Making a replica of luxury beaver fur hat. From a beaver pelt to ready to use hat.
The aim of the project was to reconstruct the hat form 17th century painting “The quarrel at cards” by Jan Steen, checking the quality of beaver felt: is actually beaver felt so smooth, shiny and waterproof? The founder and principal of the project was Piotr Grygiel. The article describes main steps of making beaver hat.
Why the beaver fur?
Hats made from beaver fur were the most desirable and luxurious headgear. You can ask “why”? Because of its characteristics: silkiness and waterproof. Popularity of this hats in Europe was growing since the late 15th century. Beaver population in Western Europe almost extinct till 16th century. Western Europe imported beaver pelt from North America and Canada. Middle Europe imported pelts form eastern neighbor (today’s Lithuania, Ukraine and Russia).
Getting beaver pelts in Poland today was not easy task either. Finally I managed to buy 3 beaver pelts from winter, documented shooting.
Beaver pelt, like most mammals, consists of two types of hair: guard hair (long, coarse and sharp) and soft underfur, called beaver wool (short, thick and soft). Only last type of hair is suitable for felting. Firstly: it is soft and flexible. Secondly: underfur makes an insulating protection for animal’s skin. Its waterproof properties are maintained in the final felt product as well. Underfur may be more or less abundant, depending on the season and temperature. That’s why winter fur is the best.
Making a hat (whether beaver, rabbit or wool felt) involves several steps: preparation of hair, felting, shaping and trimming.
- Preparing the pelt
Pelts I owned were without any dirt. So I could skip the step of cleaning and go to the next: shaving the beaver wool off and pulling out all of the remaining guard hairs. We can find image of shaving off the beaver pelt in „L’art de faire des chapeaux”, by Jean-Antoine Nollet. Pelt is laying on a stand with a rounded top. Hair is shaving by using long knife. In Poland craftmen used also tailor scissors or just ordinary knifes.
Sometimes hatters used specific nitrate solution or alum (aluminum sulphate, sodium and potassium). Since 18th century craftsmen began to use a diluted solution of mercury in nitric acid. It made hair more soft and facilitate its further processing. This stage is called “carroting”, because solution oxidizes the hair and makes it orange. Because the aim of this projcet was making a replica of 17th century hat I decided to give up this stage (I did not pay particular attention to my mental health, ‘couse I am already crazy. Who, for God’s sake, is shaving beaver pelts today????)
Using electric razor (yes, I admit, I wanted to make life easier…) ended in defeat. Razor closed up after 5 minutes of using. Using traditional razor was not good idea either (especially for my fingers). Well. Third time lucky. Small and precise scissors. And that was it! I was cutting my beaver pelts and selecting the top coat of underfur for next four weeks.
Traditionally this stage of production was also done by women (wives and daughters of felters). It was very simple, repetitive and tedious task, but … demanding a lot of patience. Well, I think I passed the Cindirella’s test.
When I acquired around 0,7 oz of underfur, I made a felt sample. It is very important step in felting: to know how much fur/wool will shrink and how much fur/wool I need to make specific model. Old masters used 8-12 oz to make one hat. When I acquired around 10 oz underfur I went to next step: bowing.
In this stage the fur was agitated to release dirt and tangles. Traditional tool using at this step was called “carder bow”/”hatter bow” (looks like a very large violin bow). However, I did not have it. I decided to use hand carders (also traditional tool). The final result was the same: fluffy fibres.
The fluff was put together in two large bats (2 times bigger than future hat size), which made up the body of the hat and two smaller bats, which were used for finishing edges and details.
3. Felting: basoning and planking
Each batt was manipulated into a triangular shape (I put paper resist between them). Then additional fluff was placed where the brim, crown and circumference of the brim would be located. The batt I sprinkled with hot water, cover with textile, roll it and start to felt. Firstly it was made gently on flat table, next on a plank. Finally my felt cone shrunk 2 times.
4. Blocking the hat
When my cone was in a appropriate size I started to shape it – to form brim and crown of my hat. However… there was a bad accident. When I was stretching the brim it tore… Disaster! 3 months hardworking and defeat… The problem was I did not have more pelts to make another felt cone. I had to fix it. With bleeding heart I cut the worst part of birm. Finally wide brim hat become medium brim. The rest (holes) part of the brim I sewed.
Afterwards I started to brush it to make smooth surface.
5. Dyeing, stiffening and waterproofing.
Next stage was: dyeing, stiffening and waterproofing. The recipes used during these steps were the most closely guarded secrets of each craftsmen. Depending on the final appearance hat was stiffened e.g. by using water blended with gum. Whereas to impregnate hat craftsmen used various kinds of resins, beeswax or mutton tallow. Then hatter should steam, iron and brush hat again. Finally hat was trimmed with leather bands, ribbons or feathers.
In this project, thank goodness, I did not have to dye and use any stiffening or impregnating agents. The aim was to test the quality of pure beaver felt. Once the desired shape and gloss were produced I had to sew silk lining (hand made), sweatband and my trademark. After three months the beaver hat was ready 🙂
The owner’s opinion here (in Polish)