January 25, 2022 7 min read

History of Felt Hats: Origins, Styling, + More

Take a trip back a few decades with us through the history of felt hats, we’ll take you on a tour of the most iconic hats from the glamorous 1920’s up to the angsty ‘90s. You’ll learn where felt was initially discovered, who is responsible for making the first felt, how you can make a felt hat + more. 

 

Hatters Gonna Hat: Mad Hatters + the Felt Hat

The Mad Hatter, you know, the character so whimsically played by Johnny Depp? Before “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, hat makers had been going mad for decades, due to the toxic substances they would use in the hat-making process. 

Mercury nitrate was used in the hat-making process to transform fur from rabbits + beaver to felt that could be used for hats. It was simply another chemical used by an artist at the time, to make the best hat possible. Nobody could have guessed that it was actually poisoning the hat makers who were using it. 

The Danbury shakes were a symptom of mercury poisoning, because of the tremors it caused the hat makers who worked in Danbury, Connecticut. Other ailments caused by chronic exposure to mercury were emotional instability, confusion, + hallucinations. 

“Mad hatter disease” was prevalent among milliners until the use of mercury finally stopped in 1941, which is when the last case was reported. Since then, milliners have replaced mercury with hydrogen peroxide + have been making gorgeous felt hats ever since. 

What is Felt Anyway?

A piece of felted fabric is the result of many tiny fibers (from a variety of sources) being pressed + tangled together. 

The best felt is made of 100% wool. Felt can also be made from fur - the most common fur felts come from beaver or rabbit, although this practice is not sustainable or harmless, the way opting for wool is. 

You want the highest quality you can find because that’s what you deserve.  Get a product that is cruelty-free, great for the environment, + makes you feel good when you wear it. 

Wool can be processed into felt with the help of heat, moisture, + friction. As long as these three elements are working together, a felted material can be formed. 


Where Did Felt Come From?


The Middle East + Asia

Hats were not the first thing to be made of felt - in fact, felt, like so many wonderful things, was a happy accident. Felt has been used for many years + for a variety of useful applications, dating back to nomadic societies in Asia + the Middle East. 

Medieval Ages

Felt has been seen to have been used in the middle ages, or the medieval period, around the 14th century. Ancient Greece + Rome were among the first areas to have used felt.

Greece

Greeks used matted sheep’s fur as a protective layer between their skin + their body armor + helmets. They would also wear it around their feet like socks, or if it was thick enough, a layer of felt could be used as shoes. 

Rome

Romans adopted this use of fur + its name, felt, from the Greeks. The Romans would gift a felt head covering to freed slaves as a symbol of their liberty. They also formed thick felt pads they used for chest armor. 

From the beginning, felt has been used in a plethora of ways + is still one of the best materials we have for hat-making today.

 

Who Discovered Felt?

St. Clement is accredited to having accidentally discovered felt, + the process of felting. As he was traveling by foot for long bouts of time, he thought of stuffing his shoes with fine linen fibers to keep his feet protected, warm, + comfortable. 

Over time the fibers that were put in his shoes became matted from all the steps he had taken, forming one solid mass instead of many small pieces. 

Felting cannot be achieved without moisture + pressure. As the fibers are pressed together they become entangled + this makes for a tightly matted, strong material. 

The process + manufacturing of felt was born + refined by St. Clement + led the way to durable felted clothing that would be used vastly throughout Rome + eventually the world at large.


Benefits of Felt

Felt is strong enough for the ancient Romans to have used in place of armor. You want a durable material that will last a lifetime + a felted fabric is a great option.

Not only is a felted fabric super strong, it’s also an animal product that does not harm the animal it comes from - when you choose a felt made of 100% wool. You’re practicing sustainability by supporting the use of wool instead of fur felts. 

Weather resistance is part of what makes felted wool so special. Nobody likes to be rained on when their clothes + hats absorb all the moisture. You want a reliable material that will wick moisture away from your skin so you can stay comfortable, especially on a rainy day. 


Making Felt Hats

Felt hats start with what is called a body, a domed piece of felt, that is eventually crafted into a wearable hat. These steps require a careful eye + a talented hand to formulate a beautiful piece of art you can match with any of your favorite outfits. 

 

Handmade Felt Hat in 5 Steps

  1. Soak the felt.

Warm water will open up the felt fibers, allowing them to become easier to stretch out, so they can be formed into the best hat shape. 

  1. Stretch it out.

Milliners use wooden, domed forms called blocks to stretch the felt out lengthwise. These blocks range in sizes + are elevated to give more space for stretching. 

  1. Secure a rope (about ¼” in diameter) at the bottom of the crown.

This rope will go around the felt that is still on the block. The rope should be tight, with a slip knot in it, so it can be loosened once it’s ready to be taken off. A brake line is determined by the final placement of the rope, where the crown stops + the brim begins. 

  1. Stiffener

The hat has been fully formed + dried at this point. It’s time to spray some integrity into the felt so that it stays the shape that it is - stiffener will keep the hat’s shape over time. After the first application dries, apply another coat - be sure to spray on the inside as well.

  1. Shave off the brim’s edge. 

Because it was once just a large piece of unformed felt, the brim will have an unfinished + uneven edge. A brim cutter is used to clean up the edge - this tool has an arm that starts at the crown + extends out to the edge of the brim where a blade is. This allows the tool to measure the same distance from the crown to the brim all the way around. 

Steps like these seem fairly straightforward, although they take a lot of practice to finesse into a truly well crafted felt hat.

These 5 steps are applicable for many different styles of felt hats - they can be made into many different shapes and sizes. Hats can be formed into lots of styles that go in + out of fashion as times goes on. Let’s see what was popular at different times throughout recent history. 


Felt Hat Trends Through the Decades

1920’s: Cloche

Flapper girl comes to mind when thinking of a cloche - it’s a hat that covers the entire head + compliments a cropped bob hairstyle that was in vogue during the roaring twenties. Many women would customize this hat with small jeweled embellishments.

30’s: Great Depression

During this period, people were burdened with bigger choices than what hat to wear that day. Many people were trying to hold on to everything they owned + they did not have the luxury of getting new hat styles. 

40’s + 50’s: Military Inspired 

Post-war was the time to celebrate + get excited about fashion again. Berets were very in at this time. Women would wear them like military personnel would have, as part of their uniform during the war, + loved to secure brooches onto the front of their berets.

60’s: Jackie Kennedy

First lady, Jackie Kennedy, popularized the pillbox hat - initially created by fashion designer Halston. She made several public appearances in this particular style - a brimless hat with straight sides + a flat crown.

70’s: Floppy Hats

Freedom of expression is what the ’70s were all about + that extends to fashion design. Women were loving the floppy, oversized brims during this era. By default - the large, soft brims would create waves that would frame the face + hair in the most natural way. Fashion icons like Brigitte Bardot would wear these floppy hats often. 

80’s: Halo Style

Making room for those classic, feathered 80’s bangs, felt hats were worn halo style during this period in time. Brims were designed to be shorter + slightly upturned around the edges. 

90’s: Buckets 

Bucket hats were all the rage back in the 90’s - pinning a huge fake flower to the flipped up brim was a popular option. Or, they would just rock it with the brim down - a felt bucket hat was one of the biggest fads of this decade. 


Styling Felt Hats

Whatever the year, whatever the season, + whatever your personal wardrobe looks like, a felt hat can be styled to give off an ora of confidence. As fashion trends continue to revisit the greatest styles of the past, all of the iconic hats from each decade can be worn today. 

A pillbox hat went best with the many Chanel suits Jackie Kennedy wore through her husband’s presidency in the ’60s. A well-tailored top pairs so well with the clean structure of the pillbox hat design.

Floppy hats can still be styled with a flowy, effortless maxi dress like they would have been paired with back in the hippie days of the 1970s.

Do we even need to address the recurring popularity of the bucket hat? People are absolutely obsessed, + with good reason. A felt bucket hat can be worn in any instance + will complete the look fabulously. 

Felt hats have a rich history + are still as important today as they ever were. They once signified freedom, + can still communicate what kind of person you are, depending on the hats you wear. A 100% wool felt hat is one that will protect you, + keep you comfortable, as it did so many years ago for St. Clement.  xx 



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