Felt’s ability to be shaped and hold a brim and crease shape gives western hats as much individuality as their owners. While custom hats are available, chances are you can pick a hat off the rack and make it into what you need.
A quality western hat can be reshaped somewhat. While brims are the easiest to change, the crown and hatband area can be reshaped, too. Both the felt of the hat and the hatband should have enough adaptability to reconfigure a hat to your head. When you’re finished, your hat should fit securely and comfortably.
Western felt hats are made from fur, usually the fine under-fur. When made into felt, fur shrinks and interlocks as it’s exposed to the right doses of steam and water. A fine spray of water mats the hair into a blanket and then boiling water shrinks the material, much like a wool sweater accidentally washed in hot water. This felting process is ideal because the interlocking fur fibers make a strong material that is lightweight and can be made smooth.
The highest-quality hat fur is beaver, with nutria sometimes blended in. The nutria, a member of the rodent family, is native to South America and was imported to the United States when heavy hunting made beaver pelts less available. Both the nutria and the beaver have ideal hat-making hairs, as the hairs contain a high concentration of oil that sheds water. Beaver fur has more “hooks” than other types of hair and has about the best tendency to twist together and mesh when kneaded and manipulated with hot water and steam, making for a more dense, smooth and repellent fabric.
Rabbit (and hare) may be used alone to make a hat but is most often recognized as an enhancement of beaver. It’s often blended with beaver, other furs or wool because the rabbit-hair follicles corkscrew when dried, which makes the felt stronger. Some manufacturers’ so-called full-beaver hats have rabbit fur added for durability. Since we put more weight on the hat’s durability and ability to be shaped, we’re not too concerned if it isn’t truly 100% beaver fur. Sable, mink and chinchilla can also be used in hats, but these hats are most likely to be pricey dress hats. Wool, mainly sheep but also from goats, is also used to make hats. However, a wool hat is likely to become stiff with age, gets limp when wet and won’t shape as well as other materials. Wool does have its place, however, as it can be used to make hats more quickly and is less costly than fur.
A hatband is usually goatskin on a high-quality hat. Paper hatbands are found on less-expensive hats. Master Hatters of Texas uses a new fabric combination that’s meant to stay on better and keep your head cooler. Note that a hat with a hole punched in the brim is a “second,” meaning that hat didn’t meet the company’s standards for a first.
As in many industries, some hat makers denounce other makers’ finishing processes, but there’s really no one right way to make a hat — it depends on what you want to produce in the end.
Pouncing, which is basically sanding, removes the fuzziness that remains after the felting. Done with fine sandpaper, pouncing makes the hat felt more smooth.
The extent of the pouncing depends on the smoothness required in the end product. For example, a high-quality dress cowboy hat will receive a lot of attention and come out with a satin-smooth finish, while a high quality every-day hat won’t require as much.
Luring, or greasing, replaces the natural oils lost in the felting process. A light oil, sometimes mink oil, is applied sparingly to the nearly finished hat. Luring adds a little shine and contributes to the felt’s natural water repellency. Frequently, pouncing and luring are alternated until the desired finish is obtained.
Powdering is somewhat controversial. In this process, powder is applied sequentially with the pouncing and luring to make the hat color uniform. Some makers decry powdering, saying the powder will come off on your hands and, in the rain, will stain your clothes. Others who make exactingly colored hats have taken this process to a fine art.
Different types of powders and a whole rainbow of colors are used with different application processes. The powder should be well worked into the fibers where it bonds with the hairs. When done well, the powder is relatively permanent.
A little powder scraped off onto your nail does not mean a poor-quality hat, but you wouldn’t expect your high-dollar outfit-matching show hat to stand up to a drenching rain like you’d want your working hat to do. If you buy a show-quality hat, keep that hat strictly for wearing at shows and buy something else to use as a working hat for everyday use.
There are other ways to color hats, of course. Most felters dye their hats early in the process. If the end product is to be a naturally colored beaver hat, showing the variations in hair color, or a working hat where variations are expected, then powdering is not needed.
As you try on hats, you’ll quickly figure out what size your head is and which general head shape you have. We recommend you get a hat that’s closest to your size and shape and then get it custom fit.
If you’re new to shaping — adjusting it to fit your head — choose a dealer who can provide these services at the point of sale. Many retailers/manufacturers provide these services free with a purchase, while others combine cleaning and shaping for about $15. In addition, many custom hat makers regularly deal with long-distance customers and have the options, sizes, measurements and choices process down to an art.
You can re-shape your hat at home, too, given a chance to watch an expert and with some tips and practice:
• Clean the hat first to avoid making any dirt permanent.
• Use directed steam, such as that from a teakettle, to make the felt pliable. If it gets too wet, it will not retain its shape.
• When working the crease, hold the hat from the inside — and it’s OK when you are finished for the crease to just touch your head. For the brim, start with a small curve and increase as you go. Work a little bit at a time, trying the hat on frequently.
A high-quality hat is lightweight, with relatively thin, smooth, supple felt. The brim has a lot of snap to it. Generally there’a a high percentage of beaver content. The hatband is made of quality material and is sewn rather than glued on. The hat is durable, holds up well in use, and can be renovated. It’s serviceable, meaning it can be reshaped and holds that shape. It fits your head. Start with the best-fitting hat you can find, then have it custom shaped.
Use the X designations to compare hats within a single manufacturer, but ask questions between manufacturers if the fur content matters to you. We believe looks and durability outweigh whether or not a hat is advertised as 100% beaver.
Contact Your Local Dealer Or These Manufacturers:
• Montana Peaks Hat Co., 406-761-3363, www.montanapeaks.com
• Bollman Hat Co., 717-484-4361, www.bollmanhats.com
• Bailey, 800-999-6399, www.baileyhats.com
• Renegade, 817-439-4287, www.renegadehat.com
• Greeley Hat Works, 888-327-2482, www.greeleyhatworks.com
• Jackson Hole Hat Co., 307-733-7687, www.jhhatco.com
• Jaxonbilt Hat Co., 208-756-6444, www.jaxonbilthats.com
• Master Hatters of Texas/Wrangler Hats, 800-926-4287, www.wranglerhat.com
• Milano Hat Co., 800-325-4287, www.milanohats.com
• Rand’s Custom Hatters, 800-346-9815, www.randhats.com
• Hatco, Stetson and Resistol hats, 972-494-0511, www.stetsonhat.com or www.resistolhat.com