Felt has been
used for producing headwear for many centuries and is perhaps
the oldest textile material. Archaeological evidence shows that
from very early on, people had discovered the tendency for
fibres to mat together when warm and damp, many years before
they learned how to spin and weave yarn.
To this day, there are three varieties of felt used for hat making. Wool felt, fur felt and Beaver felt. Beaver felt hats date back as far as the 14th Century with the majority of production being based in Holland and Spain. European Beaver skins were first sent to Russia to be used as coat trimmings and then re-imported into Holland as used furs would felt more easily. By the early-mid 1600s the beaver's European breeding grounds became exhausted, after which time North America became the main supplier of skins to the trade. The United States also became an important manufacturer of hats although in 1731 England passed a Hat Act that prohibited the
import of hats from the USA. In the 18th Century, Beaver Felt was still the preferred material for headwear, although a mixture of felts, beaver and wool, beaver and fur felt, became increasingly popular for the less expensive hats.
In the late 1800s, the traditional and independent hatters who made the hats they sold in their shops were soon to be replaced by large hat making factories due to the advent of steam power, which made the hatters bow redundant. Many of these factories combined both the felt making process with the production of the finished article. Importing the fur from various overseas sources, fur mainly from Belgium and wool from Australia, they would then put it through various machine processes to arrive at the final felt hood. This would then be blocked into shape, sanded, lined and finished.
In recent years, although the hat has seen a marked revival, many of the traditional hat factories have been faced with closure as a result of cheaper imports from both the Eastern block countries as well as the Far East.
The Hat Site.