From Pelt to Felt: the Making of a Beaver Top Hat

Alfred Jacob Miller was acquainted with mountain men who endured the danger and discomfort of the Rocky Mountain West in search of beaver to supply the demands of hat manufacturers. In the heyday of the beaver trade, thousands of pelts per year were turned into fine felt for creating hats worn by the social elite. Beaver “plews” straight from the Rockies were rough, greasy skins, covered with coarse, brown guard hairs. Underneath, however, was a rich, woolen fur. These latter fibers were transformed into high-quality felt by members of the hat-maker’s guild.

Animal fur has tiny, microscopic “teeth” which lock together when heat and moisture are applied. Beaver fur was superior for hat making because these spines are prominent on its inner wool. Much like modern Velcro, this fur characteristic was exploited in the creation of felt.

Hatters differentiated the quality of felt used in construction and hats made exclusively from beaver were designated castor. If made from a mixture of beaver and other fur, they referred to them as demi-castor. Hats made from rabbit or camel hair were known as dauphin. Only common hats were made from plain wool felt.

In order to use lesser quality, cheaper grades of fur, the process of carroting was introduced in the eighteenth century. The surface of hair consists of a hard, keratin substance, similar to that of a fingernail. Before furs could be felted, the keratin surface had to be broken down. To do this, hair was soaked in a solution of salts of mercury diluted in nitric acid. This solution was orange in color, hence the term “carrot.”

Mercury had an even more profound effect on the hatter himself. Inhalation of mercury fumes resulted in tremors called “hatters’ shakes,” affecting the eyes and limbs, and often addled the exposed journeyman’s speech. In advanced stages, hallucinations and other psychotic symptoms developed. The phrase, “mad as a hatter,” described these deranged hatters.

The outside of hats produced from carroted furs were then covered with beaver hair. A description of hat making written in 1817, called for an ounce or two of beaver fur as an external veneer. In contrast, a single hat of castor quality required on average, four pounds of pelt (a typical beaver hide weighed about 1 ½ pounds) which would produce one pound of wool; 9 – 12 ounces of fur were used in the best hats though some styles called for as few as 4 – 6 ounces.    

Once raw, untanned beaver hides reached the hatter, the first step was to shave the hair and wool from the skin. The remaining leather was typically sold to glue manufacturers or glove makers. Only the soft, thick under-wool was used for producing “felt.” After cleaning and grading the shaved hair, the skilled hat-maker took control.  

Wool and hair was separated using a bowing process. The hatter twanged the string of a long, vibrating bow, similar to an overgrown violin bow, into a pile of hair. The scattered wool settled to the table top in fine, even layers of varying textures and sizes, laying mostly in the same direction. Using slight hand pressure, the hat-maker pushed the fibers closely together to form portions known as batts.    

About six batts were needed for each hat. One at a time, a batt was laid on top of another, reversing the direction of the nap each time. At each round, the material was folded into a triangular, cone shape. Gently applied pressure entangled the hairs, thickening the felt. Thus prepared, each cone was laid on a warm iron, called a bason, then folded, pressed and sprinkled continuously with hot water.

This cone, or hood, was turned inside out and the same operation repeated. Holding the soon-to-be-hat up to the light, thin places were identified and extra wool added, as needed. At this stage, the felt was soft and spongy; its texture loose and imperfect. To obtain the desired degree of consistency, the hood was submitted to fulling during which the hats were boiled in an iron tank containing a mixture of one part urine to six parts water for six to eight hours. The hoods were encased in cloth to prevent them from touching the sides of the boiler.

Next, the hood was planked to ensure an even appearance. The hood then was dipped into hot water and, while being gently rolled, the felt contracted, thickened and became considerably sturdier. This step continued until the desired texture was achieved.

Still conical, the hood was molded to shape, form and style, then pulled tightly over a wooden block that determined its final contours. These blocks were often sawn into several pieces to get them in and out of the hat; the center section acting as a wedge to the whole.

Once dried and the block removed, the finishing process began. This included dyeing, water-proofing and trimming out the hat. Skilled craftsmen used brushes, cloths, hot irons, and wet sponges to turn the rough hat into a finished product. The hat-maker groomed the outer nap until it appeared to be covered with a growth of fine fur and any coarse hairs were picked out. The brim was cut to width, curled and set. Finally, the hat was given a high-gloss coating and embellished with a band and lining, then packed for market.   

Hatter tradition claims that St. Clement, fourth Bishop of Rome, invented felt while escaping from persecutors. His feet had become sorely blistered, so to gain relief, St. Clement put wool between his sandals and the soles of his feet. As he traveled, perspiration, motion and pressure of his feet transformed the wool into a uniformly compact substance – felt.

When beaver hair was first used for hats is not recorded though Chaucer referred to the “Flemish beaver hat” as early as 1386. Due to its staggering cost, the beaver hat did not become a significant fashion statement until more than a century later. The “Beaver,” as it was often called, with its flat-top, tall crown and wide brim, soon dominated the scenes of society, reaching its height of vogue in the seventeenth century. During that period, shiploads of beaver pelts were exported to England from the American colonies to be used in coats, trim on collars and cuffs and, of course, felt hats.

Fur felt hats date back to at least the 16th century. In 1585, Phillip Stubbs wrote about fashionable hats:

Sometimes they use them sharp on the crown, peaking up like the spear or shaft of a steeple, standing a quarter of a yard above the crown of their heads, some more, some less, as pleases the fancies of their inconstant minds. Some others are flat and broad on the crown like the battlements of a house. Another sort have round crowns, sometimes with one kind of band, sometimes another … And as the fashions may be rare and strange, so is the stuff whereof their hats be made divers also … some of a certain kind of fine hair. These they call Beaver Hats, of twenty, thirty, or forty shillings price fetched from beyond the seas, from whence a great source of other vanities do come beside.

In 1797, the first silk hat in London was donned by John Hetherington, a local haberdasher. Its crown was 5 ¾” high, its top flaring outward. The sight created such a disturbance that Hetherington was arrested for “a breach of the peace having appeared upon the Public Highway wearing upon his head a tall structure having a shiny luster and calculated to frighten timid people.”

The high silk hat was gaining in popularity by 1810. Twenty years later, Paris hatter Antoine Gibus invented a collapsible, silk opera hat. By 1840, this silk topper had all but eliminated the felt hat industry, causing major changes in the demand for beaver. Despite its shiny, glossy appearance, medium-quality silk hats cost around 18 shillings, while fine beaver hats sold for more than 32 shillings.

Another factor in the prominent rise of silk hats was the urbanization of population centers. As people traveled more frequently by closed coaches, there was less exposure to the elements. The durability and hardness of superior felt hats became old-fashioned and unnecessary. By 1848, beaver hats could be purchased for as little as 12 shillings.

Modern high end cowboy hats are still made with beaver felt. Just how much beaver fur is in the mix of a modern beaver hat is a trade secret. The Stetson Hat Company may have been the first makers to use an “X” designation to represent felted fur formulas as early as 1904. In modern markets, there is no reliable quality comparison using the listing of “Xs” on a felt hat’s sweatband. Among hats made by the same manufacturer, however, the number of “Xs” on various models in their line suggest higher beaver content, quality and price within that company.

In many respects, a man’s hat opened the American West. Hatters of the world cried for more beaver to use its long, velvety pile to construct beautiful hats. The Rocky Mountain rendezvous organized by fur traders in the mid-1800s is what drew William Drummond Stewart and artist Alfred J. Miller to adventure. Today, however, felt-making is essentially a lost art.