The Welsh Hat, Y Het Gymreig
This page includes:
- Origins of the Welsh hat (see also Theories on the origin of the Welsh hat)
- Size and shape
- north Wales type
- south Wales type
- Other names for Welsh hats: stove-pipe, chimney pot, steeple crowned, witch’s
- Surviving hats
- Materials (see also felt hats, straw hats, silk hats)
- The Date of Welsh hats (see also the end of the Welsh hat)
- Marketing Welsh hats
- Distribution of Welsh hats
A gargoyle of a woman in a Welsh hat on the east side of the Old College, Aberystwyth
- Who wore the Welsh hat?
- Makers of Welsh hats
- The price of Welsh hats
- Welsh doll hats
- cockle hats; coal scuttle hats
- sugar-loaf hats
- Hats worn by women in Alms Houses
- Anglesea hat
- Welsh gentry and Welsh hats
- Souvenir Welsh hats
- Eisteddfod Prizes for Welsh hats and a poem about them
It is extremely rare to see an 18th or 19th century image of a rural working woman in Wales not wearing a hat. At the very least, she is normally shown wearing a cotton or linen cap, but generally, women wore a ‘man’s’ hat, a Welsh hat, or one of a variety of working or fashionable hats. Of all of these, very few survive except the Welsh hat, of which over 350 are in public or private collections.
Very little has been published about the Welsh hat: indeed until about 2005, very little was known about the number of surviving examples, places of manufacture, construction and date: the last of these is still uncertain. See Freeman, Michael, (2006), The Welsh Hat (in both Welsh and English)
By the 1830s the distinctive traditional Welsh costume was joined by the Welsh hat, which appeared during the 1830s (as if out of nowhere) apparently replacing the ‘man’s’ hat of felt, which rural working women in Wales wore before that date. The evidence suggests that by the 1840s, those who wore a gown or bedgown in Wales also wore a Welsh hat.
Most of the surviving Welsh hats were made of the same materials and with the same techniques, and by some of the same firms as the almost ubiquitous Top Hat, about which, also, very little has been published. The main difference between them is that the underside of the brim on a Welsh hat is covered in silk plush, while that on many top hats is coated in felt.
The Welsh hat was expensive and fragile and its size made it awkward to wear and store. It couldn’t be repaired easily, nor was it made particularly distinctive by adding coloured ribbons and other decoration as other hats were (the ribbons on Welsh hats varied a little in material and size, but were almost always black).
Unlike most fashionable clothes, it seems that Welsh hats were passed down from one generation to the next over a period of 100 years or more. As a result, more Welsh hats survive than any other sort of hat, despite their size and fragility.
There is no obvious explanation as to why the Welsh hat became so quickly adopted not only as a very distinctive item of dress but as a icon of Wales. However, it is possible that its simple and unique shape made it easy to identify with Wales, and it was soon used in cartoons (e.g. in Punch magazine) to represent Wales.
The black silk on some Welsh hats has faded to brown
Photographs taken from above a Welsh hat can make it appear to be cylindrical. These two photographs above are of the same hat.
ORIGINS OF THE WELSH HAT
The Welsh hat is similar in shape to the felt hat worn without decoration by Puritans in Britain between about 1620 and 1640 and by others, with decoration, during much of the 17th century: these, however, were made of felt and had a floppy curved brim. Simple felt hats were made 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.
There are no obvious precursors for the Welsh hat with its stiff broad flat brim and flat top: even if it had developed from the Puritan hat, there are no explanations why it should suddenly re-appear and become popular in the 1830s, nearly 200 years after the Puritan hat went out of vogue. It is, however, possible that whoever conceived the first conical silk-covered Welsh hats thought that the Welsh should wear a version of the Puritan hat as a symbol of piety.
In the absence of any other evidence it seems likely that the Welsh hat developed from a variety of existing hats worn by women in Wales, but developed its distinctive shape as a result of the availability of new materials and new methods of manufacture.
Before about 1830, women in Wales were frequently reported to have worn men’s hats, although it is not clear whether there were of a type restricted to Wales, or also found in England. The Welsh hat might have developed from a combination of low-crowned hats with broad, flat brims, tall hats with narrow brims and medium height hats with broad brims. The ‘Cumberland’ Top hat which was tall and narrowing towards the top, resembled tapered crowns of women’s hats in this period.
Salmon Netting in Wales, oil painting by Hugh Hughes, about 1840 which shows two coracle men wearing hats on which the Woman’s Welsh hat might have been based.
When Princess Victoria and her mother visited north Wales in 1832 they both wore ‘Welsh’ hats when passing through Bangor ‘in compliment to the fair maids of Cambria’ but no illustrations or descriptions of these hats are known. They may have been like ‘The Anglesea’ hat, but it is possible that they were like the one with a broad brim and almost vertical sides worn by the doll dressed in ‘Cambrian costume’, now in the Royal collections, said to have been presented to Princess Victoria during her visit.
On the Duchess’ birthday [17th August], their Royal Highnesses made their public entry into Bangor in an open carriage; and on this occasion, they appeared, in compliment to the fair maids of Cambria, in the head-dress of the country, the Welsh hat, which national costume the ingenuous countenance of the Heiress Presumptive well became.
Victoria; An Anecdotal Memoir of Her Majesty. (1837); Carnarvon Herald and North Wales Advertiser, 11.8.1832; North Wales Chronicle, 21.8.1832
(see also Theories on the origin of the Welsh hat)
SIZE AND SHAPE
Unlike the man’s top hat, the Welsh hat didn’t change shape, nor did it become higher during the 19th century. There were two main shapes:
The camera has distorted the shape of this hat – it is slightly narrower at the top than at the brim. It is 17.6 cms high. This example was made by Thomas Townend and Co of London.
Most are about 18-20 cms (7-8 ins) high and 33-38 cms (13-15 ins) maximum width.
Crossing the Sands (Barmouth), by William Collins, 1835
This is one of the earliest known representation of Welsh hats. They were probably made of felt. ‘The ‘Welsh Peasants” were represented crossing the Barmouth Sands on horseback; the sea and the hills beyond forming the background. The principal figures were women, dressed in that curious national costume of which a man’s hat forms the most eccentric portion.’ William Wilkie Collins, (1848) Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, Esq., R.A. (by his son, the novelist), pp. 45, 47.
This picture was also produced as a line engraving by W. Radclyffe after W. Collins. R.A. Circa 1860.
Most of the surviving examples are about 19-22 cms (8½ to 9½ inches) high and 32-40 cms (12½ – 15½ inches) maximum width.
This shape of Welsh hat didn’t change as other fashionable items did (the top hat changed shape throughout the 19th century). It is possible that they were made for a very short period, but because they were treasured by their owners and their heirs, they continued in use for much longer than any other type of hat. It is this shape which became adopted as part of a ‘national’ costume: Welsh hats made after the silk Welsh hat went out of production (possibly in the 1880s), normally copied this shape.
The Rev. John Blackwell who wrote an essay on Welsh costume in 1834, distinguished between these two shapes of hat:
One of the first things that attracts the notice of a stranger in the Principality is the general custom among the females of wearing hats. In some districts sufficient distinction is not observed between the male and female hat. The women of Anglesey and Dyfed, however, show a superior taste in this matter. In Dyfed, the brim of the female hat is rather broad, and the body of it inclines to a cone as it approaches the crown. In Anglesey and Meirion, smaller hats are worn by the women than the men, and these look extremely well.
[By Dyfed, he probably meant parts of Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire, not the whole of the area which was an administrative county between 1974 and 1996.]
The Rev John Blackwell, ‘On the Advantages Resulting from the Preservation of the Welsh Language and the National Costumes of Wales.’ The Welsh version was published anonymously under the title ‘Gwisgaid y Cymru in Cylchgrawn y Gymdeithas er Taenu Gwybodaeth Fuddiol am 1834, dan olygiad y Parch John Blackwell, B.A., (Llanymddyfri, gan D.R. and W. Rees, 1834), pp. 274-276; This was published in English, as a translation from the Welsh in Beauties of Alun; being the Literary Remains, in Welsh and English, of the late The Rev John Blackwell, B.A., (Ruthin and London, 1851)
It has been suggested that the Welsh hat became taller over time but there is no evidence to support this. Some of the early prints show very tall, narrow hats but these may be an exaggerated: for example, see some of Rock and Co.’s prints of the 1850s. Some 20th century photographs show very large tall hats, they are very rare and were probably home-made.
Coloured postcard of Women in Welsh costume spinning and taking tea, c. 1900. The hats shown in this photograph are the tallest recorded, but no hats in these proportions are known to have survived
(Ceredigion Museum : 1993.160.7m)
OTHER TERMS APPLIED TO WELSH HATS
Welsh hats are sometimes referred to as Welch hats, especially by Christys, the makers in Stockport.
Occasionally, Welsh hats are referred to in Welsh as cwcwll tal [i.e. tall cockle hats]
Stove-pipe or chimney pot hats
The Welsh hat has been called the stove-pipe or chimney stack hat but this applies to tall top hats with parallel sides, made popular by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln: nearly all Welsh hats are conical to some degree.
Steeple crowned hats or witch’s hats
The term steeple crowned hat was also applied to Welsh hats but is inaccurate since the name implies that they were pointed, like a witch’s hat. These are also sometime known as a Mother Goose or Mother Shipton hat. The Welsh hat was sometimes described as a witch’s hat which is said to have been derived from the mediaeval head-dress known as a hennin. A few cartoons of Welsh women in pointed hats are known, and a few photographs taken between the first and second World Wars show women and girls in Wales wearing pointed hats.
The term high-peaked hat has also been used to describe Welsh hats.
One of only two photographs of Welsh hats in the three volume history of the Urdd (Welsh League of Youth) is of a woman in a pointed (witch’s) hat.
Griffith, R.E., (1971), Urdd Gobaith Cymru, cyfrol 1 (1922-1945); Griffith, R.E., (1972), Urdd Gobaith Cymru, cyfrol 2 (1946-1960); Griffith, R.E., (1973), Urdd Gobaith Cymru, cyfrol 3 (1960-1972); Davies, Gwennant, (1973), The Story of the Urdd, 1922-1972
In a letter suggesting that Welsh costume should be worn during a Royal visit to Wales in 1868 from Robert Herbert Williams of Menai Bridge to Llewelyn Turner, Mayor of Caernarfon the writer refers to a het Carlisle.
Let it be the real old costume – gown stwff, het Carlisle, a chap wedi cwilio, and do not object to anyone who might appear in the pais a bedgwn. [gown of stuff (a type of wool), Carlisle hat (presumably a Welsh hat), a hidden cap, and skirt and bedgown] North Wales Chronicle (Bangor, Wales), April 18, 1868
Just over 300 Welsh hats are known to have survived. 180 are in Museums, mostly in Wales, and the remainder are in private collections. Only 60 have maker’s labels (the label is normally on the lining of the crown which is easily removed). Of these 24 were made in Bristol; 13 by Christys of London and Stockport; 3 were made in London; 9 have Paris labels; 6 were made in Wales and another 5 were probably made in Wales. Many of those with no label are very similar to those made in Bristol or by Christys.
Many are in poor condition: the most vulnerable parts – the edges of the top of the crown and the edge of the brim – are well worn, as is often the upper face of the brim (but not the top of the hat). Many have lost their internal lining, which was often of paper and silk, on which the maker’s name was printed.
Unlike top hats, Welsh hats do not appear to have been sold with boxes to keep them in.
Distinctive features of hats made by Christys and Carver
Christys made some hats with blue or brown silk head-bands with diamond-shaped quilting or plain brown cotton headbands with a draw-string.
Carver and Co made hats with broad flannel hat-bands between 7 and 8 cms broad with out bows. They also had crimson or cream silk-covered head-bands with either wavy or straight quilting. It is possible that it was Carver who made hats with diagonally striped cotton head-bands. (none of the four seen have labels, but one has a broad flannel hat-band.
The earliest Welsh hats were probably originally made of felt (known as beaver, but not necessarily made of beaver fur). Most surviving examples are of silk plush (also sometimes known as beaver) on a stiffened buckram base. It is possible that some Welsh hat shaped hats were made of straw.
It is not known when silk on buckram was first used for Welsh hats but the term ‘glossy beaver’ in reference to Welsh hats was used in a newspaper report in 1834, which may indicate that the hat was of silk rather than felt.
The Cambrian, 17 May, 1834 and repeated in The North Wales Chronicle and Advertiser for the Principality on 27th May
The term ‘beaver’ and its French equivalent, ‘castor’ was applied to many hats, not just those made of beaver fur. Some Welsh hats have been described as being made of beaver skin, mole skin or seal skin, but there is no evidence that any of these materials were used in Welsh hats.
Felt was the most popular material for most hats until the end of the 18th century, and although these could be made to be stiff and waterproof, it was difficult (but possible) to get a sharp edge at the top and bottom of the crown because it was made on one piece of felt. The top hat and the Welsh hat have sharp edges, and this was possible because the structure was made of three pieces of material: the brim, the sides of the crown and the top. This provides an explanation for the difference between the soft shape of the Puritan or Quaker hat and the hard shape of the Welsh hat, which used top hat manufacturing techniques.
This is also known as silk-shag, hat-shag, hatters’ plush and melusine and is also officially known as ‘beaver’. (Fairchild’s Dictionary of Textiles, 1979, p. 54) It consists of a flat pile of strands of silk, about 5mm long, attached to a cotton back-cloth. It was attached to a hat made of felt or buckram and brushed to make it smooth and shiny and to cover the joints between the fabric.
Ceredigion Museum had one Welsh hat which was in such poor condition that it was decided to take it apart to discover how it was made. Nearly all the hats examined so far, made by Christys and Carver and Co, appear to have been made in the same way as this.
Top hats and Welsh hats had a structure made of linen, often buckram – a coarse fabric made of linen which was strengthened (and waterproofed) with resin or shellac. The resin or shellac melted and acted as an adhesive when the silk plush was ironed in place.
The sides of the crown were made of two very thin layers of linen buckram coated with natural resin. The brim and the top of the crown were made of thicker layers of buckram. A thin layer of buckram was sandwiched between the two layers of the brim and also between the two layers of the sides thus joining the two together. At the top, the inner layer of the crown was folded inwards and stuck onto the inside of the top of the crown.
Although Welsh hats made by Welsh hatters were made in a very similar way to those made in England, the Welsh ones may normally be distinguished by the way the silk plush has been attached to the brim. The English examples normally have the upper and lower surface of the brim covered in one piece of silk, with the fabric stretched so that the fibres of the cotton backing is curved.
Those made in Wales generally have one piece on the upper surface of the brim and another on the underside, with straight joints.
The straight allignment of the cotton backing for the silk plush is evident in this photograph.
One hat made by Christys‘ has the plush attached in this way.
The upper and lower covering of the brim was made of one piece of silk plush carefully stretched over the edge, with a narrow lip folded up onto the inner and outer faces of the crown.
The fabric was stretched so that the alignment of the threads of the fabric were curved: this is clear on many well worn hats.
The position of the this curved joint is clearly marked on the buckram as is the pattern of the cotton fabric onto which the silk was attached.
One edge of the joint was folded about 2mm under the other and sewn together.
Tiny holes around the edge of the brim show that the thread that held the edging trim in place was sewn right through the brim.
The side of the crown was covered in one piece of fabric, with a straight diagonal joint: the scratch mark on the body of the crown suggests that this was cut in situ.
The bottom edge of the fabric just covered the edge of the plush on the brim which was folded up onto the crown. The plush on the top of the crown is sewn to the plush on the sides, and the joint brushed over. This joint often gets badly worn, exposing the fine sewing.
It is likely that the various pieces of buckram were cut to shape, fitted over a wooden mould and coated with resin. Then the silk plush was cut to fit and fixed in place with an iron which melted the resin, causing it to act as an adhesive.
There must have been several sizes of mold: several hats have chalk or pencil marks on the inside which may record the hat size.
Hat band (ribbon around the crown)
It has been suggested that the broad band of crepe around the base of the crown on some hats was a symbol of mourning and this may be so but many Welsh hats originally had broad felt bands around the base of the crown, and these may have been replaced at a later date by more ornate ribbons. The ribbon was added and changed as a means of decorating the hat, but it had a more practical use – to hide the rather irregular joint between the brim and the crown where about one centimeter of the silk plush from the brim was folded up onto the crown and often became crinkled as a result.
On all surviving hats and in most drawings and photographs, the ribbon is made of a variety of sizes and fabrics but was nearly always black. However, some visitors record that these were coloured and a few early 20th century photographs confirm this. A bow in the ribbon, if present, was normally worn on the wearer’s left-hand-side.
There is almost no evidence of coloured ribbons or any other decoration worn on on Welsh hats.
A head band was inserted just inside the crown. This was often covered in quilted silk, with a padding of canvas. Some had a narrow, springy piece of wood sewn into the top of the band which stopped it falling in when not being worn. Some also had string ties which enabled the wearer to adjust the size of the headband to suit their needs. A few headbands were made of leather. Head bands can be an indicator of whether the hat was made by Carver and Co. of Bristol or Christys.
The ribbon ties
The ribbon used to tie the hat to the head varied in detail, and few of the originals survive. By far the majority are of black cotton or silk. Illustrations suggest that towards the end of the 19th century, broad ribbons were used and the bow became a prominent, ornamental feature. One illustration by John Thomas (JTXB014) suggests that such ribbons were also attached to the caps.
Linings from Carver and Co hats
Linings from Christy’s hats
The crown was often lined with a piece of paper loosely rolled into a cylinder so that it sprung out to fit the crown. A loose cotton lining covered the inside of the paper and was sewn to it around the top. In the inside of the top of the lining was a disc of cotton or silk on which the maker’s name was printed. The lining was not attached in any way to the main body of the hat and only about one-third of the surviving hats have the lining in place.
THE DATE OF WELSH HATS
The evidence suggests that Welsh hats were first identified as being unique, in north Wales in 1832 when Princess Victoria wore one during a visit. However, it is not certain what type of hat tourists were meant by ‘men’s hats’ and this might have included what later became known as the Welsh Hat.
It has proved very difficult to date surviving Welsh hats; they were certainly being produced in significant numbers during the 1840s (as evidenced by the number of illustrations of them). It is possible that they went out of production only a decade or so later, but were worn by succeeding generations for many decades after that. The large number of surviving Welsh hats (over 300 are known) implies that they were invested with much more than being just an expensive fashion item.
It is almost impossible to date actual examples of Welsh hats since they were all made in a very similar way with the same materials and both the main English firms were in existence both before and after the dates when Welsh hats were known to be made. The only hats which can be dated with certainty to before 1850 are the two know examples James James of 139 Regent Street, London, with the tradename Ivyleafe: he moved from that address in 1850. It should be possible to determine when the makers, whose names appear inside some hats, were active, but this may not help us date other Welsh hats precisely. There may be Welsh hats in America, Australia, Patagonia and other places where the Welsh emigrated which can be dated because the date of the emigration is known.
Visitors’ and other accounts of Wales record that the tall silk Welsh hat was becoming less popular as a fashion accessory by the 1850s, but there were areas of Wales, particularly in the south-west where it survived longer, and there is little doubt that it continued in use for certain activities such as going to market to sell farm produce. The evidence for the popularity of the rest of the Welsh costume is more ephemeral.
A competition at the National Eisteddfod, Wrexham, 1876 was for the best and neatest made Welsh hat for a lady, but this might well have been for amateur, rather than profession hatters. Cambrian, 25 August 1876
It is possible that no standard silk Welsh hats were made after about 1880 but such is the paucity of evidence on the production, marketing and retailing of Welsh hats, that this is no more than an informed guess. A variety of the Welsh hat was made for the 21st birthday of Beatrice Bottrill, the harpist, in 1891. This is slightly different from most surviving Welsh hats in that it is shorter, almost cylindrical (like the north Wales type) and, like some men’s top hats, has wool on the underside of the crown. This and a few other surviving examples of the same shape and size were made by Christys of London possibly as part of a special order at the very end of the century and at the begnning of ther 20th century: one Welsh hat of this type has a label with the date 1910.
The Welsh costume made for the Princess of Wales’ visit to Aberystwyth in 1896 included ‘a traditional Welsh woman’s high hat’ (unsourced newspaper cutting), but there is no evidence that she wore it, and there are no further descriptions of it.
see also the end of the Welsh hat
MARKETING WELSH HATS
Although all sorts of 19th century adverts for hats in general have been found, none refer to Welsh hats. This suggests that the market was limited and so well known that marketing was unnecessary. It seems likely that those who sold Welsh hats acquired quantities of hats from makers such as Christys of London and Carver and Co. of Bristol who might have had travelling salesmen visiting hat shops throughout Wales. These firms offered the opportunity for vendors to have their own names printed inside the hats alongside the maker’s name, but all of the vendors who took advantage of this were from Carmarthenshire and Cardiganshire suggesting that these companies restricted their marketing to these two counties.
see also: the cost of Welsh hats
THE DISTRIBUTION OF WELSH HATS
By far the majority of the surviving hats in museums and private collections came from south-west Wales (Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire and Cardiganshire – formerly Dyfed). Carmarthen Museum, founded in 1909 has 9 hats; Ceredigion Museum, founded in 1974, which has been actively collecting Welsh hats from the county now has 50. The National Museum of Wales’ collection at St Fagan’s consists of just over 40 hats, many of which are from south-west Wales. Most other museums in Wales have less than five and some have none at all: a number of hats now in north and east Wales have their origins in the south-west. This distribution may be a result of museum collecting activity rather than distribution of the hats during the past. Christine Stevens, formerly a Curator at the Museum of Welsh Life, St Fagans, thinks that this reflects the historical distribution of the Welsh hat and this may be so, but may only reflect late 19th century survival of the hat in the south-west. It might also reflect the marketing activitis of Christys (of London and Stockpoet) and Carver and Co. of Bristol, the two English firms who made many Welsh hats: some of their hat labels include the names of the shops at which they were sold, all of which are from Cardiganshire and Carmarthenshire. It is possible that the agents of these to firms made an effort to sell the tall, conical south-Wales type in north Wales, but the evidence suggest that they were not very successful.