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The Straw Hat Maker

The Straw Hat Maker was hard at work here!

The Art of the Straw Hat Maker

Fashion has always had its price tag and in the Regency was no exception. The accessory du jour was, of course, the bonnet and an army of platters and milliners kept the fashionable of the period in a numerous variety of hats and bonnets. Straw was a common medium and worn by men, women and children. Leghorn Bonnets, which you often hear of, were made in Livorno, Italy (the city was known as Leghorn in English) from straw specially treated to become a lovely bleached white.

Here is an excerpt on the craft of a straw hat maker from The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts, printed by Jacob Johnson in 1807.

There are few manufactures in the kingdom in which so little capital is wanted, or the knowledge of the art so soon acquired, as in that of straw platting. One guinea is quite sufficient for the purchase of the machines and materials for employing 100 persons for several months. The straw-hat-maker, represented in the plate, is employed in the making up of hats only, after the straw is braided or platted.

The straw is cut at the joints and the outer covering being removed, it is sorted of equal sizes, and made up into bundles of eight or ten inches in length, and a foot in circumference. They are then to be dipped in water, and shaken a little so as not to retain too much moisture; and then the bundles are to be placed on their edges, in a box which is sufficiently close to prevent the evaporation of smoke. In the middle of the box is an earthen dish containing brimstone broken in small pieces: this is set on fire, and the box covered over and kept in the open air several hours. It will be the business of one person to split and select the straws for 50 others who are braiders. The splitting is done by a small machine made principally of wood. The straws, when split, are termed splints, of which each worker has a certain quantity: on one end is wrapped a linen cloth, and they are held under the arm and drawn out as wanted.

Platters should be taught to use their second fingers and thumbs, instead of the forefingers, which are often required to assist in turning the splints, and very much facilitate the platting; and they should be cautioned against wetting the splints too much. Each platter should have a small linen work-bag,, and a piece of pasteboard to roll the plat round. After five yards have been worked up, it should be wound about a piece of board half a yard wide, fastened at the top with yarn, and kept there several days to form it in a proper shape. Four of these parcels, or a score, is the measurement by which the plat is sold.

A good platter can make three score a week, and a good work will always command a sale both winter and summer. The machines are small; they may be bought for two shillings each, and will last for many years.

When the straw is platted it comes into the hand of the person represented in the plate, who sews it together into hats, bonnets, &c. of various sizes and shapes, according to the prevailing fashions. They are then put on wooden blocks for the purpose of hot-pressing; and to render them of a more delicate white, they are again exposed to sulphur.

Persons who make up these hats will earn half-a-guinea a week; but braiders, or platters, if very expert, will earn much more.

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Beaver Hats Build a Nation


But the merit of the curricle did not all belong to the horses; Henry drove so well — so quietly — without making any disturbance, without parading to her, or swearing at them: so different from the only gentleman-coachman whom it was in her power to compare him with! And then his hat sat so well, and the innumerable capes of his greatcoat looked so becomingly important! To be driven by him, next to being dancing with him, was certainly the greatest happiness in the world.
Northanger Abbey
Jane Austen

Beaver fur was the raw material for a high quality felt suitable for hat making. Felted beaver fur can be processed into a high quality hat that holds its shape well even aftersuccessive wettings, making it the material of choice for the hats worn by English gentlemen.

At first, British hatters imported beaver pelts from Russia and Scandinavia. When these populations dwindled under the overtraping due to the high demand for beaver fur, hatters turned to the American Colonies for their raw materials. Hats made exclusively from the undercoat of a beaver were the most expensive and of the highest quality. Lower quality, half-beavers, hats could be made of beaver fur mixed with wool or hare fur, to produce a hat that was similar in style, less durable, and less expensive in price.

Hat production was a staple of the British economy. This industry employed many workers from low skilled carders to highly skilled journeyman and master hatters. Their production supplied not only the fashion industry, but also military contracts.

Beaver pelts for hat making were acquired from trappers who were often Native Americans by a network of trading posts. The revenue from beaver pelts and deer skins fueled the economy of the Colonies and Federal America and moving on to areas that weren’t trapped out created a westward push. The price a beaver pelt brought rose steadily over the 18th century, progressing from around 5 shillings to about a Guinea by the year 1800, when the animals had become nearly extinct. John Jacob Astor controlled the largest American fur trading company. The beaver pelt was the first great American commodity and the trade in them made Astor a millionaire. Something on the order of 30,000 beaver pelts a year were exported from North America in the 1790s. The introduction of steel traps and heavy demand for pelts brought the animal to the brink of extinction. By 1834, Astor recognized that all fur-bearing animals were becoming scarce and retired.

The felt hats were produced in a process that involved removing the unwanted outer guard hairs, shaving the dense inner coat, arranging the shaved fur or fluff in random directions know as carding, and agitating the fluff producing a loose felt called a batt. Then the shaping of the hat could begin with the addition of heat and moisture and finally a stiffing agent like gum Arabic followed by steaming and ironing. At last, a silk lining could be sewn in.

Britain exported several hundred thousand pounds worth of beaver hats per year to other European nations. In 1700, 69,500 beaver hats were exported from England and almost the same number of felt hats. By 1760, just over 500,000 beaver hats and 370,000 felt halts passed through English ports. Over the seventy years from 1700 to 1770, 21 million beaver and felt hats were exported from England.

The clothing industry and fashion are important forces in history that are often overlooked in a war based history perspective. A swimming rodent with a luxeriant coat played an important role in the development of North America. Beaver pelts were the first great American trade commodity. The beaver pelt provided an article of exchange that brought metal manufatured trade goods to America and bullion to English coffers. Maybe it is time the teaching of history went into the closet.

A. Carding (combing the fibers) and Bowing (cleaning and fluffing)

B. Matting (various layers of the fiber into felt)

C. Basoning (manipulated the batt of felt into a triangular shape called a capade or gore that will become the crown of the Hat)

D. Flanging (attaching the brim)

E. Blocking (forcing the hat body onto a wood form
and stamping the moisture from it)

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Reprinted with persmission Sharon Wagoner, Curator of The Georgian Index. Visit this site for a historical tour through Regency London!