of the tools which were used are still in the possession of the family.
Rev. Evan Edwardes, Byr Hanes am Blwyf Nantcwnlle (A Short History of the Parish of Nantcwnlle, Ceredigion), Cambrian News Aberystwyth, Ltd., 1930. Translated by Jenni Hyatt, July 2003, pp. 15
Beavers became extinct in Britain during the 16th century, so the suggestion in this account that locally caught beaver fur was used in the manufacture of hats is very unlikely. However, hats may have been made in the area of other furs.
Nineteenth Century Hat Maker’s and Felter’s Manuals (Compiled and published by Suzanne Pufpaff, 1995)
The book includes reprints of “The Hat Makers Manual”, London, 1829; “A Treatise on Hat-Making and Felting” by John Thomson, Philadelphia and London, 1868; and prints from “L’Art de Faire des Chapeaux” by Jean Antoine Nollet, Paris, 1765.
Kell, Emmie. Fashion and the felt hat 1770-1820. Thesis Submitted 2000, National Art Library, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.