Stephen Temkin’s
Hat Primer

© Stephen Temkin 2018

 

What is Felt?


Felt, as it applies to hat making, is essentially a textile composed of the matted fur or hair of an animal. The degree to which fibres will effectively mat, and the character and quality of the felt, depend upon the type of hair used.

What is Felt?


Felt, as it applies to hat making, is essentially a textile composed of the matted fur or hair of an animal. The degree to which fibres will effectively mat, and the character and quality of the felt, depend upon the type of hair used.

This photo shows a 2000x magnification of beaver hair. As you can see, it is not smooth, but composed of a stack of cuticular scales. The edges of these scales are scalloped and act like barbs which can latch onto each other, especially with manipulation, pressure, and the application of heat and moisture. Do this enough and the hairs will form a single contiguous mass of matted material. As you shrink that material, the matting becomes increasingly dense and strong, eventually forming a viable textile.


The best types of hair for the production of good felt for hats has been known for a long time: they include rabbit, hare, otter, nutria, and of course beaver. (Felt is also commonly made from wool, but it is generally considered to be an inferior type of felt for hats.) Beaver has long been considered the gold standard. It produces a felt that is light, soft and supple while providing superior shape retention, strength, weather resistance and durability.


Only the very fine hairs of the beaver’s undercoat are used; the coarser hairs of the outer coat are filtered out. The character of the felt also depends upon which part of the animal the hairs come from. In the heyday of hat manufacturing, felt makers sometimes had particular anatomical recipes for various grades of felt.


The softest fur comes from the beaver’s belly. Felt made exclusively from this fur came to be known as “silverbelly” due to its naturally light grey colour (which should not be confused with the word silverbelly as sometimes used to describe a similar colour of felt, but not the actual composition of the material). There is some modern-day hat aficionado mythology built up around silverbelly and its legendary softness and suppleness. However, one old text I’ve read states that felt makers actually considered pure silverbelly felt to be too soft, lacking somewhat in structural properties, and that a better felt is actually produced if you blend in some fibre from other parts of the animal to give it a bit more sturdiness. Tactile appeal aside, I know of no evidence that suggests there are any qualitative advantages inherent in silverbelly, nor in blending beaver with other luxury furs such as mink or chinchilla.


A pure beaver dress hat has been regarded as the crème-de-tête of men’s headwear for a very long time. In the past, some places even imposed sumptuary laws which stipulated that only certain upper classes of people were allowed to wear them (not that poor people could ever hope to afford one, but hey, you can’t be too careful).

Thankfully, we no longer embrace class distinction with such legal fervour. And although  beaver felt dress hats are still more expensive than other similar types of hats, they are no more expensive—indeed probably cheaper—relative to average incomes than they were a century ago. Given the potential longevity of a well-made beaver felt hat, they actually represent very good value when compared to many other clothing industry products available today.

1