The Beaver Fur Hat – The Fashion of Europe

From about 1550 until 1850, felt hats were fashionable in much of Europe and the felt hat industry became the driving force behind the fur trade. By the late 1500’s, the beaver was extinct in western Europe and was close to extinction in Scandinavia and Russia. The North American fur trade became a new source and kept the fashion going for another 200 years.

European gentlemen wanted fine hats. Quality hats demanded the best felting material available. Beaver fur was an excellent raw material.

From about 1550 until 1850, felt hats were fashionable in much of Europe and the felt hat industry became the driving force behind the fur trade. By the late 1500’s, the beaver was extinct in western Europe and was close to extinction in Scandinavia and Russia. The North American fur trade became a new source and kept the fashion going for another 200 years.

This section describes the process of making a beaver felt hat during the 1700’s and early 1800’s. A variety of factors contributed to the cost of beaver felt hats including the great distance the fur traveled to get to the hat makers and the rugged conditions under which the trip was often made. Once the fur reached the hat maker however, a long and complicated process was still required to convert it into a desirable hat. Given the time and effort involved, a beaver felt hat was considered extremely valuable.

European gentlemen wanted fine hats. Quality hats demanded the best felting material available. Beaver fur was an excellent raw material. Beaver fur is tight yet supple and will hold it’s shape far better under rough wear and successive wettings than felt made from wool or other types of fur.

Two types of pelts were sought. Coat and parchment. Coat beaver were pelts that had been worn by Indians as winter coats before trading them. Parchment beaver were those pelts trapped for immediate trade. Of the two types, coat beaver was preferred until the late 17th century because it was easier to process. Prior to the end of the 17th century, only the Russians new how to comb the wool from parchment beaver. Therefore those pelts had to be sent to Russia for processing. Of course, sending the pelts to Russia added more to the cost of the hats produced.

Coat beaver could be processed without sending the pelts to Russia because the Indians had worn off the guard hairs before trading the pelts. The main disadvantage of coat beaver was the uneven quality. Once the Russian technique for processing parchment beaver became widely known, the English and French felt makers preferred the parchment beaver.

The Process

Step 1: Preparing the Fur


To prepare the fur for felting, the guard hairs had to be removed. These hairs were unsuitable for the Hatter’s purposes. The pelt would be placed on the Hatter’s knee and with thumb and a large knife (or tweezers), the guard hairs would be pulled leaving only the beaver wool on the skin.

A solution of “nitrate of mercury” would be brushed on the pelt. This produced a yellow-red color on the fur tips. The fur became “carrot” colored. The mercury caused miniature scales to raise on each individual fiber. This roughened the fiber and increased the wool’s matting ability. The pelt would be dried and then the wool shaved from it using a semi-circular knife. Note: In subsequent steps using heat and moisture, the mercury would be released as a vapor. After long term exposure to these fumes, the amount of mercury in the Hatter’s body would reach dangerous levels. Mercury attacks the nervous system causing uncontrolled muscle twitching, a lurching gait, difficulties talking and thinking. Eventually, the term “mad as a hatter” became a common description of someone experiencing severe mental problems. Many Hatters eventually died of mercury poisoning.

Once the wool was removed from the pelt, it was called fluff. For the finest hats the Hatter would mix two different types of fluff: one part dry castor from a sun dried beaver pelt which still retained its guard hairs and two parts greasy beaver with the guard hairs removed due to the friction of wear by native people. The wool of the greasy beaver was thought to make a more luxuriant hat.

Both types of fluff were then carded together. Carding is the process of taking fibers that are arranged in a random form and organizing them so they are ready for the next step in the felting process.

The fluff was then weighed according to the amount needed for the particular size and thickness of hat to be made. This would be about 8 to 12 ounces of fluff, usually equivalent to the amount produced by one prime beaver.

Step 2: Matting

The process of bowing was both a cleaning and fluffing operation. At this stage, the fluff would begin to mat together loosely. Bowing was done by placing the fluff on a hurdle or square table with many evenly spaced parallel slots. The table would be located by a window to provide good lighting. Drafts were avoided to keep the valuable fluff from blowing away during the process. Hatters considered bowing an art and one of the most delicate parts of the process.

The fluff was divided and bowed one half at a time. The Hatter’s bow resembled a large violin bow. It hung from the ceiling directly over the hurdle. The bow’s one string would be plucked with the thumb or with a wooden bow pin. This caused the string to vibrate over and among the fibers. The wool was fluffed, separated and agitated by this process. Dust and dirt fell through the parallel slots in the hurdle. The wool was spread out much like rolling a pie crust and the fibers continued matting together.

The wool, now called a batt, would be in the shape of a large oval sheet about 4 feet long, 3 feet wide and 6 to 12 inches high. Pressure would be applied with a slotted wooden Hatter’s basket and maybe an oil cloth. By this point the fibers were matting together enough to allow handling of the batt. The procedures are then repeated with the other half of the beaver wool producing a second batt.

The next step is not well understood. It appears each batt was manipulated into a triangular shape called a capade or gore. Then additional fluff was placed where the brim, crown and circumference of the brim would be located. Each capade was wrapped in a leather skin called a hardening skin and placed on the bason. The bason was a wooden bench with an iron plate located in the center. Under the plate was a small heat source. The batt was sprinkled with water, heated and worked with the hands. Of course, unbeknownst to the Hatter, the heat was releasing the dangerous mercury fumes. Basoning used heat, pressure and moisture to strengthen and condense the batt.

After the two triangular batts were condensed, they were placed one on top of the other and manipulated further around the edges to form a cone. It probably looked very much like an oversized dunce cap at this point. Since the hat body is still very large it required further shrinkage and toughening.

The hat now ballooned, was placed in a large copper kettle to complete the next process called planking. In the kettle was a very hot solution of diluted sulfuric acid, beer-grounds and wine sediments. The hat body was immersed in this solution over and over again. Then it was worked by hand or with a rolling pin on sloping planks located around one side of the kettle. The Hatters protected their hands from scalding by either wearing a sort of glove or by first dipping their hands in a bucket of cold water. The process of using pressure, heat and moisture helped compact the felt to half its former size!

In some cases, plating may have occurred. This was usually done on cheaper hats made from a mixture of other furs. A thin batt of cotton and beaver would be made and wrapped on the outside of the conical hat body. With pressure it could be manipulated to become securely attached to the rest of the hat body.

Step 3: Shaping and Finishing

It seems that there were different steps used by different Hatters at this point. The differences may have been part of “trade secrets” or simply differences in the way individual Hatters liked to finish their work. There are some basic techniques they probably all used.

The shrunken hat body, still in shape of a cone, would be forced on a block made of wood. The block acted as a mold, roughly creating the desired style and size of the top hat. Blocking occurred by tying a cord around the top of the crown and driving this down toward the base of the block using a copper or iron stamper. This tightly stretched the hat body over the block. What remained at the bottom became the brim of the hat. The brim would be cut with a rim-jack at the desired size. Before being dyed, some initial trimming and brushing may have occurred. The surface of the hat might further be treated to make the nap as fine as possible by rubbing it with pumice or seal-skin.

Still wet from the planking stage, the hat would first require drying before being placed back on another block for dyeing. The block and hat (sometimes mounted on a rotating wheel), would be placed in a very large dyer’s copper. This was so large it would often hold ten to twelve dozen hats at one time! The dyer’s copper could be filled with a dye made of “logwood, verdigris, copperas and alder-bark”. The hat would be kept boiling in this mixture for about an hour and then removed to cool. This would be repeated ten to twelve times until the hat became the desired color.

Stiffening and Waterproofing
Stiffening and waterproofing were the most closely guarded secrets of the Hatter’s. For stiffening, “gum Arabic, common gum and Flaunder’s glue”, would be dissolved in water and brushed mostly on the underside of the hat. This kept the mixture from ruining the outside appearance of the hat. It is reported that some hats were so stiff that they could support the weight of a 200 pound man! Waterproofing would probably have occurred earlier, during the planking stage, by rubbing a ball of “rosin, bee’s wax and mutton suet” on the inside of the hat.

Steaming, Ironing and Brushing
In order to make the hat more pliable for a few last finishing touches, steam would be applied and the hat returned to the block. Any seams would be disguised. Minor alterations of shape would take place based on the style of the time. Ironing and brushing would produce a smooth and glossy surface. Finally, the brim would be turned up slightly and trimmed with ribbon.

Once the desired shape and gloss were produced, an adjustable lining was carefully sewn in. The hat would be further lined with a leather ban on the inside lower edge of the hat. Finally, the hat would be complete with the stamping of the company’s trademark on the leather headband.

At last the hat was ready for market. Considering the lengthy process, from the pelt being trapped, transported and then transformed in the hatting factory, it is not surprising that a fine beaver felt top hat was a prized possession.